When we first came to Kenya by boat in 1946, I suppose we must have travelled to Nairobi by train. I can’t remember, because I was only five years old.
My first recollection of matters to do with railways was when we lived in a little wooden house on stilts among the thorn scrub on the plains south of Lion Hill, bordering Lake Nakuru. My mother worked for the Shell Company in Nakuru, and my grandparents came over from England to look after my sister and me. Nana took us on daily walks along the track to salvage lumps of coal dropped by the engines. She made it exciting – like looking for mushrooms – and we picked up at least two or three lumps every day. I think she used them to insulate our makeshift cool store in the garden. Each of its legs stood in a small tin filled with kerosene to ward off the ants.
In the 1950’s I was sent off to boarding school in Eldoret by train from the brand new passenger station in Nakuru. Town residents were rightfully proud of this station when it was opened, although I remember them wondering whether it was justified, as far more goods than passengers used the railway.
Children from the secondary schools in Eldoret were closely chaperoned by a teacher in the cramped compartments at the beginning and end of term. We would bring a packed meal and travel through the night, stopping to pick up students along the way. The highest train station in the British Empire we were told was Timboroa, at 9001 feet above sea-level, but for us it was just another tedious stop in the night. I remember trying to make myself wake up to mark its passage, but think I only managed to open one eye, once. We would arrive in Eldoret at the most ungodly hour of the morning. On journeys back home at end of term I remember the train turning in on itself like a coiling snake near Moiben, and we would call to each other not to miss the spectacle.
When we moved to Njoro the railway made its presence felt on a daily basis. The rough dirt track to our home climbed up a steep slope to the crossing. It had to be negotiated with care, as besides the need to look out for downward rushing trains, you could see nothing but sky as you went over, and sometimes there were gaps between track and road, due to erosion. Our car would groan bumpily across the rails and dip over the other side and I often imagined it breaking in two. When I was learning to drive, I stalled the engine as the car straddled the line, but luckily there was no train coming. My father made me practice hill-starts there. He would keep an eye out for a train as it chuffed up the track parallel to the Nakuru-Njoro road, and slow down to let it pass us before we turned up our drive to negotiate the crossing.
The train journeys to Nairobi for my two A-Level years in Nairobi were dramatic as we snaked up the escarpment in a slow chug, catching glimpses of the Rift Valley plains through the dense trees of the Aberdare Forest. I would gaze out of the window in a dreamy daze for that whole section, ignoring the insistent cries from local vendors at stations along the way.
In the 1960’s I would take the children by train to visit their grandmother at the coast. Here, they learned their manners as we assembled in response to chimes announcing the first sitting for dinner. We ate from crockery marked EAR&H, using silver service cutlery and wiped our mouths with starched damask table napkins. I taught them how to take the outermost knives and forks for each course, working inwards, while smiling white-clad waiters danced attendance on us. I’ll never forget the furore those innocent words caused when I used them in a Cookbook, Museum Mixtures, published in aid of the National Museums of Kenya. The words were patronising and demeaning, I was told. But when I asked Richard Leakey’s successor as Director if he thought there was anything amiss with them, he gave me a mystified smile and said he considered them harmless, and accurate!
On our journeys, there was always a scramble for the top bunks and a sulky face as one of the three children was forced to sleep opposite Mum on the bottom. There was a romance about the gentle rocking motion as the wheels clacked along the track and the occasional haunting whistle sounded in the night as we struggled to keep the blankets from slipping off. If you were alert as the train pulled into a station in the night, you would hear the guard shout, and see him exchange the token key – a long stick with a basketlike top, much like a lacrosse racquet.
As dawn broke and palm trees appeared, Giriama women could be glimpsed balancing baskets of mangoes on their heads, their grass skirts covered with dreary cloth. Near Mazeras, remembering my own childhood, I would hustle the children to the windows to gawp at the astonishing sight of the train’s engine passing in a spiral below the guard’s van, like a snake attempting to swallow its tail. The exciting first glimpse of the sea as we clattered over the causeway and the sticky humidity of the coastal belt quickened our anticipation of that first dip and the scrunchy feel of sand between our toes.
On the night journey back towards Nairobi as the sun rose over the plains, our eyes would scan the vistas for sight of Thomsons Gazelle and Grants Gazelle, and I would challenge the children to distinguish between them. We also spotted kongoni and if we were lucky, the occasional giraffe. We never did see anything bigger on these trips, and arrival in the dingy busyness of Nairobi Station, with everyone hurrying away as fast as they could was always a let-down after the romance of the outward journey.
The railway came to our rescue once in the 1970’s when our green VW Kombi-cum-camper-cum horsebox finally died on the road between Hunters Lodge and Mac’s Inn. It was the one time I had stuffed all our clothes into the cupboards instead of taking a suitcase. I hadn’t even bothered to bring a handbag with me. Roy and I hitched a ride to Mtito with the children, carrying our possessions bundled into sheets between us. But the Inn refused to give us a room unless we paid for the whole night, and our cash was limited. Not wanting to forego our holiday, I went to the station to buy tickets to Mombasa, and the man’s eyes popped out of his head when he saw this mzungu woman delving into her cleavage for the money. We “camped” in the hotel lounge, our belongings heaped beside us, until midnight. The train was late.
By the time our youngest son arrived, steam trains were part of Kenya’s history, but we ensured he savoured its delights when the Museum hosted a re-run between Nairobi and Naivasha using a gleaming reconditioned engine in the 1980’s. Roy took Dennis for his very first train journey, and he wore a bemused look on his face when I collected them from Naivasha later in the day.
There are a couple of descriptions of train journeys in my novel, Breath of Africa