by Gavin Bell, The Telegraph, October 1, 2019
Building railways in Africa can present tough problems. In the case of the Uganda Railway in the late 1800s, designed to carry produce from Uganda and Kenya to the port of Mombasa, it was serial killing of the Indian workers.
Construction was halted after men mysteriously vanished night after night in Kenya’s semi-arid Tsavo wilderness, and reappeared in the bush as mangled corpses.
Ex-British Army railway engineer Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson estimated that more than 100 Indians and Kenyan villagers died in nine months before he hunted down the killers and shot them. The infamous pair of man-eating lions of Tsavo, dubbed “The Ghost” and “The Darkness”, ended up as Patterson’s floor rugs before being sold to a museum of natural history in Chicago, where they remain.
I first heard the tale shortly before heading for Tsavo on a smart new Chinese-built railway between Nairobi and Mombasa that allows visitors to stalk lions, instead of the other way around, from bush camps on the way.
The Nairobi terminus of the Madaraka Express appears to be a futuristic glass and steel spaceship from planet China that has landed in an industrial area near the airport. Judging by early morning crowds waiting patiently at security checks, this is a popular service. It is also one of the world’s most seriously guarded railways, with multiple baggage and body scans, sniffer dogs, and armed soldiers patrolling stations.
Overnight passenger trains on the old Uganda Railway took 17 hours to trundle between the capital and the coast, but could turn up eight hours late because of elephants on the line. The Madaraka has two daily services each way, a morning stopping train that takes six hours, and an afternoon express that cuts the time to under five hours. Elephants on the line are not a problem as it is bounded for most of its 300 miles (480km) by high wire fences that Donald Trump would love. There are 11 coaches on my train, most of them fairly full with passengers paying about £7.50 for a one-way economy ticket to Mombasa. More spacious first-class coaches for about £23 have large picture windows and complimentary tea and coffee.
As we pull out precisely on time I wander through to a buffet car for a late breakfast, and soon we are in open bush country, men are herding cows on dirt roads between scattered settlements of simple dwellings, and an announcer is telling us about the railway and local attractions. Twin diesel engines provide a smooth, deceptively fast ride. We seem to be cruising along in leisurely fashion, but an electronic sign says our speed is 112kph (70mph), and we are flying past processions of trucks crawling along the highway to Mombasa.
First stop on my rail safari is Emali, where a driver is waiting to whisk me from the amiable chaos of a provincial market town to a camp in a wildlife conservation area owned by a Maasai community. The big attraction of the Elerai Conservancy is impossible to miss, because it fills the sky.
Nothing can prepare the visitor for the grandeur of Kilimanjaro, this iconic Lord of Africa towering imperiously above a mantle of clouds. It is an adventurer’s dream come true. The snow-streaked mountain in its perfect symmetry is such a dramatic contrast with surrounding plains that it seems unreal, a mirage or a special effect created by a fantasy film maker.
The other attraction of the Satao Elerai camp, apart from well-appointed en suite tents near the foothills of the mountain, is a water hole frequented by a Noah’s Ark of wildlife including elephants, zebras and eland. While swimming in an infinity pool above the water hole one morning, I notice a remarkably lifelike statue of a giraffe on a path by the restaurant. Then it ambles away.
The Maasai own this land, they provide watchmen for the unfenced camp managed on their behalf by a safari company, and they supplement their income by staging cultural visits to a local village. It is an arrangement that benefits everyone, including the wildlife that is rigorously protected, and has attracted attention from other African countries.
For all their relative prosperity, the pastoral Maasai still live in traditional settlements of small, dark huts of soil and cow dung, with their livestock in corrals fenced with thorn branches to protect them from lions and hyenas. A young Maasai showing me around explains: “In this village we have many warriors but we don’t kill the lions. We love them when they are in the bush, so we just chase them away.” He says this matter-of-factly, as if it is the most natural thing in the world.
Neighbouring Amboseli National Park is hugely rich in wildlife, partly because for years the fearsome reputation of Maasai warriors kept hunters and poachers well away. The vision of large herds of elephants, zebra, wildebeest and antelope browsing and grazing open thorn bush country is all the more impressive given the stupendous backdrop of Kilimanjaro as described by Hemingway: “As wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun.” It is a quintessential panorama of Africa in cinemascope.
It is near the end of the dry season and all creatures great and small flock to green slashes of swamp, where lions lie in wait among long grass. “It is easy for the lions to hide and kill here, there is much food,” my guide says.
Soon it is time to get back on the train to my next destination, a camp deep in lion country in Tsavo East National Park. Together with Tsavo West on the other side of the railway, it forms an unfenced wildlife sanctuary the size of Wales.
They have all this space, but a bunch of lions still decide a good place to spend the night is outside my thatched-roof tent. I am woken at midnight by a crescendo of roaring that has me imagining claws ripping at the canvas, and an even louder trumpeting of elephants does not improve my peace of mind.
The bathroom has proper walls and a door, and I admit it. I spend the rest of the night in it on a bed of pillows. A tough upbringing in Glasgow didn’t prepare me for this.
Next morning I inspect my tent and find it is on a raised stone platform and bounded mostly by stout wooden poles. Clearly any lion wishing to sample prime Scotch meat would have to be an acrobat armed with a saw. I am also reassured to learn that lions don’t roar when they are out to kill. “When they’re silent is the time to worry,” my guide says.
I sleep more easily that night, and begin to savour the thrill of proximity with fearsome animals roaring their call of the wild. By the third night I am enjoying their company as they prowl and growl outside like big guard dogs.
Tsavo has a vast array of wildlife. There are lumbering herds of elephants everywhere, massive buffalo looking as grumpy and dangerous as their reputation, and giraffes wandering about with laconic grace like cultured gentry among a bunch of ruffians. But the highlight is the lions. Even half-hidden by long grass they have a nobility no other animal can match. Majesty becomes them. This is a good time to be a lion as their prey is weak after a long dry season, and within minutes of leaving the camp we spot one with dinner in prospect.
A lioness is creeping forward in hunting mode and squats down, her hide camouflaged by dry grass. Her prey is a herd of waterbuck, which halt when they see a male lion beneath an acacia tree about 200yd away. They have not seen the lioness crouching much closer. Time passes and nothing moves, a silent drama of life and death without a script.
Finally the male lion gets up and wanders off and at this point the wind changes, the bucks pick up the lioness’s scent, and they turn tail and flee.
The distance is too great for the hunter to make up, so she rises with an almost perceptible air of disappointment, prowls towards us, and passes a few yards away. She seems a bit close for comfort and I ask my guide quietly if there is any danger. “As long as you stay in the vehicle everything is fine,” he says. “The moment you step outside everything changes and one of two things happens, fight or flight.”
During the morning drive we encounter half a dozen more lions close to the camp, a couple of them engaged briefly in propagating the species. In this case it is a species of males without manes, the same kind that feasted on hapless builders of the Uganda Railway.
They steer clear of the camp during the day, allowing a resident herd of impala to graze around the tents, and in early morning their young race about performing flying leaps for the joy of it. With elephants gathering at the water hole and the air alive with bird chatter, it is like waking up in a children’s story book.
A last leg on the new railway whisks me to Mombasa for a couple of days at a beach spa resort, and after the heat and dust of the bush it’s nice to be beside the seaside. But at night I miss the lions.
How to do it
Expert Africa (020 3405 6666; expertafrica.com) offers a nine-night Safari on Rails with one night B&B in Nairobi, three nights full-board at Satao Elerai Camp, three nights full-board at Satao Tsavo Camp and two nights half-board at Diani Beach from £2,645pp, based on two sharing. The package includes first-class train travel and safari drives, but not international flights.
Train tickets in Kenya can only be obtained 60 days before departure. In the rare event of non-availability, alternative transport will be booked at extra cost. For more on rail travel in the country see seat61.com .