I’ve done two bona fide ‘classic’ journeys in my time travelling. The first was a slow boat along the coast of Patagonia, which didn’t go exactly to plan and now this, the Mombasa-Nairobi train journey. The train is an old iron snake, split into first, second and third classes, with those up front having cabins and access to a dining car for meals. €36 buys you a first-class ticket, 13 hours of relative comfort, and a 500-kilometre passage from the sweltering coast up to Kenya’s capital on the Maasai steppe. That’s good value.
‘Classic’ travel denotes a certain olde-world charm, a sense of nostalgia. It’s a warm reminiscence of a simpler time before digital displays on train platforms, laminated plastic timetables and the swiping of smartcards. It’s steam and smoke, and polished chrome.
Of course, any owner of a ‘classic’ car will tell you that classics break down on a regular basis, are slower and less efficient than modern cars, and unless kept immaculately, demand that you sacrifice some comfort for the sake of aesthetics.
All this was present in spades when I arrived at Mombasa. I had already received a phonecall warning me not to turn up on time for the 7pm train, which would not be there, so I arrived at 8pm as per revised instructions, and would find myself hanging out on the platform until well after 2am the next morning, in hopeful expectation of a train appearing out of the dark.
When I arrived, there was a singsong going on, with a teacher from Kaugi Primary School on the guitar leading 40 or so primary school children in some folksy hymns. I took out my sound recorder to capture some of it, and drew a crowd (pictured above).
The podcast below gives a better impression of it, so I’ll leave you to listen to it.
Thirteen hours on a train is not something I’m accustomed to. The train bumped happily along the tracks, and sleeping was akin to lying down on a bouncy castle full of sugar-mad kids at a birthday party. You were gently rocked, not in the typical back-and-forth, but vertically up and down. Similarly, I felt seasick for the first six hours at the far end, having grown accustomed to the movement underfoot.
In Nairobi now for the next while, and looking forward to meeting some interesting groups of people over the coming days.
Markham is on a prolonged journey through Kenya and Tanzania partly funded by a Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund grant. Editors/producers looking to contact Markham for material or contributions from Kenya should email markham [dot] nolan [at] gmail [dot] com, or text +254 732 580 147.