The Lunatic Express: An Insane Train Track Across Kenya

Some 130 years ago, medicine man Mogo wa’Kebiro made a mysterious prediction… He envisioned that the colonists would bring with them a gigantic iron snake, one with as many legs as a centipede. The snake would spit fire and nothing would ever be the same again. Less than a decade later in 1896, this prophecy was fulfilled. The British are starting a gigantic project: building a railway line through the rugged interior of Kenya.

A time of power and danger

During the Scramble for Africa (no, not an egg dish, but the colonial race for Africa) many European countries tried to control as much of Africa as possible. Great Britain too. In order to have a direct connection to the fertile land around Lake Victoria, the British started building a railway between the coastal city of Mombasa and Kampala in 1896. This connection to Uganda gave them the opportunity to transport soldiers and supplies and to secure their control over Lake Victoria – the source of the Nile. Due to a lack of local manpower in the then sparsely populated Kenya, 32,000 Indians were deployed in the construction of this gigantic project. Quite a migration for a railway, quite remarkable!


During construction, the railway was soon nicknamed the “Lunatic Express”: the workers had to lay rails for the train in Kenya over mountains, through valleys and swamps, surrounded by dangerous animals that lurked. Add to that a good dose of tropical diseases, and hello misery and misery! It is therefore not surprising that during this strong feat of madness (which lasted five years) nearly 2,500 people died due to accidents, diseases, aggressive Maasai warriors and attacks by wild animals.

The famous Man-eating Lions of Tsavo

Terror scenes in the countryside! During nine months of construction, construction workers in the inland area of ​​Tsavo were ravaged by two male lions. Indian workers were dragged from their tents nightly and devoured with skin and hair. The camp was quickly labeled as “the human butcher shop”… lugubrious! After 135 workers were said to have been brutally murdered, project leader Colonel Patterson finally managed to shoot the lions.

A quick lesson: normally people do not belong to a lion’s diet. There are therefore several theories that explain why these bloodthirsty creatures attacked the workers. Some believe that humans were among these lions’ favorite food because of the nearby slave route. Here, dead, sick or wounded slaves have long been easy prey. Others attribute the problem to one of the lion’s infected teeth: humans were easier to consume than its usual prey. Not a reassuring thought at all…


The end: in april 2017, the story of the Lunactic Express for rail travelers ends.

How is the train in Kenya going now?

After the completion of construction, most Indians returned to their homeland, but around 6,700 people decided to stay in Kenya. They formed an Indian-African community. This is reflected in the country’s food scene: hello samosas and chapatis! After decades of transporting people and goods, the Uganda Railway was neglected after the Independence of Kenya in 1963. Despite the poor rails and extremely unreliable travel times, this train was a popular means of transport among tourists in Kenya. They thought the uncertainty of the trip was authentic, Kenyan charm! Passenger trains took a full day (24 hours, redefining “at your leisure!”) In 2016 to travel from Nairobi to Mombasa, a journey that took only 12 hours in the 1980s. There was also a strong decrease in goods transport.

The end: In April 2017, the story of the Lunatic Express for rail travelers ends. Despite its rather sad end, the railway is still regarded as one of Kenya’s greatest architectural achievements of the past century. Every square centimeter is built with blood, sweat and tears (and therefore quite a few deaths…). In addition, Kenyans see the railway as an important part of their national history due to the creation of their capital Nairobi.


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The birth of a metropole

Nairobi is not yet one of the oldies. At the end of the 19th century, it was little more than a cold and wet supply camp for railway workers. Nairobi is located high (1,700 meters above sea level) and was originally a swampy area. The Masai called this place “enkare nyarobi” which means “cool waters”. Not the first place you think of for a capital, right? Yet the place grew into the railway headquarters; in 1907 the British protectorate chose Nairobi as its capital. Since then, the city has experienced rapid growth, which has had an impact on the entire country. The protectorate commissioner hit the nail on the head, saying: “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.”


This piece of history has not gone unnoticed: Hollywood smelled commercial success here! In the movie “The Ghost and the Darkness” (1996), Michael Douglas takes on this pair of aggressive horror lions. Excitement, sensation and nice and dramatic: highly recommended for your next movie night.

The traffic jungle between Mombasa and Nairobi

As the title of this paragraph suggests, the highway between Mombasa and Nairobi is a real adventure. Kenyans who think they are a kind of Max Verstappen do not make it any less chaotic, and those nightly matatus full of tourists are also not ideal … Unfortunately you can no longer take the Uganda Railway, but you can still see it from the brand new track that the Chinese are building. This should become a faster and better train connection, parallel to the old British railway. The route between Mombasa and Nairobi has already been completed; you travel through varied landscapes and cross Tsavo National Park.  It’s a great opportunity to spot lions along the way and hope that there is not a great-nephew of the man-eating-lions lurking! One thing is certain: this train journey is a very cool experience and a sustainable alternative to the highway.

This blog is part of Africa Inside Out.


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