Train travel in Kenya – taking the scenic route
The scenic route
The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was “to take the scenic route”. I don’t think my mentor actually expected me to take it so literally though!
As a complete global travel addict I find myself constantly on the move trying to take the scenic route every chance I get. An opportunity too good to refuse presented itself in Kenya recently.
Read on for my train journey from Mombasa to Nairobi.
Why train it?
Train travel can be as romantic as it sounds – or it can be a complete disaster. All of my Kenyan friends thought I was crazy for wanting to catch the train back to Nairobi from Mombasa. The train is notorious for breakdowns, delays and at one point even plunged into a swollen river – a piece of information parted to me just prior to boarding!
But I love train travel! Not only is it better for the environment, but the scenery and the experience (not to mention cost!) often far out-ways any other option. In Kenya, the alternatives are bus on chaotic, deadly roads for 8 hours which is also prone to extreme delays, or a 45 minute flight. But lets face it, where is the fun in that? The reduced carbon emissions combined with my ever increasing fear of flying make it a nice easy choice for me – TRAIN!
What a review!
I read a review prior to starting the trip (from our friends at Lonely Planet) where the train was described as disheveled mediocrity and so I did not expect much. Mombasa station was incredibly underwhelming and from the outside the train looked barely functioning. On boarding though, I was pleasantly surprised. I’d booked into a second class, four-berth cabin for the night and luckily knew my travel companions which made the trip easier and more fun (Heads Up! is my go to game for confined travel).
Dinner is served in a dining cart where friendly, talented waiters carried overloaded trays of typical Kenyan fare. With the train sauntering along, watching them try to pour steaming hot tea into tiny cups was quite entertaining. Tip: don’t try holding the cup for them, you’ll end up with scorched hands! The dining cart is also a great place to sit, enjoy a beer and wave to the locals. The scenery is also incredible as the train passes through villages and spectacular Kenyan savannahs. Unfortunately it was night by the time we crossed the Tsavo National Parks (the rail cuts the park into two – East and West). I assume heading in the opposite directions you’d have the chance to spot game from your window.
Putting the sleep in sleeper
With clean, fresh linen supplied and your bed made during dinner service, retiring for the night was easy. The door to the cabin is lockable and I suggest using it. If heading to the bathrooms during the night, carry your valuables or ensure your bunk buddy shuts the door. Nobody wants to return to find their luggage missing! Padlocking bags together if you are in 3rd class seats is the way to go.
There is something so soothing about being rocked to sleep on a train. The soft clack-clackety-clack and roll of the cabin lulled me to sleep and before I knew it, the sun was up and we were spotting antelope out the window. A fair sized breakfast fueled us as we hit the outskirts of Nairobi.
Disembarking with style
Realising where we were, we decided to take an earlier station rather than wait an undisclosed amount of time to reach the city centre. The train had stopped so we asked the armed guard in our carriage if we could get off. He wrenched open a door, pointed to the steps and said we could go for it. The train had stopped, but not at the platform! We scurried down, backpacks strapped on, to the tracks. Not the most elegant of arrivals, but definitely a Kenyan one.
We disembarked at 10.30am making our journey 17.5hrs – which I considered early by Kenyan standards.
The Footprint Scale
Train Travel: 2/5 footprints
Carbon emissions per passenger kilometer are often in favour of train over plane travel. I don’t have the official data on this train (an old english one leftover from colonial days) however, I’d still suggest it’s better option than launching an aircraft for only 45mins. An added advantage is the table service, no plastic cutlery or clingwrapped food here, so wastage is minimal. The train is also a step closer to being affordable by locals (although most still choose the cheapest option which is to bus).