Do you go harsh on a baby or you try and let the mistakes be the teacher? I should have asked my mother this, but that lady will give me an answer that will leave me with more questions than answers. I just don’t understand her on most times. I could also have gone to twitter and asked the many wonderful mothers I follow, but you just never which side they wake up on. I know better! And so here I am, with no answer to that question but an experience I can share.
Standard Gauge Railway is the latest of Kenya’s projects. The baby that was talked much for what felt like forever. You see, for the longest time, the Kenya Railways was associated with old, rickety and slow moving trains. It was a relic to say the least. Last time I took a long distance train ride was mid 1990s, from Kisumu to Yala. And it was a ride I still remember vivid today. The hard chairs, the swaying from side to side, the horns… that was the old. ‘Madaraka Express’ is the new. Shiny, faster and with leather seats(still in doubt), it is the complete opposite of the old.
So when the good guys at Tusker Lager asked me to be part of a rugby caravan to Mombasa for Driftwood7s, you bet I had my bags packed(See more here #RugbyNaTusker). There was no way I was going to pay for(with my taxes) something I hadn’t road, sorry, rail-tested.
It is a hustle! First, there is no portal where you can purchase tickets from at the comfort of your seat. You also can only do advance booking 7 days prior to your day of travel. I know, but you got to bare with them for trying. So to get the tickets one must to the Nairobi terminus, in Syokimau, or the Mombasa Terminus, in Miritini. These are pretty far from the city centres, so plan yourself accordingly. There’s also the tendency of people going to the Syokimau Railway Station thinking it is the SGR terminus, it’s not. The SGR terminus is a KM or so past the Syokimau station towards Nairobi.
Payments for the tickets are done via cash, M-PESA or debit/credit card. The ticketing offices are open between 7:00 am and 4:00 pm daily. I was also informed you can get a refund on any tickets before the train departs, with a 20% cancellation fee charged. They were categorical that no refunds can be done after the train departs.
The tickets go for Ksh. 700 for an economy seat and Ksh. 3,000 for a First class seat. I was in the Economy 🤣🤣🤣. There are also special rates for children;
- Under 3 years – Free
- 3 – 11 years – Half price
- 11 and above – Full price
GETTING TO THE STATION
Getting to Syokimau won’t be a big hustle. You can uber, take a courtesy train from Nairobi Railway Station or take a matatu that’s going past Syokimau. The courtesy train is your best bet since it stops right at the SGR terminus. It’s Ksh. 50 and departs Nairobi at 7AM. For Matatus, take ones heading to Athi River at Railway Bus stop.
You can also drive yourself there, but remember you cannot let your car parked there overnight, so the above are the best. I personally took a matatu, just Ksh. 50. Hadn’t known about the courtesy train yet 😩.
I wish I’d tell you about how to get to the Miritini Terminus, but my lazy self was asleep on our way there. There was a road under construction that was said to be headed straight to Mombasa town, so I hope that will be of help when complete.
There’s a million and one(you know what I mean 🙄😏) security checks before you get to the train, so get there early. There are sniffer dogs that do their thing through the bags, then your ticket is scanned before being ushered to the waiting lounge. There are massive lines to get through for this, do not try to be an African timer. Don’t …
At around 8.45AM you will be allowed into the train, but not before you use your ticket to open the barriers into the boarding deck. So keep your ticket with you all the times. You will need it more times than you know actually. Drugs, weapons and alcohol are banned in the train, so save yourself the waste of space. To note is also the guards stop checking the tickets 10 minutes to boarding, so if you are late you may see the train still around but may not be allowed to board.
The train leaves at exactly 9AM. On the dot! I wouldn’t say it is an out of this world experience, but it’s totally different from the old train. From Nairobi to Mombasa takes just about four and a half hours. It is smooth, very smooth. The trains are really spacious and clean. Even the washrooms, which in public places are never clean, are well maintained and clean.
A few things to note when aboard, the tickets are crosschecked by the attendants just after the train has departed to ensure everyone boarded their right coach. You also need to carry your own snacks and drinks, if you are a budget-freak like I am. The prices of their snacks is a bit on the high, and they are served not less than half into the trip. Luggage on board is limited at 30kg maximum for every passenger. There are also measurements given(Max 1.6m length, width, height) to allow the luggages to fit into the overhead racks.
On your way you go through the the Nairobi National Park, the plains on Ukambani land and the Tsavo East National Park. One of my favorite sites was of a herd of elephants in Tsavo drinking from a waterpoint, undisturbed. Just lovely!
On arrival at Miritini Terminus, you have the options of taking matatus to Mombasa town waiting outside the station or a cab. The matatu fare is Ksh. 100. You can also have the hotel or resort you will reside in send a chauffeur for you. In Nairobi, there’s the extra option of the courtesy train to town.
I am not going to be pulled into the costs of the SGR or if it is viable or not. On the economic front, I have no clue what it does or does not do for our country. As a traveler though, it is a huge saver for my trips to the Coast. It takes half the time the buses take, and is much much cheaper than what is paid for a flight. It also is relatively smooth all the way and with awesome views to enjoy. If traveling in a group, i think it is also a perfect way to bond in the way the seats are arranged.
However, the ticketing bit is a headache. I pray Kenya Railways gets an online booking portal up, and fast. They should also allow for open advance booking. The movement between coaches was not allowed too much, I think this can be allowed to a degree. And lastly, can someone put a shade where the security checks are done! That sun in Miritini wasn’t a joke!
All in all, i enjoyed my first ride in the Madaraka Express and hope I can do it again soon. It was a lovely experience. And of course I took the courtesy train from Syokimau to town when we got back. That thing literally jolts you back into the Nairobi reality. Heh!