The Good Old Days of Platform Parties

From the end of WWII until the Kenyan Emergency was declared there were around 40,000 expats in Kenya at any one time, mostly from the UK and mostly on contracts that included ‘passages.’ Some of these expats working for the administration had longer contracts, but even the shorter ones had mid-term home leave and in the times before jet travel all this added up to much coming and going by sea via Suez. Any younger reader who might imagine the eight-and-a-quarter hours in a jumbo jet between Heathrow and Nairobi as being vastly preferable to a fortnight on a passenger liner making the same journey should think again.

I intend writing about the prelude to these delightful voyages and comparing the first step with the modern equivalent of two or three hours in a smoky, isolated, departure lounge divorced from your friends and well-wishers.

It had become the custom for all expats going on home leave at the end of their three-year contract to have a farewell party at the popular and flourishing Nairobi, East African Railway and Harbour’s station restaurant and bar, which had a deservedly good reputation. It was the ideal place to wish farewell to the departing expats by the remaining expats. The 6 pm overnight train arrived at Mombasa promptly twelve hours where they would board the British India Line ships, which would carry the expats to the London docks. These ships were all named after a castle – whether or not the preceding town could boast a castle – the Cape Town Castle, Braemar Castle, Uganda Castle and the Kenya Castle. Thus begun their luxury fortnight cruise.

The very first step of their travelling was the Nairobi Platform party. At these parties, held every fortnight, 30 or 40 expats gathered, either for mid-term leave or for good, and each one seemed to have made around 20 or 30 good friends so there were perhaps 1000 extra people on the Nairobi Railway platform. Tusker was the favourite tipple, which flowed down the gullet of well-wishers as fast and continuously as the wildebeest migrations. Excitement and anticipation was in the air. Addresses of those remaining and those departing were furiously exchanged. Prominent members of golf, tennis, cricket or hockey clubs who were departing were surrounded by fellow club members either genuinely or jestingly mournful as to how the club would manage without them.

Far-flung expats of the colonial administration would meet up with other district commissioners and recount their tales. The business fraternity from Nairobi would be interested in learning how expansion was growing in towns like Nakuru, Kitale and Eldoret. The single young men and women who were about to travel were invariably delighted with the large amount of eligible single partners booked to return home.

These platform parties were a meeting of like-minded souls with a liking for adventure. Romance was already in the air. Partnerships were about to be made, many of which endured till death did them part. Unlike many a pointless, pleasure cruises, these passengers on the Castle Line had their lives before them. They were a fascinating and enviable collection of travellers. There were passengers going hopefully to or returning sadly from the failed groundnut scheme in Tanganyika. There were sincere, hard-working missionaries, married and single, with or without children, mostly returning more tolerant and wiser than when they had arrived, and all of whom could be proud at least of the material and medical improvements that they had left behind. Valuable progress that could not be denied by their critics.

What has become of those leisurely days? For what is now the hurry? Many of those who were then departing Africa for good were to discover that they had left their hearts behind, and while being loyal to their native country, yearned for those distant days beyond recall. Well, not quite beyond recall. There is always Old Africa bimonthly with its blogs galore!