If you would like to go to Mombasa in the cheapest and most painful fashion, I strongly recommend the standard gauge railway (SGR).
I had very high expectations boarding the Madaraka Express. I had imagined that the much-hyped SGR would be a world-class locomotive with five-star service and great speed to boot.
The Madaraka Express, to say the least, is a glorified version of the “Lunatic Express”, with fancy termini that I will prove to you shortly why they make little sense.
I will leave the economics of the SGR to economists and instead provide a first-hand, brutally honest review from the perspective of the normal, hardworking Kenyan that I am.
When I finally made it to Syokimau after hours of enduring Nairobi traffic, I traced my seat – number fifty something – on coach nine. I found myself sandwiched between two old, stinky men – one with a humongous bag the size of a 10-year-old child and the other with a few days of sweat accumulated on his clothes.
My second class ticket meant that I was unlucky enough to find a seat in the six-seater open saloon with a half a table that served only the window seats.
That there was not enough legroom for someone my height should tell you how squeezed we were, facing each and staring each other in the eye as if we were in a small cultic fellowship. It was back to the good old “face-me” matatu era.
This would be my life for the next five hours. I fished out my book. Can’t read. Man-with-huge-bag kept on shifting in his seat to avoid spilling all over the aisle, pushing near sweaty-guy.
Let me give you some background before I go on. My friends and I, as we were buying the tickets, found ourselves in different coaches. Intense pleading (and swallowing my massive ego) at the ticketing office was fruitless. It was impossible for me to join their coach.
However, the train stewards assured us that once inside, there would be a possibility of me finding a seat in their coach.
As I was trapped between a rock and a stinky place, I pleaded with God, telling Him that should he remove me from that tight spot, I would write about how God literally answers prayer in minutes.
Believe it or not, my salvation arrived. One of my friends, the bespectacled comedian of the group, called my name and asked me to follow him.
Reuniting with my friends, it seems, would be the happiest moment of my trip. After recounting my ordeal, we asked around if, at all, anyone would be smart enough to sell us food on the train. It appeared we were lucky, but the waitresses took forever to take our orders and even longer to serve us.
These, my friends, must be the most ingenious business people on earth; their food was horrible, overpriced, their service was lazy and poor, and they cannot even make a decent cup of coffee. I am not a coffee person, but I know horrible coffee when I taste it.
The seats were uncomfortable; they cannot recline and lack arm-rests. If you want to take a nap, go argue with the man next to the window seat, he might just allow you to rest your head on the half-of-a-table.
I will give them marks, though, for clean toilets. But that’s just about it. My expectation was that the Madaraka Express would be just that – express. You know, quick, easy and fast, perhaps like the trains in Western countries.
Imagine my disappointment when I learnt we were moving at an average speed of 110km/hr (could be slower). Why can’t the damn thing move a little faster? Isn’t the entire point to get to Mombasa sooner?
I arrived in Mombasa at 7.20pm with a stiff back and fatigued feet. The terminus is expansive, quite modern, but poorly lit at night.
As we left the terminus at around 8.30pm (our cool driver, Ian, was held up somewhere), the lights were still on but it was closed for the night.
My friends wondered why, with such a huge resource, are we not having 24-hour trains? Isn’t this behemoth of a terminus a complete waste if it is not used round-the-clock?
Anyway, the highlight of my trip was, besides a fantastic beach wedding, that a warm friend welcomed us to the Sunset Paradise Holiday homes that I am sure I will return to very soon.