The Lunatic Line 1

Travelling by train in Kenya is something well worth experiencing. The journey starts with buying your ticket. First you make a reservation at the enquiries desk. You then take your reservation to the tickets window, where you pay and receive a preprinted cardboard ticket, a receipt and a dinner voucher (if requested). You then return half an hour before the train leaves to collect your boarding card. The Kenyan’s love their bureaucracy!

Nairobi Railway Station looks like something from the early twentieth century – probably because it is, and it appears not much has changed since it was built. From the painted wooden signs, the carved seating arrangements board to the station master’s office complete with old black rotary phone, it is like stepping back in time.

On board the first class carriage it is nice, but not luxurious. Unless of course you compare it to third class – which is an open carriage with benches, and shutters on the windows instead of glass. In the rather cramped first class compartment there is a leather seat for three (although when converted to beds there’s only room for two), a wardrobe, a sink and something which looks like a shaving cupboard, but turns out to be drinking water. I press the button, expecting it to be dry, but it actually works! (In Pole to Pole, Michael Palin seemed surprised by the lack of water in his taps. He obviously hadn’t spent much time in Africa). I don’t trust the water to be clean though and stick to bottled water.

When the train leaves it is nearly seven in the evening, and it’s getting quite dark, although still light enough to see Nyayo Stadium, just down from where I used to live, as we pass it. A kilometre or two further on it is dark as we enter Kibera, Africa’s first or second largest slum (depending on who you talk to). Despite Bill Bryson’s dire warnings about not coming out alive, I’m quite happy going to Kibera during the day. You wouldn’t catch me there at night though. So it was extremely interesting to pass through it in the safety of a train.

There are miles of tin shacks built right up to the edge of the line, many of them shops or restaurants, some lit by electric light, some by paraffin lanterns. The whole place is a hive of activity, and you can catch glimpses of people’s lives through wire windows or gauze curtain doors. For several hours it is difficult to persuade myself to go to bed, as even after leaving Kibera I sit there with the lights off, watching the numerous mysterious lights on unknown hillsides, and try to image what is happening around each light.

After a while two ticket inspectors come along (and probably wonder why I’m sitting in the dark) and check my ticket. They ask me where I’m going and welcome me on board in the kind of friendly way you come to expect in Africa. Half an hour or so after that a steward arrives and tells me that he will cook chicken and rice for me, and will call me when it is ready, which turns out to be about half an hour later.

There are only two of us eating at the table with the white starched tablecloth – the rest of the buffet car is filled with people drinking the night away. I enjoy the three course meal of soup, followed by chicken and rice, finished up with a slice of pineapple. I then go to find the choo (toilet), which is just a hole in the floor. There are no lights in the room, so it is quite a challenge using the toilet on a moving train!

I eventually go to sleep, which is more of a series of dozes as each time the train stops, the clanking of the couplings and thudding of the brakes wakes me up. Thankfully the swaying of the train and the rhythmic clickety clack of the wheels sends me off quickly once the train is moving again.

I wake properly shortly before six while there are still a couple of hours left of the journey, in the hope that I might get some good photos as the sun rises. I’m not disappointed. There are actually two sunrises – I’m not totally sure why. Perhaps the first was as the sun rises above the distant horizon and lights up the sky, the second as it appears over the hills a while later. There was a thin mist hanging over the landscape which gave an extra dimension to the photos. I basically spent the last two hours of the journey standing at the window with my camera going “Wow – God, you are awesome”.

It was interesting to see the kids walking across the fields on their way to school – as the fields were being ploughed by teams of oxen. At several places I saw groups of women collecting water at a pump, and I saw lots of mud houses – something I’d managed to not see during the year I lived here, although I’m not sure how.

We stopped at loads of stations at places I’d never heard of and couldn’t find on my map. The stations signs always had the altitude on them, often to a rather absurd accuracy of nearest centimetre.

(No photos today, as I’m still in Uganda, staying at a backpackers place near the source of the Nile, and don’t have any way of getting the photos out of my camera an onto the computer. I have some more writing about the matatu journey from Kisumu to Jinja, but that can wait for another day.)

One comment on “The Lunatic Line

  1. Reply Maret Oct 13,2004 14:42

    What a fantastic journey and experience!!!!

    I love the account,well written-I felt I was there.

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