Jambo Kenya Deluxe
There we were, on a bench, of sorts, in the Middle of Nowhere. Or to be more precise, on a bench under a tree behind the ticket office at Mombasa Train Station. Not really 'Nowhere' but right in the middle of it for sure. Nor was it a Ticket Office, the place where we acquired our tickets looked more like a dilapidated shack. We, however, didn't care: we were on an ADVENTURE!!
Adventure though it may have been, as spoiled Western travellers, we didn't want it to become too big of an adventure, that's why we indulged in First Class Tickets. Those tickets bought us a two person cabin, two horizontal sleeping facilities, dinner and before arrival at Nairobi: breakfast! Plus the same for the return trip and all of that for about USD 80 per person.
Normally I wouldn't have made this trip, or even considered it, as it would be something found in a place far, far beyond my comfort zone. Mostly because I'm petrified to be late for work, and an undertaking such as this one, would stress me out for all the possibilities along the track that could delay our return to the hotel in Mombasa. Fortunately for my colleague, she couldn't have cared less, as long as we would make the trip, she could be fired for all she cared. I still don't know (or at least can't remember) how she managed to convince me, but I was going to join her and I would like it too. There had been so many times when I thought I could do with a little adventure, so this seemed to fit the bill.
We asked the friendly lady of Guest Relations in the hotel to arrange our reservations, like I said: I wanted adventure but I still preferred to take the risk out of it, especially when this adventure is to take place during some off time on business travel rather than on a private holiday. No idea, either of us had, about traffic in Mombasa around the time we wanted to be at the Railway Station, so we ended up pretty early; to be on the safe side so to speak.
So there we were, sitting on that bench, tickets in our pockets. Speaking of tickets, those tickets were also a bit of a story, especially when you're used to get tickets from a machine. At the first window we had to confirm our reservation, the man manning the desk opened a huge notebook (more of a ledger actually) and writes something down after which he pushes a slip of paper through a slit in the partition between his desk and the desk next to him. He indicates we should move to the other desk.
One step to our right we face a different man who we pay the 3200 KS per person. Like his colleague to his left, he too starts to write in a huge book and on paper slips. The slips turned out to be the vouchers for the meals that would be served on board. Next he gets to tiny (about the size of two normal sized postage stamps) pieces of thin cardboard, which he tries, frantically, to staple to the paper slips. The stapler wasn't at all in the mood, but that was not enough reason for the man to hand us the tickets and vouchers unattached. Before we walked to our bench I asked the man to confirm that the tickets are return tickets. 'Yes, sir. You see the 'R'? That means 'Return'", and lo and behold there was indeed the faintest imprint of an R on the piece of cardboard. Don't know how we could have missed it.
The train was to leave Mombasa Train Station at 19.00, to arrive in Nairobi at 09.00 the following morning. This would leave us with enough time to visit Giraffe Manor, a orphanage for young abandoned wild animals and lunch at some colonial looking old fashioned style hotel of some sort. That same day, the same train would leave Nairobi at 19.00 for the return trip to Mombasa. All in all, we would have an interesting time travelling by train and some 10 hours in Nairobi.
I'm the 'seeing is believing' kind of guy, so I was very pleased when the Jambo Kenya Deluxe arrived at Mombasa Train Station at 19.00 precisely. Seemed like a good omen to me, again my colleague wasn't bothered or impressed at all. For all I could tell, she was calmer than the tree that provided us with shade. While waiting on that bench on the platform we saw an incredible amount of people arriving, with their living and non living luggage. Most of them were boarding in third class at a price of 2800 KS per person less than our extravagant First Class ticket. I didn't mind paying that much more (also because I'm lucky enough to be able to afford it), as I imagined we wouldn't have to kill our dinner ourselves.
We boarded the train too. It was 20.30 and the train stood at exactly the same place where it had come to a stop about an hour and a half ago. This, I figured could be considered a bad omen. And again I seemed to be the only one worrying about it. While I was thinking up contingency plans, my colleague was enjoying the whole experience. (This kind of state of mind was impossible for me at that time, about 10 years ago.) The fact that the service on board schedule was being carried out as planned, pleased me since that meant we were served dinner in the dining car at around the time we were starting to get hungry.
We shared our table with a friendly Italian lady who had lived in Kenya for years, she was a very pleasant person to talk to. And it wasn't just me, she too visibly lightened up when the train started to move after a two hour delay. Kenya Railways, it turned out, had decided to leave the train waiting at the station while they took care of some kind of obstruction somewhere along the track. I was happy about their decision. Only much later during the trip I found out it was a single track line, that meant more possibilities for problems, good thing I didn't know from the beginning.
To lighten up our night travel I had brought along an iPod and some external speakers. Not wanting to diminish my colleague's Kenyan experience I asked her first if she had any objections to some music. With music playing on the background, almost drowned by the noisy cadence of the moving train we fell asleep. It had been a long time since the trains at home made that typical noise.
The first time I woke up I was wondering if we were at a train station somewhere. Looking out of the window I couldn't see a thing, it was pitch dark outside. Mind you, most of the stations we passed along the way only had platforms that covered the length of the second and third class of the train, so our part of the train would have been passed anything that would emit light or have any noticeable human activity in the darkness.
The second and third time I woke up I wasn't thinking that we had stopped at a train station, but instead, my worrying mind was wondering if we had stopped again or hadn't moved at all since the first time I woke up. Luckily I fell asleep pretty quickly again.
It was morning and already light by the time I woke up again. Most importantly the train was moving! In my mind I had already made peace with the idea that upon arrival in Nairobi we'd have to buy a plane ticket to get back to Mombasa in time, this made it much easier for me to 'let go' and start enjoying the experience. 'Look at me, sitting in a train in KENYA!' I said to myself several times; not out loud though. And in my head the song 'Under African Skies' by Paul Simon was on repeat.
After an opportunity of 'freshen up' we moved to the restaurant car to enjoy our breakfast. Of course I couldn't help myself to ask how much longer till we would reach Nairobi. "When we reach Voj, it will be approximately nine hours" was the answer. From a previous business trip, during which I had been on a safari excursion to Tsavo National Park, I knew that Voj was no more than three hours away from the hotel. This meant that the train had been standing still the entire night.
You will not be surprised that my colleague couldn't care much about this informational titbit. All that mattered to her was that now at least we could actually see the landscape. I on the other hand was seriously considering getting of the train at Voj, a place where you can enter the National Park, there would be plenty of opportunities to arrange for transport back to the hotel.
Suffice to say that I decided to remain outside my comfort zone, keeping my contingency plan(s) in the back of my mind but most importantly starting to enjoy the adventure more and more.
Of course we never had any time in Nairobi to do any of the activities we had thought of (the train arrived at the time it was supposed to leave again). The only thing I actually saw of Nairobi was a very busy roundabout and the bar inside the train station, a good GT can do wonders.
During the return trip we met some interesting people and I was happy to have been on this adventure, especially since we arrived back in Mombasa only three hours later than scheduled.
Please bear in mind that this all took place some ten years ago, so this story is probably no longer an indication of the situation today. I have also condensed the story, leaving the details of the return trip to your imagination.
The quality of the images are not very high. It's the best I could make out of the automatic scans the processing facility made ten years ago.
You can also read my stories on my Apple News Channel: JW Amsterdam Photography. This story has more images on Apple News.