Friday, December 30, 2011

Reverse Gear on Lunatic Line

Iron Snake tearing through the Tsavo savannas

Cutting through a sward of savannas with their grazing giraffes and gazelles and lion prides and leopards, the journey on the erstwhile Uganda Railway was a customary tourist trail for Kenyans post-independence. Our Kenyan friends regaled us with stories of their weekly picnics to the Indian Ocean coastal town of Mombasa from Nairobi, and back, by train: “When school closed for weekend, we would set out for the Coast, packing  children’s uniform so that they could head back to school on Monday, straight from the railway station. The rail journey itself was part of the fun... a wild life safari in style. Meals were served with fanfare in fancy crockery and with silver cutlery... we dined while gazing at the game outside the window.”  Railway journeys are replete with romance and if they be a track from history then even more so.

Off-late, general decadence and negligence had set in and tarnished the UR – a British exercise in colonial aggrandizement - and our friends dissuaded us from embarking on this Kenyan adventure. The next best thing to do then was to traverse the important ports of call, which we did, not by any method but spontaneously, over three years. And though it wasn’t particularly intended as such, we ended up traversing backwards, from Kisumu to Mombasa; from Lake Victoria to the East African Coast – in reverse gear that the Line itself was built. Simultaneously, we traced the Railway back in time through archives, relics and history books.

Unlike in India and other British colonies, in East Africa sovereignty came before territory. Land was snatched from gullible African headmen through inducements but territory and terrain still needed to be explored and antagonists subdued. The Source (Lake Victoria, Jinja, Uganda) having been ‘discovered’ by the explorers, the Great Lake (Lake Victoria) now seized the British imagination leading to the grand idea of a railway cutting across the hinterland connecting it to the East African coast. The reasons were strategic, the vision romantic and the implementation full of adventure and toil. The “Lunatic Line”, as the detractors nicknamed it, actually presaged the birth of a Nation – Kenya. As the then British Commissioner Charles Eliot remarked:  “It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but this railway actually created a country”.

Kisumu Railway Station
On our sojourn in Western Kenya, we found ourselves at the Lake Terminus, the Railway’s tail end. The erstwhile, Port Florence on Lake Victoria was a hub and web of activity. Steamers carrying cargo of cooking oil and soaps were heading to Mwanza in Tanzania. The UR did not reach the shores of the Source (at least, in its first incarnation) as envisaged but ended on the eastern shores of the Lake, in present-day Kisumu, in Kenya. Kisumu is the third largest town in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa. The station itself was somnolent.  An incongruous picture of cows on tracks – grazing grass growing between the sleepers – and even a car parked on the railway station greeted us. Relics such as the old railway clock, lantern, weighing scale and a plaque commemorating the inauguration transported us down memory train.

In fact, it is in Nairobi’s Railway Museum (NRM) with its assorted odds and ends that we get a real sense of the railway-building history. The wagons, coaches, engines, signals, clocks, communication equipment, inspection trolleys, even silver cutlery and ceramic crockery carry tales of events and episodes in one of the most ambitious projects that the British undertook in any of its colonies.  Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, too owes its existence to the Railway. When the railway plate-laying reached present-day Nairobi, it was a swampy, marshy wasteland. The Maasai’s, which was one of the chief tribes in this area (Southern Kenya), called this stretch ewaso nai 'beri (stream of cool water) which the British in their characteristic twang and whim twisted to Nairobi. When the railway moved here with its stores and yards, the enterprising Indian dukawallas (traders) set shops to cater to the everyday needs of the predominantly Indian labour force. Eventually, the British Administration too shifted its headquarters from Mombasa to Nairobi and the beginnings of a township emerged. This was a century ago when Nairobi town radiated outward the railway station. Ironically, today, the town has burgeoned to an extent that the railway lines lie buried into the city’s backyard, partially forgotten. Today, the only vestige of the fertile past is the Nairobi National Park on the periphery of the city that still boasts of lions and rhinos.

Tsavo Railway Station - deserted and dilapidated

Of all the stations we visited, the vote for the most adventurous (for the workers though it spelled misadventure) will undoubtedly go to Tsavo - of the man-eating lion notoriety.  This is perhaps the most deserted and isolated of the ones we have visited thus far.
The Bridge over River Tsavo
The building of the Bridge over River Tsavo was one of the most intriguing features of the UR. Tsavo Park was the biggest game preserve in Kenya, teeming with game, which the “Iron Snake” (clairvoyant of its destructive propensity, local people termed the line thus) sought to rip apart into two. This gross intrusion into exclusive lion territory could not have been without its consequences. For ten months, as the railway party – the indentured and indigenous labour – camped here, two felines held it hostage in a “state of siege”. The drama of the sordid affair elicited a book by Col. Patterson, who finally concluded the saga by killing the lions. The book “Man-eaters of Tsavo” was later turned into a movie, “The Ghost and the Darkness”.  

To visit Tsavo station we have to alight into the heart of the Tsavo National Park. We were provided a gun-toting askari (sentry); after all, this is lion territory. We walked the tracks and crossed the bridge over River Tsavo to get to the railway station, a modest kiosk-size shelter, all the time looking over our shoulders. The station-master was taken aback by visitors (he didn't get any) and was eager to show us around. I was only concerned about one thing: “Do lions still stray this way and aren’t you scared?” “I do hear lions roar at night but they do not come near the station,” he had replied unfazed. Brave man this, I remember thinking, who cannot be shaken by a lion’s (which in all probability carries the man-eating genes!) war cry in the dead of night. He was surrounded by old memorabilia which formed panoply of his current dispensation. The antique-collector husband ventured to ask if he had any that might be junked. With alacrity the station-master disappeared into the siding yard and returned with a trophy - an old signal-lantern with its red-gelatin niche - and handed it over to us!

Few kilometers away from here another well-documented incident took place where Charles Ryall (then Superintendent of Railway Police) fell prey to the perpetrators he had sought to prey upon. At the NRM, we had stepped into Ryall’s shoes when we entered the carriage in which Inspector Ryall lay in wait at night ready to shoot the marauder. On that fateful night, nearly a century ago, the elusive man-eater had managed to hoodwink Ryall and dragged him out of the carriage precisely when his guard was down and he had dozed off momentarily. The lion’s territory and reach also extended to Voi near Tsavo. We took Voi in stride when we had gone on a Battlefield Tour from Sarova Salt Lick. This back of the beyond railway station is a junction where another line was built around the time of the Great War. Voi was one of the important theatres of World War I, and even today, war debris - from bullets, rivets and even glass shards of lemonade bottles - from that era lie embedded here. Voi town also boasts of a cemetery exclusively to commemorate Indian soldiers who fought in WWI.

Mombasa Station: the beginning of Uganda Railway

Considering we had done the UR journey reverse in time and space, it was only fitting that we ended the exploration at the beginning. We finally visited Mombasa railway station only in Nov 2011, though we had visited this coastal city several times before. The platform here seemed endless. A passenger train was standing on the platform and the station master showed us around the train. Though this was a relatively new train of the Kenyan Railway, it was a shadow of the past with its demarcation of third class passenger compartments and first class dining cars with plush toilets! Mombasa is a bustling town where the old and the new co-exist like a bridge between past and present. It was here, at Mombasa Port, to be precise, that the rolling stock of material for the Railway was offloaded towards the end of 19th century. This was the doorway to East Africa. 

The UR was the umbilical cord connecting India and Kenya. While the Grand design to build the UR was British, Indians fitted the nuts and bolts on the Kenyan soil thus paving the way for a second wave of Indian diaspora. It is a little sad that a railway so rich in history lies in near shambles, both physically and in people’s imagination. Our railway journey was truly complete when a close friend and collector of railway memorabilia presented us with an original number plate of an engine of the erstwhile Uganda Railway. That and the Tsavo souvenir grace the Africa antiques corner of our home and will keep this slice of history alive in our imagination. 

Encashing on the Tsavo legend
Nameless Tsavo Station 

Car Park at Railway Station - Kisumu

Erstwhile Uganda Railway is now Kenya Railways - Mombasa Station 

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