Take the slow train

The railway from Nairobi to Mombasa is a Victorian relic, but it's the best way to see Kenya

Getting local advice is a fairly infallible rule of thumb when you find yourself on foreign soil, but I refused to be drawn in Nairobi. The bus might well be the quickest way to get from the dusty, landlocked capital to the tropical coastline around Mombasa, as my driver, my driver's friend and my driver's friend's girlfriend all insisted, but I was intent on chugging cross-country on Kenya Railway's overnight service, otherwise known as the Lunatic Express.

The train earned its ominous nickname at the time of construction in the Victorian era. The British lacked interest in the Kenyan interior, but were keen to link the lucrative port of Mombasa via Nairobi with Kisumu, on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria, and the Ugandan capital of Kampala, situated just north of the lake. Accordingly, they seared the scorched earth with an iron spine of rails and nuts and bolts, which flexed its might across hundreds of kilometres of Masai land.

The adventure was a grand one, taking six years to build at a cost, in today's currency, of roughly £400m. It is unknown how many workers died in constructing the track, but the numbers that succumbed to malaria or the man-eating lions that roam Tsavo National Park were considerable. More recently, 114 people died in 1993 when a train bound for Mombasa drove into a river, the tracks having been washed away by rain. In 1999, 32 passengers perished when the brakes on another train failed and it derailed. So far, so terrifying, but it still seemed the best way to see as much of Kenya as possible in my woefully insufficient three-day visit.

Departing by train, you see the worst of Nairobi. The track is lined with rows of make shift shacks at arm's length from the passing carriages, shacks that are home to the city's impoverished underclass. As we departed at night, the blank faces of the railside dwellers were revealed at random, lit up by intermittent flashes of light from the city and the train itself.

On board, we were privy to the finest Kenyan comfort and hospitality - circa 1900. Little seemed to have been modernised since the line opened around a century ago. First- and second-class passengers (the tourists) were issued with lamps, as the electricity fails consistently, and we were served a three-course dinner in the dining carriage, where the plain boiled meat, followed by sponge and custard, could have stepped right off the menu at a Victorian boarding school.

The atmosphere, however, was decidedly 21st-century. Where statesmen and diplomats once took their tea, the train on my journey was overflowing with delegates from the World Social Forum, which had taken place that week in Nairobi. Most were from western European countries, with a smattering of Mexicans and Brazilians, and worked for international NGOs. After a week spent debating development issues at a conference centre, they were treating themselves to some downtime on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The toast of the group was a woman who had slept two nights in Nairobi's Kibera slum, thereby winning a sideways glance from the world's press, which up until then had been concentrating on the World Economic Forum being held in Davos.

Since the track was built, the route from Nai robi to Mombasa has had trains running with varying frequency and under different ownerships. Today, the train runs three times a week in each direction, and last year it was taken over by the South African-led Rift Valley Railways Consortium, which plans to bring the service into the 21st century and replace the backpackers with luxury holidaymakers.

We left at 7pm and arrived three hours later than the scheduled 8am. Throughout the journey, the train manager, Franki Omondi, reminded us to keep our cabin doors locked and the windows secured - the train makes frequent planned and unplanned stops at tiny villages during the night, and theft and worse are reportedly common.

I rose with the sun and rushed to the window. As we neared the coast the land became flat and the tall grass still. From time to time, just when the rural horizon seemed uninterrupted, small children appeared in the scrubland; some waved and shouted excitedly, others had clearly grown tired of the begging ritual. Following their path back through the bushes with my eye invariably led to a small hut or two, often constructed solely from branches and not always roofed. Immense baobab trees loomed into sight now and again, as ancient as the earth and intricately interwoven with my vision of Africa, gleaned from the literature I'd devoured before this, my first visit. The animals - ostriches, impalas, giraffes, elephants - provided a makeshift safari on my return journey.

As we neared Mombasa, the thin air of the interior changed and became heavy with humidity as the train rumbled alongside the new highway, which was being widened to provide a quicker and safer route to and from Kenya's rich coastline than was offered by the existing road. Despite my impatience to get to the beach, I'd seen and heard more of the country in one journey than a hundred overnight express buses might offer. The long platform at Mombasa was shaded by leafy trees; the train manager himself carried my bag and saw to it that I found a trustworthy driver to take me the 25 kilometres south to Tiwi Beach.

On the return journey, I shared a cabin with a German camerawoman who had travelled the length and breadth of Africa with her journalist husband for the best part of the decade, covering war, famine and civil conflict for a German news channel. She was weary of Africa, had lost friends to violent crime, was too afraid to walk to the dining car without my company; nevertheless, she accepted it as her home.

I was only just beginning, and was eager for far more. We did not arrive in Nairobi until 3pm, and I was too late for my planned visits to an elephant orphanage and the Karen Blixen Museum, or to meet friends for lunch and shopping. But I am still convinced I took the best route home.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?