On the road to Nairobi

The long journey means a sampling of every form of transport there is

A faltering breeze makes no impact on the weighty tropical air. Gazing out over the sand and sipping drinks, it all seems quite simple: we are going to Nairobi. We will take a taxi, then a matatu (minibus taxi), go on foot for a while, followed by a ferry, then a tuk-tuk and finally a train.

We have five hours to travel the 42km from Diani to Mombasa, aiming to arrive, as instructed, two hours before the train’s scheduled departure time. In case it leaves early, we suppose, as is so often the way with African trains.

The taxi is late – a disconcerting start. We set off on foot. Our taxi hurtles past us. Screams to a halt. Showers us with dust. The driver’s name is Davies.

He laughs like a gurgling sink as we try to explain why our president has so many wives and children. We scrunch our suspension-free way to Ukunda, where Davies deposits us in a matatu.

Matatus are unlike our taxis in that the passengers smile and Bob Marley plays loudly in place of kwaito. In every other respect, they are similar. Stinking hot, a whiff of dope, 32 passengers on 16 seats, a conductor hanging out of a door that won’t close, breakneck speeds, roadblock bribes.

We sit buried, rucksacks mercifully blocking our view of the driver’s maniacal swervings, and move only to allow passengers to disembark. One of them showers us with sugar from a punctured bag he is passing out of the window.

The R5 matatu route to the ferry is 454 times cheaper per kilometre than Davies’s road-scraping taxi. And much quicker. The ferry is still free but, from the desperate rush to get aboard, people are obviously worried that the proposed 10c fee might be imposed at any moment.

The throng sweeps us forward, forces the gate open and propels us onto an already-moving ferry. Everyone laughs at this victory over security.

On Mombasa Island, we leap into a tuk-tuk for a rapid ride to the Castle Royal Hotel and a sandwich. A Swahili Louis Armstrong belts out an admirable Hello Dolly, complete with hanky.

Revived, packs on backs and lives in hands, we stride through Mombasa’s dusty side-streets to a fenced compound, dominated by a rusting sign. MOMBASA. We pay $65 for the train. An hour and three quarters sharing the platform with a growing gaggle of passengers, a few dozen chickens, a strolling minstrel who plays Hakuna Matata ad nauseam and seeping sewerage as it drools from the over-full long-drop lavatory pits.

Our compartment has a jammed-shut window, a dysfunctional fan and faulty lights. It is 38C and night is falling as the train pulls out. Evans, the train manager, can’t help with any of our problems but agrees to swap his room for ours.

Dinner is silver-service. No, really. A pallid mushroom soup ladled from a vast tureen; rolls with butter from a silver dish; chicken or beef; the shocking Kenyan equivalent of Spoornet coffee.

Squashed on a narrow bench next to a Somali woman, I sip from a brought-in bottle of wine harboured between my legs. The line of 20 ceiling fans is a motionless monument to a former, grander time. The lights fluctuate with the train speed. A kung-fu movie plays on a plasma screen, for this is Africa.

Linen sheets await – and an unparalleled sleep, rocked by the swaying of the train to awake to an unspeakably disgusting silver-service breakfast, passing through golden-light beautiful rolling grasslands and lovely placid villages. Children wave. Old men in blankets raise their sticks in greeting.

Rarely has faded splendour been so splendid.