You wake up to the feel of the gently rocking train beneath you. With the early dawn light seeping in through the windows, you take a peek outside to see the African savannah as the train makes its way toward the Kenyan coast. A herd of antelope runs by; perhaps you also see ostrich or zebra. If you’re really lucky, you might spot giraffe or a lion. Children rush out from villages along the railway to wave at the train as it passes.
This is the overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa, Kenya — one of the most epic train journeys in Africa, or, for that matter, anywhere in the world. It’s quite a unique experience; and while you can fly between the two cities in an hour and a half, if you have the time for the 15-hour overland rail journey, the payoff in fun and adventure is well worth it.
You can begin from either Nairobi or Mombasa; I started my journey at the Nairobi Railway Station, an antiquated building from 1899. People watching is always interesting in train stations, and there were a number of historic displays throughout the waiting areas with photographs and artifacts from Kenya’s rail history, including man-eating tigers that plagued the workers who laid the tracks more than a century ago.
I noticed a man with a little table set up, where he sold books about Kenya and its railway history, along with small wood carvings and hand-painted postcards he had made himself, which featured various African animals. I chatted with him for a while, learning that he was a musician and artist as well as great storyteller.
The train pulled in: the Jambo Deluxe. The word jambo means “hello” in Swahili, and you hear it all the time in Kenya. My boyfriend and I boarded the train and found our first-class compartment. There are three classes of ticket you can buy — first, second and third. The main difference between first and second class is that first class is a private compartment for two people, while second class has four bunks. So if you are two people who want to make sure you have a compartment to yourself, first class is the way to go (and not much more expensive). Third class is not recommended, and there have been reports of robberies or harassment in those cars.
In case you might be expecting a European-style train, let me set the record straight. This was one of the oldest trains I had ever been on. Nothing appeared to have been renovated or much replaced since the train was put into service probably around the 1950s. Many things might not function, such as lights, fans or other mysterious switches, and the toilet may be missing its seat. Speaking of which, be sure to bring your own toilet paper, as well as water and insect repellent.
There is a water basin inside each first- and second-class compartment, and despite the generally rundown condition of the train, the bedding was clean and the berths relatively comfortable, though narrow. We promptly opened some Tusker beers we had brought along and settled in for the ride. These trains are notorious for running late and for delays. And although ours left pretty close to on time, many people have experienced delays in departing, along the way, and arriving into Mombasa — so best not to expect a 15-hour journey to necessarily take just 15 hours. To be safe, don’t book or plan anything for the first few hours after your train is scheduled to arrive.
The ticket package we purchased included dinner and breakfast, and shortly after the train was rolling along outside Nairobi, it was our assigned time to proceed to the dinner car. The compartment doors had no external lock, only locking from the inside, so we took our valuables in a bag with us to the dining carriage.
The unmistakably British formal dining experience gives a faded glimpse into a bygone era of elegance; they still use the china, crystal and silverware, though some of it may be chipped and a little worse for wear. The food tasted great, and you can purchase wine or beer at a reasonable price. We had an enjoyable evening chatting with our table companion who was from Mombasa, having emigrated there from India many years ago. Note: there is a large Indian population in Mombasa, and that’s the place in Kenya to have a fantastic Indian meal.
After dinner we retired to our compartment, where the attendant had made our beds for us, to have another beer, play some cards and enjoy the night. The next morning was when the magic really happened. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to wake up on a train, the morning sun rising over the African savannah, and to look out the windows glimpsing wildlife, villages, people going about their daily lives, and miles of untouched land. We spent hours just gazing out the windows at the Rift Valley, before and after breakfast.
Soon we were rolling into the city of Mombasa, with its confluence of buildings and the blue ocean coastline beyond. After collecting our belongings and tipping our attendant, we were ready to start our next adventure in Mombasa.
Details: As of this writing, the train runs three times per week: From Nairobi to Mombasa on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (departing 6:30 p.m., arriving 9:45 a.m. the next morning); and from Mombasa to Nairobi on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (departing 7:00 p.m., arriving 9:45 a.m.). First-class tickets are currently USD $65.00 per person, including dinner, breakfast and bedding. Second-class tickets are USD $54.00, which includes bedding and breakfast, but not dinner.
Header image courtesy Oggi S
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Kenyan encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.