What you need to know:
- A little over five hours after the start of the journey from Nairobi, we had arrived at the Mombasa terminus in Changamwe; which is even more massive and intriguing than the Nairobi terminus.
For an average Ugandan, the idea of using railway consistently as a means of public transport is rather uncommon. If it is not the ubiquitous taxi van with the signature blue dotted line, it is definitely a boda boda or private car. In Kenya however, the option of going on a tiresome eight-hour journey by road from Nairobi to Mombasa never beats taking the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) train; which cuts the travel time significantly, and is more convenient.
The first step was for my travel buddies and I to book train tickets, and I was surprised that the only way was to use M-Pesa (Kenyan version of mobile money). In Nairobi, M-Pesa is the main way payments are made, even for the smallest of things, such as street snacks, and a matatu trip for as low as Shs500. Interestingly, no one ever asks you to add withdrawal charges.
Since we wanted to arrive as early as possible, we booked our tickets for the five-hour Madaraka Express train ride from Nairobi to Mombasa (the cheaper inter-county train makes more stops, so it takes longer).
We booked one week in advance, because tickets usually sell out during travel seasons. In cases, such as public holidays, a week might not even be early enough. The booking is solely through the Kenya Railways website, and the express ticket costs Kshs3,000 (Shs90,000) for VIP and Kshs 1,000 (Sh30,000) for economy. Children between three and 11 years pay half the price, and those below three years board for free.
The Nairobi terminus in Syokimau is about 30 minutes away from the city centre, and Uber cabs are cheap in Nairobi compared to Kampala. However, you might need to set off two hours before to offset the bad Nairobi traffic jam. The security checks at the train station take a while. One needs to be there at least an hour prior. The same allowance of time is what you will utilise to print your ticket from the machines, using the info you received by SMS after you have paid. You cannot get on the train without identification which is either a National ID or passport.
The interior feel
Aesthetically, the Nairobi terminus is so beautiful. Comparing it to Entebbe Airport (let alone our train station), would be unfair. We bought snacks at the station shops and restaurants before embarking, but I advise you to carry your own snacks due to the expense and occasional limitation in options at the station. Alcoholic beverages are not allowed on the train too. The sitting space and legroom are decent, but you might need to hold some of your bags if you travelled with many.
Most of us opted for an economy ticket, but our friends who paid for VIP said the perks that came with it were not worth the three-time increase in price. Access to the cafeteria carriage while on the train, closer charging spots and a bit more legroom; were underwhelming offerings for the extra cost. The train has mobile internet access, which is stable throughout the trip. It also has air conditioning. The train crew dress just like that of Kenya Airways, and use the same lingo too.
The views begin just a few minutes into the ride, as you cruise through a part of Nairobi National Park. The acacia trees, savannah and tropical canopies dominate the majority of the journey, but there is not much in terms of wildlife sightings. As you approach Voi, you get to see many huge baobab trees, from which the popular mabuyu fruit is harvested.
A little over five hours after the start of the journey from Nairobi, we had arrived at the Mombasa terminus in Changamwe; which is even more massive and intriguing than the Nairobi terminus. It was already night time in Mombasa, and a red neon sign shone bright announcing Mombasa Terminus.
The coastal heat was the absolute opposite of the chilly nature of Nairobi. Drivers of private hire taxis and Uber cabs clamoured for the attention of the mammoth passengers disembarking the train.
Our colleagues who opted for a road trip from Nairobi took 12 hours to reach, and we met at our airbnb house that we had booked earlier as a group. For as low as $20 (Shs76,000) per night on airbnb, you can get yourself a place to sleep in Mombasa.