Built by the British government, and named for its ultimate destination, the Uganda Railway didn’t actually reach Uganda. Construction began in 1896 in the port city of Mombasa and continued its course northwest through today’s Kenya to its terminus on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria. Progress came at a high cost, however, not just financially but in the thousands of workers who lost their lives. Complicated by political resistance, difficult terrain, disease, warring tribes, and man-eating lions, the line finally reached Lake Victoria in 1901. Travelers wanting to continue on to Uganda would then take a steamship across the lake to Entebbe, Uganda’s former capital.
Such a remarkable feat of engineering required an enormous number of workers, and some 32,000 laborers were imported from British India. Once the railway was completed many of them stayed in the region to take advantage of new opportunities, forming the nucleus of what would become a sizable South Asian community of merchants, businessmen, and administrators.
This strategic link between Britain’s East Africa and Uganda Protectorates allowed goods and raw materials to flow between the east coast of Africa and its landlocked interior. Easier access encouraged European settlement and farming, and the railway contributed greatly to the popularity of the safari business by easily transporting supplies and equipment that would have taken an army of porters, each carrying 60 to 80-pound loads, some four and a half months to walk the length of the line from one end to the other. The transformation of a mostly-inaccessible territory prompted the South African Railway Magazine to declare that “the Uganda Railway has literally created a new country.”
After leaving Mombasa, the train eventually climbed to over 8,000 feet above sea level, traveling through hills, valleys, and plains; forest, swamp, and desert; and every climate from steamy tropical heat to near-freezing temperatures. From coast to lake, a journey of almost two days, there was plenty of time to marvel at the passing scenery and wildlife from the comfort of the passenger coach. After the first hundred miles or so game was common and could be seen on all sides. The traveler was likely to see zebras, ostriches, hartebeest, wildebeest, and gazelles grazing near the train tracks. Further on, where the line crossed the Athi Plains near Nairobi, huge herds of these animals roamed as far as the eye could see across the open country. Giraffe, elephants, and rhinos were occasionally spotted, and lions were said to plentiful near Simba station.
Some of the best hunting was in the Nairobi area, and the railway provided an easy way in and out for those who didn’t want to stray too far off the beaten path. The town became the center of the safari industry, as well as the headquarters of the Uganda Railway, eventually developing into the capital and largest city of Kenya. The railway brought economic opportunities, population growth, and urbanization to many of the interior towns along the line, and what were once merely stopping points or small depots are today some of Kenya’s largest cities.