The International Steam Pages

Steam on the EAR, 2011 

James Waite reports on his revisit to Kenya in May 2011. . See also Thomas Kautzor's report and Geoff Warren's insider comments on the same trip.

The old metre-gauge East African Railways were one of the continent’s finest railway systems, excellently engineered, impeccably maintained and operated by a fleet of modern steam locos which looked magnificent in their Midland red paint scheme, fully lined out in yellow and black and with lots of polished brasswork.

The heart of the system was always the long main line inland from Mombasa through Nairobi towards Lake Victoria, originally built to secure the British colonial hold on Uganda. On its way it needed to cross the Great Rift Valley, the huge natural fault in the Earth’s surface which stretches between the Dead Sea in the Middle East right down towards Lake Tanganyika in southern Africa. It’s hard to describe the stupendous scenery to be enjoyed from the train window as the train wends its way down the escarpment into the valley. This is a big vista in every way which stretches for miles and miles with views over extinct volcanoes, lakes, savannah and the valley towns. A train trip here must be one of the world’s greatest scenic rides.

I visited East Africa twice in the 1970’s but hadn’t returned since regular steam working here came to an end in the early 1980’s. In recent years three steam locos have been restored to working order in Kenya. They are 4-8-0 no. 2409 (VF 3581/1922), 2-8-4 no. 3020 “Nyaturu” (NBL 27466/1955) and the magnificent 4-8-2+2-8-4 Garratt no. 5918 “Mount Gelai” (BP7649/1955), a member of the class that became the world’s largest steam locos in regular service once the big locos in the USA stopped working. There haven’t been any enthusiast tours for some years since the regular train operation was privatised until a 3-day trip was run by Geoff Cooke in May 2011.

For me this was actually a 4-day trip as I was invited along with a few others to ride on the empty stock train hauled by no. 3020 which worked out to Naivasha the afternoon before the tour began ready for the group’s first run from there to Nairobi. These locos intended for use on the waterless section of the Tanzanian main line between Morogoro and Tabora for which purpose the locos were equipped with enormous 12-wheeled tenders. There’s no shortage of rainfall around Nairobi but the size of no 3020’s tender comes in very useful now that the railway’s watering facilities have been dismantled. The loco was effectively stranded in Kenya after visiting Nairobi works for repair in the mid-1970’s on account of a breakdown in relations between Kenya and Tanzania then and was unable to return to its home depot at Tabora. It had already been put into service at Nairobi shed when I first visited in 1976. Curiously it had been fitted during this repair with a non-standard smokebox door which it still carries now. Previously it carried the usual Swindon-style door favoured by the EAR during the 1950’s.

The line climbs steeply from Nairobi to a summit at Uplands close to the edge of the Kikuyu escarpment. In the city’s outskirts it passes through the enormous Kibera township, home to a population estimated to number around one million people who live in depressing poverty. Kibera achieved notoriety in the UK recently thanks to a BBC TV programme in which several celebrities stayed with families there, one of them being Lenny Henry who was moved to break the programme’s rules and to finance a better life for his hosts. The shacks border onto the railway line, barely leaving room for the trains to pass. Once clear of the city the line winds its way through farms and smallholdings which give way to tea estates nearer the summit.

The weather in Nairobi had been overcast and rainy but the clouds parted as the valley came into sight for the first time. Soon dusk was approaching and the view was magical as the colours in the valley changed first from green to red and gold, later to purple and finally to blue and black as the moon came up and glinted off the surface of Lake Naivasha close to the journey’s end.

It was a privilege to be allowed to make this wonderful trip and the following day was equally memorable. The pictures above are at Naivasha and those below on the section to Longonot:

One of the passengers was Tony Hollins whom I had last met at the Burma Mines Railway and I have fond memories of him gathering a group of children at Tiger Camp and teaching them how to sing “On the Road to Mandalay”. He tried the same trick with a group of girls from an adjoining school who came to admire the train during a service stop at Longonot station. However he met his match here as it turned out that they were the school choir and they treated us to an impromptu concert of African Gospel music in full harmony. The following pictures were taken on the climb out of the rift valley:

By the time we’d returned to Nairobi darkness had fallen once more.

The schedule unravelled a little during the following days. No. 2409, which hadn’t seen passenger use before, performed faultlessly on a brief trip to Makadara.

However, there were technical issues with no. 5918 which led to some delays. I happened to be at the running shed on one of the days as it was getting going for the day and was offered a ride back to the station – sheer joy! Sadly the loco failed, probably with a burst superheater tube, late on the final day as it was setting off on a trip down the main line. Fortunately it came to a halt at a curve near the main Mombasa road which produced a perfect glint shot in the evening sun, perhaps the best photo opportunity of the entire trip! 

Before we left a plaque was presented to Deepi Marway, the daughter of Kirpal Singh, who had travelled out from the UK for the occasion. Many of us who visited the EAR in the 1970’s will remember Kirpal as the driver of no. 5918 who kept his loco in immaculate condition and who was always very kind and welcoming to visiting enthusiasts. Sadly he died in 2010.

I should have returned home early the following morning but arrived at the airport to find that my flight had been cancelled and I had rather more than 12 hours to fill. I hired a car and headed first for the David Sheldrick Animal Sanctuary at the western edge of Nairobi National Park. This is currently home to 11 young elephants which have been orphaned, mostly as a result of poaching. Their keepers live with them 24 hours a day and the aim is to rehabilitate them into the wild. In many cases this is done at Tsavo East park with the help of a matriarch who now resides there and was herself a Sheldrick orphan in her youth.

The place is also home to Maxwell, a 5-year-old rhino who has been blind since birth. Blind rhinos can’t survive in the wild and so Maxwell will have to spend the whole of his life here. His mum clearly knew how to do her best for him as she left him at the orphanage gate when he was a baby. He likes nothing better than a tickle on his tum and rolls over in ecstasy when any visitor is willing to oblige. He’s recently taken a shine to a lady rhino who’s staying in the next enclosure and snuggles up next to the fence at night in order to be as close as possible to her. Quite a character!

Nearby is a home for giraffes run by the African Fund for Endangered Species as a breeding and educational centre. There’s a viewing platform at what is head height for the giraffes – an unusual viewpoint from which to admire these graceful animals. Stopped for supper at the Carnivore Restaurant off the Langata Road. This huge place, built around a large open hearth where the meat is cooked used to offer all kinds of game meat on its menu. Now most of this is banned but the large portions on the set menu still feature camel and crocodile meat along with more conventional fare. It’s unashamedly touristy but it’s hard not to get swept along by the bustle and character of this unusual establishment on the edge of the national park.

I reckoned that the trip was hugely successful. The runs with no. 3020 in the Rift Valley were excellent by any standards and having all three locos in steam on successive days was a credit to all concerned. I hope it won’t be long before the locos steam again.

Rob Dickinson