I’ve always loved traveling by train; there’s something quite relaxing about it. You don’t have to stress about reckless drivers trying to overtake you, or the annoying trailers on the road; all you have to do is sit back, and enjoy the ride! Traveling by train is all about the beautiful scenery along the way, the open rails, the people you get to meet on the ride and everything in between. After my last train ride with The Lunatic Express about a month ago, I decided it was time for me to embrace the new Madaraka Express from Mombasa to Nairobi.
With all the good, the bad and the ugly reviews I saw online, It was probably best to personally experience the ride, in order for me to understand what the fuss was all about, rather than relying on hearsay. The exaggerated stories I had heard from people “claiming” to have boarded the train left me wondering whether I imagined the whole train ride, since it was quite different from their version of events! After a somewhat smooth ride, I decided to share a few pointers that might be of help to you, if you’re contemplating on riding the rails to Mombasa!
1: Mentally prepare yourself to physically go the main terminus and book your tickets in advance or send someone to do it for you! Since I thought it best to prepare myself mentally for the train ride, I opted to familiarize myself and find out exactly where the train station was located in Miritini. In a way it helped me gauge the amount of time I would need to get out of the house, and get to Miritini in time prior to traveling. All the stories I had read about people missing the train by just a few minutes, made me realize how important punctuality is, in this case! True to its reputation, the traffic heading to Miritini was a hot mess to put it lightly; it took me about two hours before I finally spotted the mysterious Mombasa Terminus which everyone seemed to know existed, but not quite able to put a finger on how far or near it was from the road.( FYI, the road to the terminus is being constructed; therefore, it somehow feels like a Rhino Charge adventure while getting to the train station)
2: Choose your seat wisely! Since they haven’t launched online booking services yet, getting a window seat would be your best option, or a seat at the edge,whilst booking your ticket. The middle seats are quite awkward and uncomfortable, especially if you end up sandwiched between two big-boned people! It’s best to sacrifice some time and over emphasize to the booking attendant serving you, that a window seat on the train is your preferred choice, especially if you’re traveling on economy class!
3: Take advantage of the old Chania buses situated at the old Railway Station in town which with partnership with the Railway Station, have managed to ferry passengers to the new terminus in Miritini, and from Miritini back to Mombasa. They lack adequate leg room space, but are much easier and cheaper to use since they are familiar with the route and know how to maneuver through Miritini traffic. As far as Murphy’s Law goes, I got there quite early, by 7:15 am and decided to walk around the railway station since I still had about an hour and 45 mins to take advantage of! If you’re an early bird, like I am, you could be able to get the Chania buses in town, as they leave at 6:30 and 7 am respectively. For only 100 bob you will be able to save yourself some sanity of crawling through traffic, or trying to get directions to the train station since there are no visible signs along the road, directing one to the Mombasa Terminus.
4: The beauty of booking in advance means you have ample time to walk around and take photos around the train station before waltzing in to the waiting lounge. The train station has some very fascinating lines and symmetry that are pretty intriguing to analyze. I couldn’t take as many photos as I wanted to, since I had to walk around with my luggage while trying to capture a few moments as well! The beautiful landscape surrounding the train station is quite scenic and relaxing, which somehow made time pass by so fast while waiting to board the train.
5: Pack light if you’re traveling alone, to avoid dragging your luggage if you need to use the washrooms, since one is not allowed to leave their luggage unattended at the waiting area, just in case someone decides to pick it up and run away with it. Make sure you have your valuables with you all the time as well.
6: One peculiar habit I have never understood with most Kenyans, is how people like to shove their way through when the gates have been opened to go to the train. As long as you have your ticket, it has a ticket number, which clearly means everyone will have a chance to enter and sit in their assigned seat numbers! I stood there watching people shoving, pushing as they mummered in a sarcastic way;” kwani watu wa First class lazima waingie wa kwanza?” ( How come First Class passengers are the first to board the train?) In my head I muttered to myself;” there is a reason they paid 3000 bob and you paid 700 bob”, but I didn’t dare utter it out loudly, in case they came after me! I just needed to point out how good it was, to see them giving the elderly, infirm, expectant mothers and mothers carrying their babies, first priority to board the train first as well!
7: As soon as you get to the train, the beautiful hostesses will help you locate your seat; it’s best to inquire from them which cabin you need to go to, to avoid confusion and the drama involved when you find yourself seated on someone’s window seat! I remember as soon as I sat on my seat, I witnessed two ladies on the opposite side, up in arms fighting over a window seat, to a point I was waiting on some wig snatching fight activities to start. Thankfully they both came to their senses and decided to switch seats halfway through the journey!
8: Seeing as the ride is short compared to the Lunatic Express, you don’t really need much entertainment on the 4 and a half hour ride to Nairobi; but if you must, it’s best to bring your own choice of poison and carry your own snacks. I had a hard time eating in front of people staring back at me, so I opted to go over at the Bar and Restaurant on board the train just to enjoy my drinks and food in peace. However, the bar on board the train is a little bit too pricey, as well as the moving snack shop, hence why I find it advisable to bring along with you things that will keep you entertained throughout the journey. On the other hand, the bar is the best place to make new friends, as you get to enjoy a few cold drinks on board the train!
8: Carrying books and some headphones come in handy on the train. Economy class is quite intrusive with the seats facing each other and chatty passengers who are quite excited about the whole experience, which makes them want to indulge you in pointless conversations. One kept asking how fast I thought the train was moving; the other passengers on the opposite side had this weird blank stares, that made me feel quite uneasy, I was grateful I carried a good book and headphones to curb the awkwardness away!
9: If there’s one thing I have to give the cleaning staff on board the train, commendation for, it’s their strict policy on cleanliness. I kept watching them pick up litter and ensuring the toilets inside the train remained clean without any pungent smells permeating from them. I hope they will be able to maintain that standard of cleanliness for a long time, although it’s only best for each and every individual on board the train to do their part by not littering, since bins and trays are readily available, one doesn’t need to be reminded to clean up after themselves!
10: Last but definitely not least, enjoy the ride; soak in the vast beautiful plains across Tsavo. Have an open mind about the whole experience. The ride is smooth compared to the Lunatic Express, which gives you time to explore the cabins inside the train. It was very rare for one to absorb the scenery and the beautiful wildlife with the old train, since the journey was mostly by night; but with the Madaraka Express, you get to spot a few wild animals and soak in the beautiful scenery our country has to offer along the way.
Once you finally arrive at the Nairobi Terminus in Syokimau, there are various options to choose from to get into the city with ease. The old commuter train is readily available and seems to be a favorite for many, since it’s the best way to avoid Mombasa Road traffic!
Parked right outside the main gates, there are quite a number of Ubers, various public buses holding placards, headed as far as Meru, Nakuru and other areas, waiting for passengers at an affordable rate as well!
A train ride is always wonderfully soothing train; it makes you meditate, reflect or just stare into the emptiness suspended in both rail and land for a few hours. I particularly enjoyed this ride, and I’ll probably do it again soon. Granted, it’s not as fast as the bullet train that was promised, but it is indeed a much safer, breath of fresh air and an easier way to travel to Mombasa!
I was among the last passengers to get off the train since I was still reeling at the intricate architectural designs and cleanliness at the train station.
I hope they will put in strict laws for anyone found littering at the train station, in order to maintain the cleanliness surrounding the terminus.
I still do miss the craziness that was involved with the Lunatic Express, but one thing I really appreciated about the Madaraka Express, is the efficiency and not getting stuck in Tsavo for hours on end as I did a few times with the old train! So book your ticket and get to ride through the rails while enjoying the vast plains through Tsavo!