The Last Ride of the Lunatic Express: A Photo Essay

After 117 years, the Lunatic Express, the railway that built a country, breathes its last. And we turn it into a party train.

It actually wasn’t meant be to this historic. When @SaffirAfrica were organising a train ride from Nairobi to Mombasa, no one knew at the time that this would be the last such scheduled train on that route. We actually wouldn’t know that until a few hours later. 

So it begins…

At 5pm on April 28th 2017, the last of the Lunatic Express pulled out of Nairobi Railway Station one final time. There was no ceremony and no mourning. It was an uneventful a death as any, mostly because no many knew it was the last ride. The fast talking announcer didn’t mention it. No one did, actually, for a while. 

 

Down the stairs and onto Platform 3 to board the last of the Lunatic Express. Image by Turnup Travel.

 

For a while, and we didn’t want to ask, we thought this was the train we were taking. It wasn’t.

On it were 38 amazing people brought together by a love for adventure, history, and the ultimate turnup. Loaded with cartons of Famous Grouse whisky and food by Urban Kitchen (which for some reason ended up being ‘stored’ on my bed). 

 

I am really not sure what they say about people who pose with food. Here, Urban Kichen were going the many extra miles to feed a train.  (Also, check out )

 

Somewhere in this carton, someone was whispered, was a bottle of Famous Grouse with my name on it.

The train waits for no one. At least two people who were scheduled to be on it were late, and the train left. Because the train waits for no one, even if it’s the last one. They had to hop onto a boda boda and try catch it at Athi River. 

I just didn’t think they meant literally. It actually did have my name on it! It was going to be a proper #FamousFriday. @FamousGrouseAfr had decided to win a man’s heart from rum.

In its 117 years alive, some barely, this dying train has been called “a gigantic folly”, “The Iron Snake”, “the Permanent Way” and eventually, the Lunatic Express. Everything about it was crazy; the man who supervised its construction said of it “it is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.”

Nairobi, the city we call home, only exists because of this railway. Yet that was incidental because the tracks were not meant to build to Kenya but to reach and protect Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile. That singular goal cost 2498 lives, although you’ve probably only heard of the two dozen or so that the lions of the Tsavo helped themselves to. 

I actually didn’t notice the graffiti until we arrived in Mombasa. I hope they keep it as they figure out what to do with the trains.

Some more grafitti. Image by Turnup Travel.

The truth is, the Lunatic Express has been dying from the moment they started building it. It had a singular and in retrospect, rather stupidly expensive goal. It started dying that very day they laid the first tracks in 1896. It died at independence, and in the 1970s as politics killed everything around it. It died in small bits every decade and in this one, part of its heart, the Nairobi-Kisumu leg, was cut off in 2011. Then here we were, on the last breath. 

The only loss is that we would be travelling mostly at night. So this safari on tracks, the chance to explore the Tsavo from a second class cabin on a train, would be impossible.

But how do you mourn a train with such a colorful history?

I doubt we were the first merrymakers to ride on these tracks. In my head, I saw battalions of untested porters and soldiers heading down to Mombasa to take the warships to Burma and other war zones. I doubt they were sober. I wouldn’t have been. 

The last party train!

…and so it goes.

This train ferried everyone from settlers to students headed down to a catch a ship, and older folk looking for work. 

The restaurant car.

It carried soldiers up to fight the Mau Mau. It carried people through independence. Then through the disco and rhumba ages. It shipped them through the 80s and the 90s right through here, into the digital age, where it faced its executioner. 

It also had clowns like Muthuri who wanted to be the last to die on a dying railway. (I didn’t tell him this but one of the oldest posts here wonders why people take a shit on tracks-I’ve noticed it in many places).

Word to the wise: don’t get drunk on a train, or rather this specific one. One can’t be sure when one is staggering and when the train is just rocking too much.

 

Ciano Maimba was the main act of the weekend, and here, he jams for a dying railway line. Well no, not exactly, he’s just jamming in one.

…and here MC @Mzinduzi takes the time to drop a few bars for her fans.

 

From a train that started carrying people before planes even flew or phones were a thing, this one was loaded with gadgets of all kinds. This is the Tecno Camon CX. Every image taken with one was curated under #GloUpWithCX (Image by Edward Hinga). 

 

Then hanging precariously to give the GoPro the best possible angle. Image by Edward Hinga.

 

….and staring into the sun with DSLR. Image by Edward Hinga.

 

Image by Edward Hinga. 

 

From this angle, you kinda see why Mugo wa Kibiru called it “the Iron Snake.”

 

Image by Edward Hinga.

 

Before we knew it, it was morning.

 

…and the views were stunning. We had been on these tracks for about 13 hours at this point. Image by Kurlycheeks.

 

…and breakfast was served. Oh wait. Wrong image.

 

When it stopped, I wasn’t sure how to feel. This was the end of the line. After 117 years of operations.

I am still not sure how I feel about it. Riding this last train, on the line along which a nation I love emerged. Trains, someone once said, open up a country the way no other transport system can. This one was proof of that.

 

 

From it we had seen the future, barely a month away. Equally forged in controversy as the railway that preceded it. Image by Edward Hinga.

 

So first we wasted time around the train, maybe trying to get a feel of this rustic essence one last time. Because the next one will be swanky and probably too clean.

 

We hanged around as we waited to travel to our next stop, Distant Relatives in Kilifi. Image by Edward Hinga.

But this was the end of the line, the last of the Lunatic Express. Once the pride of the region, the builder of countries and the mover of people and things. Now, just an old, rusty and rickety museum piece, with more history within it than we can ever tell. From here we would walk into the present, into Ubers to take us to the next party in Kilifi. 

Now your watch is ended, Kenya-Uganda Railway. You forever remain, the railway to nowhere.

___________________________________________________________________________

All images used here are the property of their respective owners: Edward Hinga, KurlyCheeks, Turnup Travel, and Owaahh. Featured image by KurlyCheeks. 

The trip was organised by Saffir Africa and sponsored by Famous Grouse, Tecno, Uber and Urban Kichen.

 

Owaahh, 2017

One story is good,

till Another is told.

  • Jon
  • researcher-NBO

    Greetings.
    Quick one, why do you say it was doomed to death from the very start? This isn’t a very generous reading of an infrastructure project that gave birth to a country that is by some measures a very successful enterprise.

    • Hey, I’ll do a longer read soon. The problem was that the railway that gave birth to a country was driven by an overriding, and rather stupid, goal, to reach and dominate the source of the Nile. It was expensive and ardous, costing more than 2450 lives in its building. See how it gradually withered and died as other forms of transport thrive.

  • Last year it took me 18 hours, enjoyed the ride though.
    In 1999 it took me (and a group of about 100 people) 36 hours after we got stuck at Email, then later on the journey we had to switch trains with the follows coming from Mombasa and travel in reverse until the next station.

    • tril

      In 2014 it took me an eventful 24 hours and we still had to get off at Mazeras and take a matatu to MSA 🙂 Still worth it

      • Hehehe, it seems we should keep a catalogue of these stories. No wonder it withered away so so fast.

    • Hahaha, the stories of the death of the Lunatic Express are always something else. So many people used to get stuck, especially in the middle of the Tsavo.

  • bankelele

    What a coincidence that the passenger service ends just a month before the SGR one is scheduled to start.

    • I doubt it was a coincidence. Perhaps KR decided not to wait that long.

  • Kev

    Mahn I felt pained man…reading the photo essay…I shed a tear

    • The railway museum is accessible though, and perhaps a good place to start when it comes to nostalgia.