Thursday, 22 February 2024

Journey into the Wild: Exploring the 'Safari Train' with Captivating Elephant Views

Journey into the Wild: Exploring the 'Safari Train' with Captivating Elephant Views
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 09:00

"From Lunacy to Luxury: Riding the Transformed 'Madaraka Express' Through Kenya's Wilderness"

They once dubbed it the Lunatic Express, a railway snaking through Kenya from Mombasa to Kisumu, venturing through what is now Tsavo National Park. Originally constructed by British colonists to facilitate quick access to the Nile, the railway's completion in 1901 came at a staggering human cost—2,493 lives lost, succumbing to diseases, floods, and the notorious Tsavo Bridge lions who claimed 135 lives.

For decades, this rail journey was an arduous feat, earning a reputation for prolonged travel times and encounters with dead elephants causing delays. However, a significant transformation has reshaped the once-Lunatic Express into the sleek and efficient Madaraka Express, marking a new era for this iconic railway. Despite its controversial funding through Chinese loans, incurring national debt, the Madaraka Express has become a local favorite, revolutionizing travel between Nairobi and Mombasa. The journey, once lasting up to 24 hours, has been streamlined to just four and a half, offering passengers not only efficiency but also the chance to spot big game from the comfort of their seats.

The upgrade, featuring new trains, stations, and elevated rails, has propelled the Madaraka Express into the limelight, drawing attention to the vast Tsavo National Park, renowned for its majestic elephants. While the Masai Mara may attract more visitors, the allure of this new train journey is turning heads and sparking curiosity.

Embarking on this adventure, my own exploration began in Nairobi National Park, a unique reserve encircling the city. Staying at The Emakoko, I experienced the richness of Nairobi's wildlife on a private game drive, encountering zebras, impalas, and serene lionesses within minutes. As I ventured towards the new Nairobi Terminus, a futuristic steel-and-glass structure, the anticipation of my Madaraka Express journey heightened.

Security measures were thorough, with luggage scans, swipes, and even a canine inspection, ensuring a safe and smooth journey. Guided to the first-class carriage by an attendant dressed in violet, I marveled at the unexpected tranquility of the train—where the hum of air conditioning and soft Swahili conversations prevailed. A meticulous crew maintained the cleanliness of the train, creating an atmosphere that echoed the transformation from the historic Lunatic Express to the now-sophisticated Madaraka Express.

This journey not only promises efficiency but also represents a harmonious blend of history, modernity, and the allure of Kenya's wild landscapes. From the echoes of the Lunatic Express to the whispers of the Madaraka Express, this railway saga is a testament to the resilience and evolution of travel in the heart of East Africa.

"From Velvet Seats to Wild Encounters: A Journey on the Transformed Madaraka Express"

Nestled in my roomy maroon seat, adorned with a faux-velvet sheen, the initial unease stemming from the sight of a paper sick bag in the seat pocket quickly dissipated as the Madaraka Express glided away seamlessly. Rolling out of Nairobi, the cityscape transitioned into the captivating Nairobi National Park, where a line of sassy ostriches paraded along the horizon.

As we ventured back into human territory, my attempts to distinguish between cows, goats, and wildlife brought moments of amusement. The announcement of the trolley, adorned with a menu featuring bhajis and pakoras, added a touch of culinary charm to the journey. Reflecting on the historical context, I pondered the significant role played by around 32,000 indentured Indian laborers in constructing the Lunatic Express during the late 19th century. In a heartening turn of events, their descendants were officially recognized as Kenya's 44th tribe in 2017.

Entering Tsavo, the landscape transformed, with farmland giving way to a captivating wall of bleached acacias against rust-colored earth. Rihaz's predictions about Tsavo's elusive animals seemed accurate until the landscape revealed a field dotted with fuzzy brown shapes as the light began to fade. Elephants, majestic and unbothered by the train's presence, graced the journey all the way to Voi.

Alighting at Voi's luminous, V-shaped station marked the beginning of an enchanting chapter, as two Maasai guides, Chris Ngotiek and Fred Lenjir from Kipalo Hills, awaited my arrival. Kipalo Hills, an exquisite lodge outside Tsavo in the Mbulia Conservancy, embraces simplicity over opulence, providing a five-star experience rather than luxurious accommodation. Founder Richard Corcoran's commitment to education over extravagant art was evident as we sipped G&Ts and watched the sun's rays ignite distant mountain peaks.

Guided by Chris and Fred, the following days unfolded into a jeep safari through Tsavo, dissected by the train route into East and West. "Tsavo East is about big, open spaces and big animals," Chris explained, as if on cue, while Tsavo West boasted birds and breathtaking scenery. Our encounters included a gerenuk, a spindly-legged antelope with a graceful neck, a unique sight rarely found in the more frequented Masai Mara.

In this seamless blend of historic railway charm and untamed wilderness, the Madaraka Express journey evolved into a gateway to Kenya's natural wonders, offering an immersive experience that transcends the confines of ordinary travel.

"Journey Through the Wild Heart of Kenya: From Buffalo Herds to Seaside Sunsets"

As we ventured deeper into Tsavo East, the brittle bush revealed a verdant bowl encircled by mountains, teeming with wildlife. A mesmerizing spectacle unfolded, with a shimmering herd of around 300 buffalo and a regal male lion surveying the plain, its gaze fixed on a herd of hartebeest. Passing the infamous Tsavo Bridge in Tsavo West, known for its man-eating lions of the past, the juxtaposition of the rusting bridge beneath the gleaming columns supporting the new track was a testament to the park's rich history and vibrant present.

True to the promises of our guide Chris, Tsavo West proved to be a haven for bird enthusiasts, with vultures soaring over black lava ridges and yellow-necked guinea fowl scattering in our wake. The superb starling and golden-breasted starling, adorned in prismatic plumage, stole the show. As the journey unfolded, a leopard draped over a tree marked the sighting of the elusive Big Five, concluding our safari adventure in the heart of Kenya.

Back on the train at Voi, the journey towards Mombasa took on a lively atmosphere. The echoes of Kenyan singer Mzima Mzima filled the air, and a group of spirited young lads engaged in a poker game intermittently erupted into laughter. Amidst the joviality, I struck up a conversation with my seatmate, a 14-year-old schoolgirl named Uti. She shared her perspective on the train, praising its speed and affordability while expressing relief at the absence of crashes.

Curious about whether the sight of elephants rolling past the window ever grew mundane, Uti responded in a dreamy voice, "No, they're so fun to watch." Her enchantment encapsulated the unique charm of this cross-Kenya journey, offering not just a means of travel but an immersive cultural experience. Reflecting on the option of a conventional car journey, I realized that such a choice would have insulated me from the vibrant tapestry of Kenyan life and the thrill of spotting elephants from public transport.

In parting, the recommendation echoed: "Take the train – you'd be a lunatic not to." This unforgettable voyage, linking lodges, safaris, and beaches, transcended the ordinary, encapsulating the wild spirit and cultural richness of Kenya.

In conclusion, the cross-Kenya journey aboard the Madaraka Express unfolds as an unforgettable odyssey through the heart of Kenya's natural wonders and cultural tapestry. From the herds of buffalo and regal lions of Tsavo East to the historic Tsavo Bridge and the vibrant birdlife of Tsavo West, each moment aboard the train is a testament to the country's rich history and thriving wildlife.

As the train approaches Mombasa, the atmosphere transforms into a lively blend of Kenyan music, laughter, and the shared joy of a poker game among spirited young travelers. Conversations with fellow passengers, like 14-year-old Uti, reveal the train's role as not just a mode of transportation but a symbol of speed, affordability, and safety—a sentiment echoed by many.

The journey serves as a unique immersion into the Kenyan way of life, allowing travelers to witness elephants from the train's windows and experience the vibrant culture firsthand. Reflecting on the option of a conventional car journey, the choice becomes clear: the train offers a connection to the land, the people, and the wildlife that would be missed in the confines of a private vehicle.

The resounding recommendation to "Take the train – you'd be a lunatic not to" encapsulates the spirit of this adventure—an exploration that goes beyond the ordinary, weaving together lodges, safaris, and beachfront sunsets. From buffalo herds to seaside scenes, the Madaraka Express invites travelers to embrace the wild heart of Kenya, creating memories that transcend the tracks and linger as a testament to the beauty and diversity that define this East African gem.

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