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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
This train ferried everyone from settlers to students headed down to a catch a ship, and older folk looking for work.
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.
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.
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.
The trip was organised by Saffir Africa and sponsored by Famous Grouse, Tecno, Uber and Urban Kichen.
One story is good,
till Another is told.
Last modified: November 7, 2018