Tourists are rare, but scenery and people are worth the hard trip


January 20, 1991|By Robert Gordon

Every evening two sets of passenger trains leave Nairobi's central station. One pair heads southeast, to seaside Mombasa, with as many as 10 first- and second-class sleepers. Their occupants are British, German, Japanese and American travelers, plus a few well-to-do Kenyans.

The other two head northwest to Kisumu, 262 miles away, on Lake Victoria -- second largest freshwater lake in the world, after Superior, and the source of the Nile. Only one first-class car on this run, and it's not even filled; tourists are rare. Going to Victoria isn't high on the list of things to do in Kenya -- even if getting there was the prime objective of the British in building the Uganda Railway against incredible obstacles at the turn of the century.

Why Kisumu at all? Originally the terminal on the lake was planned for Berkeley Bay, Uganda. (Uganda, not Kenya, was viewed as the great potential moneymaker.) But then economics took over -- costs were getting out of hand -- and the railhead was abruptly moved to Kisumu, 80 miles closer to Nairobi.

Building the railroad was a nightmare, but Kisumu held horrors all its own -- including the hostile Luo tribe, who saw no reason to welcome strangers. Nobody really had surveyed the land closely, let alone the lake's Winam Gulf, which pokes like a thumb from the main body of water. The bay was an 8-to 12-foot-deep mud puddle for many miles. Any freight-carrying steamships -- an essential part of the scheme to link Uganda with the rest of the world -- would be hindered by being limited to having only a 7-foot draft.

Nevertheless the choice was made. Beginning at Mombasa, the Uganda Railway -- first privately owned, then reluctantly subsidized by the British government -- undertook to lay tracks across an equatorial wasteland: uncontrollable diseases, hostile tribes, wild animals beyond number and almost unmanageable geography.

Construction began in 1896, and the roadway reached the Great Rift, that gigantic split in the earth's crust, by 1899. After months of labor by imported Indians and dazzling feats of engineering, the meter-gauge track crept down the side of the 2,000-foot escarpment, onto the flat valley floor, then lifted up by 27 viaducts on the other side. Height of the topmost reach: nearly 7,500 feet. Then downgrade all the way, to Kisumu village at 3,800 feet, by December 1901.

At Kisumu there was nothing except marshland, the threat of sudden death and the vast solitude of the lake, shaped like an enormous saucer 270 miles across -- a surface area of nearly 27,000 miles, the size of Ireland; shallow, and therefore dangerous; subject to sudden storms and high waves.

Kisumu supposedly was the least desirable location on the 581-mile railroad. Torrential rains made foundations of soup for the tracks; locomotives squirting water from beneath themselves rolled over into the muck. Bubonic plague made its murderous appearance, along with malaria, sleeping sickness, blackwater fever and dysentery. Even stiff-upper-lipped Britons committed suicide there.

But in time the local tribes were subdued. A malarial swamp was drained to become a golf course, and prefabricated steamers, brought up by rail and reassembled, began operating over Victoria. Public health and agricultural growing conditions

improved, with the result that cotton, grain and other products were loaded onto boxcars for the journey down to the Indian Ocean. The region grew, in spite of disease, depression, two world wars and the collapse in 1978 of a trination trade federation among Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania (which share the lake). But what now is called the Kenya Railways kept on running.

I went to Kisumu because of a long-nurtured desire to see Lake Victoria -- and to sail on whatever boats still navigated its gigantic surface. Driving, friends said, was a risk; a plane ticket somehow seemed too much like going almost everywhere else -- so I booked a sleeping compartment on the overnight train.

Leaving Nairobi, the railway passes mile after mile of squatters' towns, the sad homes of hundreds of thousands of Kenyans who have migrated into their capital. Night comes early, and you see no more after 7 p.m. Often the right of way cuts through deep culverts; the engine's horn blasts frequently. The roadbed needs smoothing; the carriage makes odd bumping sounds; the brakings and starts are jerky.

That night the dining car offered thin vegetable soup mislabeled as minestrone; a choice of lamb curry, chicken curry or ugali na nyama, a meat stew; and custard for dessert. The meal was adequate and cheap: about $4, plus beer and wine.

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