I tell you, if you need to get from Mombasa to Nairobi and you have a bit of time to spare, you could do a lot worse than ride the night train.
It is seriously slow going, at around 16 hours from the moment you get on at 6pm in Mombasa to getting off again at 10:30am the next day in Nairobi – the narrow, single track necessitates a slow pace and occasionally the train has to pull-off into a siding to allow another train to pass – but it is very reasonably priced and presents an altogether unique traveling experience.
For 3,660 Ksh – around 35 Euro – I rode first class which allowed me my own private cabin all decked-out in rather worn 1960’s GBR-style regalia , an evening meal and a breakfast (of sorts) in the dining car and unlike the airplanes, there was no 5,500 Ksh excess baggage penalty. In fact, it seems you’re allowed as much baggage as you’re prepared to carry on with you! Yes, I still have two and a half suitcases with me, even after leaving the craft and workshop materials with the Kwale girls! I have re-filled the cases with some ‘Kwale’ crafts (rafta mats, bags and things) and the Bloc Maker Faire banner.
But hey, there’s more! Apart from affording some wonderful thinking & reading space – plus the freedom to get up, walk around, sit, sleep, whatever – the train offers some spectacular views of the Kenyan landscapes and wildlife, as darn near good as any jeep safari.
This morning, seemingly, the only person awake; I emerged from my cabin at 6:30am and gazing (leaning) through an open carriage window I watched the sun come up, all blue and gold over a magnificent, un-spoilt and a seemingly uninhabited landscape. The only sound being the gentle hum of the engine and the click-clack of train on track.
Within an hour, looking through the same window, I spied Gazelles and Zebras by the Gazillion; all running about in the long grass as close as one could wish for any safari trip. I’m sure if one looked keenly enough at the long grass and shady trees they’d likely see one of the ‘Big 5’ or perhaps a Wildebeest or Giraffe.
The train route passes by – indeed, has no doubt attracted – many villages and settlements along the trackside. As the train trundles along in the cool calm of the morning, one can glimpse the staples of, what I have come to understand as typical rural Kenyan living and settlements: the reddish, stout-looking mud huts with thatched makuti roofs or those made from a patchwork of corrugated metal sheets; mamas sweeping their compound clean with a twig broom, chickens running manically about their feet; the men disappearing for the day in all directions, on foot, bicycle, motorbike or piling into pick-up trucks; pots simmering over wood fires cooking up the breakfast porridge of maize that will also provide the Ugali for tonight’s dinner; kids marching to school in bright, proud, pristine uniforms (School in August?!). It’s all very beautiful and charming, especially to the ‘Muzungu’ visitor such as me – “no big deal” perhaps, to the people I have been watching.
Keeping in mind that this train makes just one journey in each direction per day, it is not surprising that when the train occasionally stops at a village, there is something of a ‘welcome party’. Young children line the tracks and grin, wave, run and jump about and show off their ‘kung-fu’ moves to… well, no one in particular, but motion in the general direction of the carriages. They’re just excited – like all kids of that age – to see a train pass by. There are many men and women standing about too. Some get on; others load 25kg sacks of maize or charcoal onto the train and then depart, the sacks, to be picked up by someone further down the line. I did not see where along the train the sacks ended up being stowed but one assumes that just as with the Matatu mini-buses of the towns and cities, the sacks are simply placed at the feet of the (third-class) passengers wherever there is what one might otherwise call ‘leg-room’.
I didn’t see inside the third-class carriages. I was told that at 600Ksh (6 Euro) a pop and with no sleeping quarters, third class can be more than slightly uncomfortable and overcrowded – dangerous even. It was plain to see that the first class cabins were occupied almost exclusively by white tourists and not a single ‘Mazungu’ was riding in 3rd. I was very thankful that I had the luxury of a bed, let alone a private cabin but I would’ve liked to have experienced the 3rd Class Carriage if only for a few hours. To experience and by extension to maybe better understand another strand of everyday Keyan life; to better empathise with those passengers, who happened to be in this case, made up of typical, low-income Kenyan people. The ‘Human Centered Design Toolkit’ by IDEO suggests that breakthrough design insights can come about when conducting such immersive field studies and attempting to empathise with the very people for whom you are designing. On this occasion though, to tell you the truth, I was just too scared to venture that far down the train alone. Scared of causing upset or embarrassment. Scared because I was told it was dangerous… I’d heard too many ‘scare stories’… Ignorance is bliss! ‘Knowledge’, it seems, can stifle discovery.
Between Mobasa and Nairobi, I have rode the long cramping 9-hour car journey and forked out for the ‘convenience’ of the – admittedly quicker – Kenya Airways but if I should have to make the journey again, the Kenya Railway will be my first thought.