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Africa's "Lunatic Express" harks back to colonial era

Written by: Staff

MOMBASA, Kenya, May 3 (Reuters) The man-eating lions of Tsavo may be no more.

The silverware in the restaurant carriage has definitely seen better days.

And where once besuited British colonial administrators occupied the elegant, leather-furnished cabins, now backpackers in cut-offs lounge in style.

Yet more than a century after its inception, one of Africa's most famous train rides -- the ''Lunatic Express'' - still retains many of the characteristics of its early days.

Waiters in starched white jackets serve four-course evening meals on pristine tablecloths to first-class passengers as the train chugs painfully slowly through the darkness between the Kenyan coast and highlands.

A quaint four-chime gong is rung outside sleeping compartments when it's time for breakfast, leaving passengers to marvel at giraffes and impalas as they tuck into bacon and eggs and watch the sun rise over the plains.

''It's a wonderful journey, I still enjoy it,'' said Kennedy Aswani, a train steward who, like his father and grandfather before him, has been going up and down the line for 25 years.

When the British East Africa Company announced at the end of the 19th century its plan to lay tracks from the coastal town of Mombasa, across a vast wilderness into the highlands and over the Great Rift Valley into Uganda, how sceptics laughed.

''It is naught but a Lunatic Line,'' went one satire. ''Going from nowhere to utterly nowhere,'' scoffed a politician.

But in a remarkable feat of engineering - and at huge cost both in money and lives -- the 1,200-mile (1,930-km) line was successfully laid between 1896 and 1901. It helped open up the continent.

LIONS AND LOCUSTS The story of the line's construction is the stuff of legend.

There is the true tale of the man-eating lions of the Tsavo plains that preyed on workers. A British policeman, Charles Henry Ryall, fell asleep in a carriage while waiting to shoot one of the lions and it attacked him, dragging him to his death through the window.

The carriage remains on display in Kenya's capital Nairobi.

Several thousand Indian and African workers, and a handful of British workers, died in the endeavour, most from disease.


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