Fort Ternan: A tunnel to Kenya's mixed colonial past

Friday January 21 2022
Train tunnel

At the high-domed train tunnel that is 178 metres long in Fort Ternan. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT


Kenya’s Fort Ternan town in Nandi Hills is home of the prehistoric discovery of Kenyapithecus, the ancient ape fossil found by Louis and Mary Leakey in 1961.

John Kiprui Langat, the guard at Fort Ternan prehistoric site also doubles up us our guide to the picturesque ancient site on a hill, nestled in coffee farms and local homesteads overlooking Fort Ternan. In the distance is volcano of Tinderet and the Nandi Hills. On a clear day, Africa’s largest lake, Victoria, shimmers in the sun, 50 km to the West.

Up the hill is a flat grass patch that was excavated to reveal 10 million-year-old ancient elephant and rhino fossils.

“The elephant was then a four-tusked woolly mammoth, meaning that back then Fort Ternan was a very cold place and covered by a thick forest.”

Simple rooms house the fossil find.

There are also plant fossils like the Euphorbia abyssinica or ‘desert candle’ locally known as Kapkures, the original name of Fort Ternan.


A long bridge shimmers under the midday heat. It was the longest bridge in East Africa when it was built in 1903. Today that honour goes to Egypt.

A mound of stones catches our eye. It is a cairn with the remains of the Nandi warriors killed during a revolution led by the Nandi chief, Koitalel Arap Samoei. He led armed resistance against their land being taken to lay the ‘iron snake’ (Uganda Railway). Koitalel was killed in 1905 and buried here at the museum dedicated to him in Nandi Hills town .

Fort Ternan was named after Maj Tern an, the engineer in charge of the steel bridge and a tunnel through a hill for the steam locomotives — both engineering feats at the time. He was killed in 1904 during the Nandi Resistance and the town named after him.

We drive down a hill to an armoury built in the hill in 1939, which was served by a nearby airstrip at the time, which gives the town its name, Kendege.

The tunnel, hidden from view is nicknamed the Colonial Cave. We crawled inside until it go too dark to see anything inside the 150 metre-long area.

In Tunnel Town

Built in 1903, the tunnel gave the town its name and the year is engraved at both ends but with a patina of moss and lichen now. Constructed 119 years ago, the tunnel still stands pretty and solid. At 178 metres long with a high-domed ceiling, it’s cool and dim. Every few metres there’s a notch in the wall, wide enough for an adult to stand in, meant for pedestrians to step safely aside to allow a train to chug past. The notches also serve as sound barriers as they absorb all sound, allowing trains to silently pass by without shattering eardrums.

Our next stop is the steel bridge.

One can see wooden sleepers bolted to the iron tracks. Metal bars on either side allow pedestrians to safely walk the bridge, its length painted on it – 268.4 metres. We stroll along the pedestrian’s pavement to the opposite end and back to make half a kilometre.

Steel bridge

The once longest steel bridge in Africa over Sereng River. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

Midway, is Sereng River where women do laundry next to fat old sausage trees. It’s the on its way to Lake Victoria. It’s a breath-taking walk overlooking the hills and valleys of Fort Ternan.

Our last surprise of the day is the hot water springs in a glade hidden from view by rock boulders and giant figs.

There’s a place for women and one for men. The water is hot and tempting but the sun was about to set.

We must return to Fort Ternan for a day at the natural springs on River Lulu, buy the local coffee freshly ground at Kipkelion and discover more local sites.


Fort Ternan is 50 km from Kisumu and the same from Kericho. It’s sugar-cane, tea and coffee area.

With a few more days, explore Nandi Hills, Tinderet, Koru and the African great lake city of Kisumu.

Kenya Railways now operates the line. You can do a rail journey, hopping on and off at the stations en route to discover Kenya.

There are many affordable hotels to stay – around Fort Ternan there’s Kwesios House and Koru Country Club soon to open.