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  • Writer's pictureOliver Smith

A Ride on Kenya's 'Lunatic Express'

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

The old Kenya-Uganda railway was the line that kick-started the idea of 'Safari'. I took a ride in this award-winning story for Lonely Planet magazine.

It is bedtime in Mombasa, and the trade winds from the Indian Ocean draw a thick quilt of cloud over the sleeping town.

At Mombasa station, however, the overnight train to Nairobi is already several hours late. On the platform, a solitary busker sings songs from The Lion King to bored passengers and a cat snoozes under a stack of luggage. The stationmaster checks the time as he sips on a cup of milky tea, but anyone could be forgiven for supposing he is waiting for a train that departed decades ago. All around us are bare timetable boards and iron rails swallowed up by long grass.

Then something stirs – from the gloom ahead comes a rasping whistle that startles the cat, drowns out Hakunah Matata and causes the stationmaster to splutter his tea. Rattling out from the darkness comes the train from Nairobi, a legendary service known to some as the Kenya–Uganda Railway, to others as the Iron Snake, but most famously as the Lunatic Express.

Mombasa station © Philip Lee Harvey
Mombasa station platform © Philip Lee Harvey

Now part of Kenya’s railway network, it was this line that helped create our modern concept of safari, a means for wealthy Westerners to be whisked away from the African coast and into the continent’s interior. Opened in 1901, the Lunatic Express earned its nickname carrying a cast of swaggering aristocrats, scoundrels and hunters of suicidal daring – a generation to whom the railway was a ticket to a land of infinite adventure.

Though the history of the line is intertwined with the ugliness of colonial exploitation and the bygone era of big-game hunting, passengers on the Lunatic Express sought the same kicks that safari-goers in Kenya look to experience today. They craved Africa’s wide-open spaces – the adrenaline rush of a land where human beings are still part of the food chain.

‘You can see why they called it the Lunatic Express,’ says John the stationmaster, sipping on a second cup of tea. ‘If they came all the way from Europe to build this railway through the bush, then they must have been mad!’

The construction of the line was celebrated as a feat of daredevil engineering by Kenya’s British colonists. Rhinos charged the locomotives and giraffes chewed on the telegraph lines. A century on – with much of the dense bush that the line once traversed now tamed – a sense of the wildness of the Lunatic Express survives. Leaning out of the window can still mean being rewarded with a mouthful of tropical foliage. And animals still periodically blockade the track, leaving the driver little choice but to stop the train, get out and chase them off with a big stick.

Finally, our train heaves out of the station and past the creeks of Mombasa Island, belching out plumes of thick smoke as we swoop around shanty towns where corrugated iron roofs glisten in the rain, and ditches where frogs croak in the darkness. Carriages beat out chaotic time signatures as we jolt over the rails – a medley of slamming doors and creaking joints.

The bumpier stages of the line can induce a mild seasickness – in the early days of the Lunatic Express, passengers were advised to remove their false teeth before travelling. No such announcement is made on the train today, but some old-world pomp lingers. Passengers travelling first-class are politely summoned into a dining car, where a portrait of the Kenyan president grins down at white linen-covered tables, while attendants shuffle dutifully about the corridors, dispensing blankets stamped with faded Kenya Railways logos.

The glow of Mombasa fades into the night behind us as our train clatters past derelict signal boxes and a decaying station lit by the feeble light of a paraffin lamp. Eventually we approach the bridge that crosses the Tsavo River – the site of the grisliest chapter in the construction of the railway. A century ago, a pair of man-eating lions stalked in the darkness outside my cabin window – snatching construction workers sleeping in their tents, claiming as many as 100 victims in just a few months.

The wind whips ominously about the cabin windows as I peer into the gloom outside, but nothing stirs. The stuffed remains of the Tsavo man-eaters, which were eventually tracked down and killed, now growl at school parties in a Chicago museum. Yet theirs weren’t to be the last instances of lion attacks on the Lunatic Express. A few years later, a British hunter turned pest control vigilante named Charles Ryall set out to exterminate the ‘Kima Killer’ – a lion that had been scaling station rooftops to swipe at the humans inside. Lying in wait in a railway carriage, Ryall dozed off with his rifle on his lap – only for the lion to climb on board the carriage and maul the slumbering hunter to death.

Ryall’s remains were buried at a railway depot named Nairobi, now Kenya’s capital, where trainspotter David Gitundu is one of few visitors to his grave.

David Gitundu © Philip Lee Harvey
A steam engine in Nairobi © Philip Lee Harvey

‘The tribes who lived in this region didn’t like the railway being built through their land,’ he explains after we arrive in Nairobi the following morning. ‘They believed that man-eating lions were possessed by the spirits of their ancestors – and they were returning to destroy the Iron Snake.’

Born in the yard of Nairobi railway station, David spent his childhood climbing trackside trees to get a better view of the engines; now he sits on the platform selling postcards of steam engines to curious passengers. He grumbles about the state of the line today – as Kenya’s road network has expanded, fewer train services run. I am directed to Nairobi’s Railway Museum where, among rusting locomotives, the carriage where Ryall was mauled is parked near a row of cherry blossom trees.

There are other strange relics from the history of the Lunatic Express on display in the museum – and none stranger than a park bench mounted on the front of an engine, from which passengers spotted wildlife as they passed through the countryside. Graced by famous buttocks including those of Winston Churchill and Edward VIII, the bench carries a discreet notice stating that the authorities ‘will not be liable for personal injury (fatal or otherwise)’.

I ask the desk attendant if she can tell me more about the man-eating lions of the Lunatic Express. She smiles coyly, before opening it to reveal the claws of the Tsavo man-eaters – the same claws that tore through the flesh of scores of men.


The claws of the man-eaters © Philip Lee Harvey

Despite the best efforts of fearsome lions, it was at the end of the railway line where the first safaris really got going – and no safari was more infamous than that of Theodore Roosevelt.

Not one for a quiet retirement, in late 1909 the former American president disembarked the Lunatic Express near Nairobi and marched off into the wilderness with a small army of servants in tow. To Roosevelt, safari meant big-game hunting, and he set out to shoot almost every species in East Africa, diligently noting their sizes and weights, speculating on their relative abilities to kill humans and occasionally remarking on how tasty they were to eat. After a hard day dodging charging animals, Roosevelt was determined not to sacrifice home comforts. Thus, scores of hapless porters slogged across swamps and savannah, carrying everything from a bathtub to a library for the president to peruse at his leisure.

I board a propeller plane heading east from Nairobi, and the territory where Roosevelt and his expedition once roamed rolls out beneath. From high up in the air, the African landscape looks like the scene of metaphysical drama. Grey columns of rain shift imperiously across the rusty- brown earth as slanting towers of sunlight break through the clouds. Beyond the starboard wing are the hills of the Great Rift Valley, stretching northwards to the Arabian Peninsula. Meanwhile, to the south is Kilimanjaro, rising abruptly from flat plains – as if K2 had been transplanted to the middle of East Anglia.

For all of its silliness and excess, Roosevelt’s expedition kick-started the world’s love affair with safari and its seductive cocktail of luxury and danger. It inspired a generation of smooth-talking European aristocrats and grizzled American pioneers to look upon East Africa as a playground – a wilderness in which to set about importing the trappings of Western life.

One American inspired by Roosevelt was Charlie Cottar – an Iowan maverick who envisioned East Africa as a new Wild West, and decided to found his own safari service here in 1919. Cottar’s Safaris were among the first to bring photographic equipment to the bush, the first to bring cars on safari and the first to dredge these cars out of the sea when the ship carrying them sank off Mombasa. Our plane dips below the clouds and grinds to a halt at an airstrip near Cottar’s Camp – a cluster of tents on the edge of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where Charlie’s great-grandson runs what’s now Africa’s oldest safari business.

Cottar's 1920s Camp © Philip Lee Harvey
Calvin Cottar © Philip Lee Harvey

‘Some of those guys were nuts,’ says Calvin Cottar, gesturing at a portrait of his great-grandfather mounted on the canvas wall of the tent. ‘They’d do anything to collect scars.’

Calvin recounts stories of Charlie’s experiments in the early days of safari – from lassoing almost every beast in the bush, including a lion, to his colleagues forming a conga line in a bid to creep up on confused animals. The safari business has grown up somewhat in the years since, but the lavish traditions of Roosevelt’s era are preserved at Cottar’s Camp. Scattered about our tents are antiques: Persian rugs, pith helmets, four-poster beds, and gramophones that crackle and squeak to the accompaniment of the chirping crickets outside.

I flick through an old scrapbook and happen across an article by Charlie Cottar, bragging of his antics: ‘Three times I was mauled by leopards, stomped on by elephants, to say nothing of minor brushes with lesser species. If you keep on taking chances, sooner or later some wild thing will get you.’ Sure enough, Charlie Cottar was killed by a charging rhino close to this camp in 1940. Having managed to discharge a fatal gunshot before it hit him, Charlie and the rhino died side by side.

‘Africa had a dangerous animal behind every corner,’ Calvin tells me, watching clouds gathering on the horizon. ‘There’s something special about living at the edge of human existence. This is a place where you could walk off on your own in any direction and you’d be guaranteed to be shit-scared within half an hour.’


A vintage Ford from Cottar's 1920s Camp © Philip Lee Harvey

A little more than half an hour later later, we are driving through the Cottar’s Concession – a stretch of crumpled green hills on the edge of the Maasai Mara, where lions, leopards and elephants roam freely.

The scent of wild mint hangs in the air as we pass dusky ravines where baboons swing from the fig trees, swerving past brilliant- white bones stripped of flesh by vultures. Here, Mother Nature goes about her business on a blockbuster scale – insects built like tanks on wings buzz past and mammals leave dinosaur-size footprints in their wake. It is the same wild landscape early safari-goers would recognise.

‘There are some things you see here that you can’t explain,’ says my guide, Douglas Nagi – a man so accustomed to the bush he was once bitten by a poisonous snake and didn’t notice until days later. ‘One time I saw a leopard fighting a reticulated python for two hours for an antelope carcass. If I had put it on YouTube I’d be famous by now.’

Today, as in Roosevelt and Charlie Cottar’s time, stories about dangerous animals are treated as badges of honour in the bush – but often it’s the less likely goings-on that catch the eye. I glimpse an African wildcat – a creature that looks like a domestic moggy that has mistakenly wandered from the suburbs into the savannah – scampering off into the distance. I spot a solitary wildebeest in the midst of a herd of bulky eland antelope. ‘A wildebeest with an identity crisis,’ Douglas nods sagely.

Everywhere there is some spectacle unfurling in the bush – part of some vast, never-ending drama of which safari-goers only ever catch the slightest snippet. Lumbering over a fold in the hillside comes a herd of elephants – their combined weight equalling that of an airliner – quietly and solemnly plodding past our vehicle. With their masses of crinkly skin, they seem like prehistoric impostors in the savannah – ‘some odd grim straggler from the Stone Age,’ as Churchill once put it during his travels aboard the Lunatic Express.

Elephants in the Cottar's Concession © Philip Lee Harvey
A leopard in the Masai Mara © Philip Lee Harvey

Our car climbs to the crest of one hill, where Douglas spies a lioness guarding a giraffe carcass from a mob of vultures. Having hunted the creature the previous night, her pride will return to dine out on their kill – but as she turns her back, the vultures shuffle forward and peck surreptitiously at the carcass. Suddenly, the lioness turns and lunges at the birds, swiping speculatively into a flurry of feathers, landing her paw right on top of one squawking vulture.

The lioness © Philip Lee Harvey

Seeing a big cat charging at such close range seems to trip some forgotten switch in your DNA – some reflex inherited from distant ancestors that quickens the pulse and sends a shiver down the spine. Primeval thrills like these are increasingly hard to come by in Kenya. In the century since the days of Roosevelt, big game populations have nosedived across the continent, and this region counts among the last wild pockets left in the country. Rhinos that would, in another time, have charged at the Lunatic Express are threatened with extinction; some predict that lions could disappear from Kenya in a few decades.

The role that the first safari expeditions have played in this tragedy is complicated. They were accomplices in colonialism, and helped engender the complacency that has brought destruction to big game populations across Africa. Yet the story of these expeditions remains a compelling one. These were some of the first times that outsiders witnessed the majesty of the continent’s wildlife. Theirs would also be among the last times when humans were confronted by a land where creatures more powerful than themselves were sovereign.

We return to camp, where the earth takes on a rich caramel hue in the sunset. Soon the night air rings with the notes of swooning birds and the thuds of mammals plodding about nearby. Having heard stories of the Tsavo man-eaters, it’s difficult to lie in bed without calculating the odds of some claw slicing through the canvas of my tent, or to mentally rehearse jabbing at an intruding beast with the nearest available piece of furniture.

No claw arrives, but the soundtrack of the bush plays on outside the tent as it has done for time immemorial. Out of earshot nearby, lions will be grunting, baboons barking and elephants busy demolishing a tree. And somewhere far away from here, intermingled with this racket, is the whistle of the Lunatic Express, rattling on regardless into the night.

Amboseli National Park © Philip Lee Harvey

This story won me AITO Travel Writer of the Year 2012 – it originally appeared in the March 2012 edition of Lonely Planet magazine.

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