Just after sunrise on a cold morning, local and foreign tourists clamber eagerly aboard for a ride on what might be the most famous train in Kenya.
With thick smoke pouring out of its chimney, the steam-powered train hisses and whistles as it chugs along on the tracks, to the delight of the passengers.
The vintage 1924 steam engine named Nyaturu is the oldest working steam engine in Kenya. “They grew tired of recording how many times it used to break down and eventually just left it to rot at the railway yard,” says Francis Waweru, the proprietor of Mawenzi Gardens who organises the train trips into the park in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) says.
The trip begins in Nairobi’s Mawenzi gardens where the trains leaves every first Sunday of the month. The adventurous journey costs Sh250, 000 for 48 persons if you hire the whole train and Sh4,500 and Sh3000 for children and adults respectively paying single. Non-Kenyans are charged Sh10,800 and Sh5,850 for children.
The train ride, which relives history, culture and heritage, carries as many cabins as the passengers. A former American president, Theodore Roosevelt used the steam engine when game hunting in Kenya years ago. Records show about 62 such engines found their way into Kenya from England during the colonial period.
Guests on board are treated to drinks, snacks and entertainment. You can sip your beer as you ride through several parts of Nairobi as you head to the park.
“The ride may be a little bumpy,” says John Kamau, “ but it’s lots of fun, especially for the kids some of who have never been on a train,” he adds
This is clearly a journey that appeals to the adventurous. Passengers drive to the Mawenzi gardens, park their cars and enter the steam engine travelling through the Railway golf club, Nairobi railway station, various Nairobi estates arriving at Marimbet Station at the entrance of the Nairobi National Park’s Cheetah gate.
Most people go to the park using personal cars but the train ride offers a whole new experience. As you pass through the neighbourhoods along the way, young children stop playing. They shout, smile and wave as the train passes through.
It stops a few times along the way for bathroom breaks, and to great the numbers who excitedly line along the railway.
“Stop. Stop. Stop. Its burning,” a group of Maasai herders were recently seen shouting excitedly at those on board mistaking the smoke for a fire. To anyone used to modern trains, the lunatic express seems to be on fire, which, in fact it is.
When the train first came to Kenya, it operated on firewood and has done so since then. Dozens of men would ride along just to add firewood to the fire.
Only a few of such engines still operate in the world.
Even without using firewood, the concept of running this engine remains the same. Oil burns, heating water that produces steam, which runs the engine.
“Its engines have never been changed,” an engineer from South Africa who rides with the train on every trip explains. Over Sh1 million has been spent in renovating it.
At the Marimbet Station, the passengers disembark and board the waiting KWS buses for a ride in the park.
Added to this, is a fascinating buffet bush lunch served at Mokoyet picnic site with chattering monkeys for company and a live band offering an extra dimension to the trip as the passengers dance away.
The lunatic express has enjoyed a rebirth, and, in the process, captured the hearts of many tourists, both local and foreign.
“I used to hear about the steam engine train while growing up and when I heard it was making trips to the park, I decided I would ride on it, says businessman John Mark.
A little sunburned and a little stiff, everyone gets back into the KWS buses which takes them back to Mawenzi by 6.30 p.m.
The adventurous tourists return with an unforgettable story to share with the folks back home.