There’s something about trains

There’s something about trains. Beyond the rhythm of rails and spars that inspired and echo in jazz, more than the misty platforms of noir farewells, and more immediate than their vital role in history. Trains have a particular feeling to me, as I was reminded on Kenya’s new SGR “Madaraka Express” that connects Nairobi with Mombasa.

Kenyan countryside from the SGR train

My apologies for the terrible through-the-window photos, complete with water bottles and headrests.


The reason for the new Chinese-owned railway that connects the largest port in East Africa with the regional economic hub of the capital and the resource-rich interior is rather obvious, but the sinister aspects of economic imperialism just aren’t as much fun as riding a train through a Kenyan National Park. From window to horizon stretched the plains of Africa that a couple hours away they call the Serengeti.


That name has been glowing and alluring in my mind since childhood, along with Kalahari, Sahara, and whatever David Attenborough was describing, so I was eager to feel its dust coating my feet and seeping into my spirit. Two nights in a small wildlife sanctuary, hoping to augment the imagery of television with the reality of personal memory, but with that train I didn’t have to wait.

Terrible photo of an elephant from Kenya's SGR train

Wildebeest had been first, scattered outside my window as we rolled out of Nairobi, then a cluster of zebra with their attendant warthogs. I was surprised how colorful ostriches are, and the array of antelope/gazelle/impala/etc made me wish I’d done more research. But it was when I found the calm majesty of elephants in the distance, distinctive dark shapes against the red soil and dappled green landscape, that I really appreciated the chance to ride through and above such a landscape in a train.


(None of which justifies the inevitable damage of running a train through a National Park. Also, the elevated sections built to allow migration were put in the wrong places, leaving animals blocked and confused, exacerbating the disruption. They’re trying to train them to the new routes but collisions are inevitable.)

Kenya's SGR train elevated sections

I stared out the window for most of the six hours to Mombasa on my first trip, and was an hour into doing the same on my way back when my perspective changed. Instead of looking out at animals, I looked inward at the muscle aches filling my body, the headache growing in my skull, the nausea roiling in my stomach, and that I felt cold for the first time this continent. And my skin didn’t smell right. That was weird.


Not researching antelopes suddenly didn’t seem as bad as not knowing the incubation period of malaria. Maybe we passed lions and leopards on that last hour, I wouldn’t know, I was breathing deeply and monitoring which bathrooms were open.


There is something about trains and me. I have thrown up on trains in Bosnia, Zambia, Belgium, Tanzania, and France, and not one of them from motion sickness. Each is a vibrant memory, distinct in its dreadful particulars. What would this round be like?