As we pull away from the station forty-five minutes late the huge blue diesel engine slowly picks up speed. Kampalas flimsy houses begin to crowd in close to the Line. Corrugated-roof slums with ragged children wave. Everyone we see turns towards the train and smiles. I return the smiles and waves, but the scene passed as quickly
With the briefest glance back and a twinge of privilege-induced guilt, I return to my own personal reality – a bell-boy summoning First and Second Class passengers to the dining car.
Local passengers are few and there are only a few passionate train enthusiasts. I hadn’t quite realised that riding on the Lunatic line would be a five hundred-mile trip. The narrow-gauge track journey is twenty-three hours long.
The scene is something from a 1940’s black and white movie. Waiters hovered around the tables in starched almost-white uniforms and serve luncheon from once-gleaming silver platters. With a great sweep of his huge hands and a broad grin, the head waiter shakes out my napkin and places it on my lap stating,
‘Karibu welcome, lunch today meat, very nice.’
Tarnished silver service was not the only colonial legacy on this journey. The British are blamed by every staff member I meet for the slowness of the train. The three-foot narrow gauge tracks make speed impossible and derailment a distinct possibility.
This ‘express’ frequently travels at a lazy-man’s jog, which enables opportunistic thieves to hop on and attempt a briefcase hijack while the owner dine. Only the profusion of watchful staff forestall these unnerving incidents.
The afternoon heat and three-foot gauge rhythmic sway soon induce sleep. One hour later the floor of the Kenyan rift valley has crawled into my mouth. The fine red dust and dry grit of the rift valley whisks itself up and filters through my open window. My mouth feels full of fine grit as do my nose ears and mouth snoring nose, into the curves of my ears To say nothing of the red stone dust on my fingers as I wipe my weeping eyescorners of my eyes.
This invasive fine red powder covered me in salmon pink.as I stand up, my sleeping silhouette remains darkly damp on the pale plastic of the bunk. Attempts to wipe it off resulted in abstract orange smears all over me and the compartment. Staff came scurrying in with mops and cloths before I can make any more mess.
‘It’s very dusty.’ I comment in Swahili to guard while the compartment is being cleaned. ‘No, it is Wednesday, it was Tuesday yesterday.’ he replies! I turn to return to the compartment shaking my head in puzzlement, while the guard seems quite pleased with our conversation
At 7pm sharp, the odd assortment of passengers – some businessmen, a handful of tourists and backpackers and some Kenyans visiting relatives or conducting trade along the way – gathered for a sedate dinner.
The waiters whites, like all of our clothes, now have a reddish tinge, as did the damask tablecloths and the chef’s hat. The head waiter’s grin has not diminished and he proudly states. as if for the first time that day, that dinner was ‘meat’.
Back in the compartment the beds have been prepared in our absence, with a thick comfortable mattress, clean sheets and blankets with a corner turned down, as done only in the best hotels.
These refined touches posed an amusing paradox to the affluent travellers, but a less amusing contrast to those sleeping under cardboard by the derelict station hut we chug slowly past. I slip into bed feeling content and complacent, expecting to wake up just outside our destination -Nairobi.
At 11.30pm, while I am sleeping peacefully the train suddenly stops. It does not move again for the next ten and a half-hours.
‘Blame it on the Brits’, say the Supa and the driver as they proceed down the carriages. This is a message that gets repeated over the intercom at regular intervals in the rather sweaty hours that follow. Ahead of us a goods train has skipped off the rather precarious narrow tracks. We are stationary at a curve in the line, three hours from the Ugandan border. I eat bacon and eggs, while local children look in with wide eyes.
By now I am feeling really bad about doing nothing but sleep and eat in comfort while being stared at by people who cannot access any of the luxuries on board. Feeling rather stressed at the situation I am just about to pass my breakfast out if the window when the waiter forbids it saying, ‘These scoundrels must go now, I will shout them gone for bothering you,’ which he proceeds to do.
We are still a long way from our destination. Our engine, which had disappeared round the bend up the track, suddenly returns and reattached itself to its rightful position. Cheering from passengers and crew alike seemed to give it new life and it gathers speed and settles into its average plod of 50 kph..
The delay causes us to cross the Uganda border post at Tororo at 2am. It is a muddled nightmare everyone has to disembark. The disinterested customs official sat at his rickety desk pounding his rubber stamp over any stray piece of paper and after waiting for him to look up, I open my passport and placed a blank section in his line of fire. He hardly notices.
we finally pull into Nairobi station twelve hours late. We are told that due to various difficulties it may be a thirty-five hour journey.