The World’s Most Remote Railway Line

What’s the world’s most remote railway line? The Rocky Mountaineer? The West Highland Line? The Transsiberian maybe?

Well, I think it’s none of the above. My vote goes to Russia’s BAM line – the Transiberian on steroids. It’s a train ride probably colder and more isolated than any other on Earth, crossing 2700 miles of empty Siberian wilderness. It’s little known outside Russia, and that’s a great shame because the story of this railway truly is incredible. Started in the 70s, it was a pet-project of the Soviet Union under Breznhev, and was meant to turn northern Siberia into a model society with idealistic young residents and 21st century industry galore. But it was a fiasco from start to finish – trains fell off the lines, the rails warped in the extreme cold (it got as low as -60 C), builders got fed up and went home. The line still runs, but many of the settlements built to serve the railway are now almost ghost towns. I rode the rails last March, and below is my story for Lonely Planet Traveller magazine – photos by Philip Lee Harvey.

Image

Fairytales of the Italian Dolomites

Bit by bit I’m planning on updating this blog with stories I’ve done over the years! Here’s one I penned a few years ago about Fairytales of the Italian Dolomites.

The Dolomites are some of the most incredible mountains I’ve seen: not so much for their size, but more for their shapes: they way they rise up almost vertically. Photos are by Matt Munro.

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 23.33.28

A story from Syria

I’m adding some stories to my website to make it a bit more interesting. This is the very first travel story I wrote just after I left university four years ago – ‘In Search of Lawrence’s Arabia’ for Lonely Planet, set in Syria and Jordan.

A street scene in Damascus

I picture I took of a street scene in Damascus

It happened after got a summer job and managed to save enough money for a ticket to Istanbul (plus a little bit to spend I got there). Almost on a whim, I caught a long-distance bus from Istanbul down to Aleppo, Syria. It took (a very fidgety) 24 hours, and a baby puked on me halfway there. Toilet breaks were few and far between, too. Eventually I arrived in Syria, and it was to be the best trip I’ve ever made. The cities were beautiful and ancient. The people were the most hospitable of any I’ve met before or since. Once I asked for the bill for my dinner – only to find out the people at the next table had already paid it, and left without saying anything.

Seeing what’s happened in Syria in the years since is heartbreaking and perplexing. It feels strange to imagine that a places so full of life not long ago can reduced to rubble in a heartbeat. I’ve just read this sad story about one of the main places in my feature, the Hotel Baron. Below is a pdf of my story as featured in the mag, with pictures from Joe Windsor-Williams.

Screen Shot 2013-11-12 at 23.38.26

Legends of the Lunatic Express

Here’s my favourite story I’ve written for Lonely Planet Magazine so far. It’s about the origin of safaris in Kenya and the incredible railway line that made them possible – the Lunatic Express. The pdf below has the words with pictures from the ace photographer Philip Lee Harvey – click on it to see them. I’ve also copied the text below.

Lunatic Express

Follow the first safari expeditions to Kenya to hear stories of swashbuckling adventurers, extravagant camps in the wilderness and railway lines besieged by man-eating lions…

It is bedtime in Mombasa, and the trade winds from the Indian Ocean draw a thick quilt of cloud over the sleeping town. 

At Mombasa station however, the overnight train to Nairobi is already several hours late. On the platform, a solitary busker sings songs from The Lion King to bored passengers, and a cat snoozes under a stack of luggage. The stationmaster checks the time as he sips on a cup of milky tea – but you could be forgiven for supposing he is waiting for a train that departed decades ago. All around us are bare timetable boards, and iron rails swallowed up by long grass.

 Then something stirs – and out from the gloom ahead comes a rasping whistle that startles the cat, drowns out Akkunah Mattata and causes the stationmaster to splutter his tea. Rattling out from the darkness comes the Nairobi train – a legendary service known to some as the Kenya-Uganda Railway, to others as the Iron Snake, but most famously as the Lunatic Express. 

 Now part of Kenya’s railway network, it was this line that helped create our modern concept of safari – a means for wealthy Westerners to be whisked away from the coast and into the African interior. Opened in 1901, the Lunatic Express earned its nickname for carrying a cast of swaggering aristocrats, scoundrels and hunters of suicidal daring – a generation to whom the railway was a ticket to a land of infinite adventure.  

Though the history of the line is intertwined with the ugliness of colonial exploitation and the bygone era of big game hunting, passengers on the Lunatic Express sought the same kicks that safari-goers in Kenya experience today. They craved Africa’s wide-open spaces; the adrenaline rush of a land where human beings are still part of the food chain.

‘You can see why they called it the Lunatic Express’ says John the stationmaster, sipping on a second cup of tea. ‘If they came all the way from Europe to build this railway through the bush then they must have been mad!’

The construction of the line was celebrated as a feat of daredevil engineering by Kenya’s British colonists. Rhinos charged the locomotives, and giraffes chewed on the telegraph lines. A century on – when the dense bush the line once traversed has been tamed – some of the wildness of the Lunatic Express survives. Leaning out the window still means being rewarded with a mouthful of tropical foliage. Animals still periodically blockade the track, leaving the driver little choice but to stop the train, get out and chase them off with a big stick. 

Finally, our train heaves of out the station and past the creeks of Mombasa Island, belching out thick plumes of smoke as we swoop around shanty towns where corrugated iron roofs glisten in the rain, and ditches where frogs croak contentedly in the darkness. The carriages beat out chaotic time signatures as we jolt over the rails – a medley of slamming doors and creaking joints. 

The bumpier stages of the line can induce a mild seasickness – in the early days of the Lunatic Express, passengers were asked to remove their false teeth before travelling. Fragments of old-world pomp still linger on the train. First class passengers are politely summoned into a dining car, where a portrait of the Kenya President grins down at white linen-clad tables. Attendants shuffle dutifully about the corridors, dispensing blankets stamped with Kenya Railways logos.

The glow of Mombasa fades into the night behind us, and our train clatters on – past signal boxes, and a decaying station illuminated but the feeble light of a paraffin lamp. Eventually we approach the Tsavo bridge – the site of the grisliest chapter in the construction of the railway. A century ago, a pair of man-eating lions stalked the darkness outside my cabin window – snatching construction workers sleeping in their tents; claiming as many as a hundred victims over several months.  

The wind whips ominously about the cabin windows as I peer into the gloom outside, but nothing stirs. Tracked down and killed, the stuffed remains of the Tsavo man-eaters now growl at school parties in a Chicago museum – but theirs weren’t to be the last instances of lion attacks on the Lunatic Express. 

A few years later, a British hunter turned pest control vigilante named Charles Ryall set out to exterminate the ‘Kima Killer’ – a lion that had allegedly been scaling station rooftops to swipe at the humans inside. Lying in wait for the lion in his railway carriage, Ryall dozed off with his rifle on his lap – only for the lion to board the train and maul the slumbering hunter. Ryall’s remains were buried at a railway depot named Nairobi, now Kenya’s capital, where trainspotter David Gitundu is one of the few visitors to his grave. 

‘The tribes who lived in this region didn’t like the railway being built through their land’ he explains to me after we arrive at Nairobi the following morning. ‘They believed that man-eating lions were possessed by the spirits of their ancestors – and their ancestors were returning to destroy the Iron Snake and the people that worked on it.’

Born in the railway yard, David spent his childhood climbing trees by the tracks to get a better view of the engines, and now sits on the platform selling postcards of steam engines to curious passengers. He grumbles about the state of the line today – as Kenya’s road network has expanded, ever fewer services run. David directs me to Nairobi’s Railway Museum where, among a collection of rusting locomotives, the carriage where Ryall was eaten is parked beside a row of cherry blossom trees.

There are other strange relics from the history of the Lunatic Express on display in the museum – none stranger than a park bench mounted on the front of the engine from which passengers spotted wildlife as they passed through the countryside. Graced by famous buttocks from Winston Churchill to Edward VIII, the bench carries a discreet notice stating the authorities ‘will not be liable for personal injury (fatal or otherwise)’.

I ask the desk attendant if she can tell me more about the man-eating lions of the Lunatic Express. She smiles coyly, before rooting round in drawers full of paperwork to produce a small, plastic container.

‘Don’t be scared’ she says, opening it to reveal the claws of the Tsavo man-eaters – the same claws that tore through the flesh of scores of men.

 

II.

 Despite the best efforts of these lions, it was at the end of the railway line where the first safaris really got going – and no safari was more infamous than that of Theodore Roosevelt. 

Not one for a quiet retirement, the former American President disembarked the Lunatic Express just short of Nairobi in 1909 and marched off into the wilderness with a small army of servants in tow. To Roosevelt, safari meant big-game hunting, and he set out to shoot almost every species in East Africa, diligently noting their sizes, weights, speculating on their relative abilities to kill humans and occasionally remarking on how tasty they were to eat. After a hard day dodging charging animals, Roosevelt was determined not to sacrifice home comforts. Scores of hapless porters slogged across swamps and savannah – carrying everything from a bathtub to a library for the President to peruse at his leisure. 

I board a propeller plane heading east from Nairobi, and the territory where Roosevelt and his expedition roamed rolls out beneath us. From up in the air, the African landscape looks like a scene of metaphysical drama. Grey columns of rain shift imperiously across the rusty-brown earth, and slanting towers of sunlight break through the clouds. Beyond the starboard wing are the hills of the Great Rift Valley, stretching northward to Arabia. To the south is Kilimanjaro, rising abruptly from flat plains – as if K2 had been transplanted to the middle of East Anglia. 

For all its silliness and excess, Roosevelt’s expedition kick-started the world’s love affair with safari and its seductive cocktail of luxury and danger. It inspired smooth-talking European aristocrats and grisly American pioneers to see East Africa as a playground, and set about importing the trappings of Western life to the wilderness. 

One such American inspired by Roosevelt was Charlie Cottar – a maverick who envisioned East Africa as a new Wild West, and founded his own safari service in 1919. Cottar’s Safaris were among the first to bring photographic equipment to the bush; the first to bring cars on safari (and the first to dredge the cars out of the sea when the ship carrying them sank off Mombasa). 

Our plane dips below the clouds and grinds to a halt at an airstrip near Cottar’s Camp – a cluster of tents on the edge of the Masai Mara Nature Reserve, where Charlie’s great grandson now runs Africa’s oldest safari business. 

‘Some of those guys were nuts’ says Calvin Cottar, gesturing at a portrait of his great-grandfather mounted on the canvas wall of the tent. ‘They’d do anything to collect scars.’

Calvin recounts stories of Charlie’s experiments in the early days of safari – from lassoing almost every beast in the bush (including a lion) to his colleagues forming a conga line in a bid to creep up on confused animals. The safari business has grown up in the years since – and big game hunting has long been illegal in Kenya – but the lavish traditions of Roosevelt’s era are preserved at Cottar’s Camp. Scattered about our tents are antiques, Persian rugs, four-poster beds and gramophones that crackle and squeak to the accompaniment of the chirping crickets outside.

I flick through an old scrapbook and happen across an article by Charlie Cottar bragging of his antics. ‘Three times I was mauled by leopards, stomped on by elephants, to say nothing of minor brushes with lesser species. If you take your chances, sooner or later some wild thing will get you.’ Sure enough, Charlie Cottar was killed by a charging rhino close to this camp in 1940. Having discharged the fatal shot, Charlie and the rhino died side by side. 

‘Africa had a dangerous animal behind every corner’ says Calvin. ‘There’s something special about living at the edge of human existence. This is a place where you could walk off on your own in any direction and you’re guaranteed to be shit-scared within half an hour.’

 

III.

 

Little over half an hour later, and we are driving through the Cottar’s concession – a stretch of green hills on the edge of the Masai Mara, where lions, leopards and elephants roam freely. 

The scent of wild mint hangs in the air as we pass dusky ravines where baboons swing from the fig trees, swerving past brilliant white bones stripped of their flesh by vultures. This is a place where Mother Nature goes about her business on a blockbuster scale – where insects built like tanks on wings buzz past, and mammals leave dinosaur-sized footprints in their wake. It is the same untamed landscape that the early safari-goers would recognise.

‘There are some things you see out here you can’t explain’ says my guide Douglas Nagi – a man so accustomed to life in the bush he was once bitten by a poisonous snake and didn’t notice until some days later. ‘One time I saw a leopard fighting a reticulated python for two hours for an antelope carcass. If I had put it on Youtube I might be famous by now.’

Now, as in Roosevelt and Charlie Cottar’s time, stories about dangerous animals are treated as badges of honour in the bush – but often it’s the less likely goings-on that catch the eye. I glimpse an African wildcat scampering into the distance – a creature that looks like a domestic moggy that’s mistakenly wandered from the suburbs into the savannah. I spot a solitary wildebeest in the midst of a herd of bulky eland antelope. ‘A wildebeest with an identity crisis’, Douglas nods sagely. 

All around us, you sense there is some vast, never-ending drama unfurling of which safari-goers can catch only the smallest snippet. Lumbering out of the acacia trees come a small herd of elephants – the combined weight of a jetliner – quietly and solemnly treading past our vehicle. A mountain of crinkly skin, they almost seem like some prehistoric impostor in the bush – ‘some odd grim straggler from the stone age’ as Winston Churchill once put it during his own safari aboard the Lunatic Express.

Our car climbs to the crest of one hill, where Douglas spies a lioness guarding a giraffe carcass from a mob of vultures. Having hunted the giraffe the previous night, the lioness’ pride will return to dine out on their kill – but as she turns her back, the vultures shuffle forward and peck surreptitiously at the carcass. Suddenly, the lioness turns and lunges towards the birds – swiping speculatively into a flurry of feathers, landing her paw right on top of one squawking vulture. 

Seeing a big cat charging close up seems to trip some dusty switch in your DNA – some reflex inherited from distant ancestors that quickens the pulse and sends a shiver down the spine. Primeval thrills like these are increasingly hard to come by in Kenya. In the century since the days of Roosevelt, big game populations have uniformly nose-dived across the continent, and this region counts among the last wild pockets left in Kenya. The rhinos that once charged the Lunatic Express are today threatened with extinction, and some even predict lions could disappear in Kenya within a few decades.

The role of the first safari expeditions in this tragedy is complicated. They were accomplices in colonialism, and helped engender the complacency that has brought destruction to big game populations across Africa. Yet the story of these expeditions remains a compelling one. These were some of the first times outsiders witnessed the full majesty of the continent’s wildlife – something that Africans had always known. It would also be one of the last times humans stood confronted by a land where creatures more powerful than themselves were sovereign.  

We return to camp, and the earth basks a rich caramel-hue in the sunset. Twilight passes, and soon the night air rings with the notes of swooning birds and the thuds of mammals plodding about nearby. Hearing stories of the Tsavo man-eaters, it’s difficult to lie in bed without calculating the odds of some claw slicing through the canvas of my tent – to mentally rehearse jabbing at some intruding beast with the nearest available piece of furniture. 

No claw arrives, but the soundtrack of the bush plays on outside the tent as it has done for time immemorial. Nearby, lions will be grunting, baboons barking, elephants busy demolishing a tree. And somewhere far away – intermingled with this racket – is the whistle of the Lunatic Express, rattling on regardless into the night.