Epic journey on board the iron-ore train in Mauritania

An epic, fundamentally unpleasant, yet unforgettable adventure. 24 hours of physical and emotional challenge. The kind of travel experience I am glad I once was young and crazy enough to do, and know very well that I will not repeat. It was in December 2007.

mauritanie 070 - nouadhibou - train approaching
Opened in 1963, the Mauritania railway is a single, 704-kilometre (437 mi) railway line linking the iron mining centre of Zouerate with the port of Nouadhibou (source: Wikipedia)

It started with a very exciting promise: the longest train of the world, more than 2 km long, that leaves the Atlantic Coast every day to return empty to an iron mining centre in the middle of the desert, before departing again the next day, full of iron.

Even better, almost romantic: there was a rumour that a second-hand passenger car, purchased from Europe, had just been attached to the train; a real old-fashioned passenger car, with the 6-person compartments and the signs in 4 European languages that tell you that è pericolo sporgersi (you may not know this if you are young or non-European: it means do not lean out of the window).

Many other travellers have written about this journey, as you can see if you search it on Google. This type of journey is not for the heart-fainted, and only reasonably dauntless travellers have made it. The impressions seem to vary a lot, oscillating between fascination and traumatism – just as mine.

mauritanie 067 - nouadhibou - gare voyageurs
The passengers’ train station of Nouadhibou, a port at the Atlantic coast

Nouadhibou, about noon

The train arrives next to the tiny train station. There is indeed one passenger car, just next to the locomotive.

mauritanie 069 - nouadhibou - train approaching
People waiting for the train. Some get tickets for the passengers car, as we did. Some simply jump in the empty iron wagons and travel for free.

Nobody waits until the train has stopped to start getting in, just as it is in India. Complete hysteria around the wagon, with people jumping in and others throwing their belongings into it through the windows.

My travel companion and I manage to find a compartment where only 2 other passengers are sitting. They will become our buddies for the whole journey. They are two friends from Western Sahara, going to Algeria via Mauritania which is safer to travel through than the mined south of their own country. One of them speaks Spanish and me too, that is how we communicate.

The first impression of the train, whose idea once made me so romantically engaged, is actually dramatically disappointing: it has been completely plundered and looks devastated. Anything that could have been looted has been: foam from the seats, lights, ashtrays, tables, and even doors and windows. Pathetic look.

The second anti-climax is provoked by our friendly travel buddies’ warnings, who after lending me one of their blankets to sit more comfortably, tell us that many foreign travellers have been robbed on this train recently. This happens at night, when everyone sleeps; anyone can easily sneak into a compartment (of course, given the doors are missing…) and steal. Hearing this, I volunteer to stay awake the whole night and watch our belongings – I didn’t expect I would sleep much during this unusual journey anyway…

Somewhere in the desert, end of the afternoon

We have been on our way for a few hours now. It is about to get dark. I had brought some food to make sandwiches but it’s been a long time I have abandoned the idea to eat it: everything is covered with such incredible layer of dust that my hands feel gross and my teeth already chew sand.

mauritanie 071 - nouadhibou - a long train
View from the window. The train is a straight line, more than 2 km long. I did not take any more photos because of there was too much dust around.

Our Western Saharan companions are friendly guys. They have helped us wrap up our faces in scarves to avoid the sneaky dust. They travel quite a lot in the region and are knowledgeable about it, offering tips for our further journey. They tell me a lot about their country and their situation, and have a few songs, including their anthem, for me to listen to from their Nokia’s.

When it is prayer time, people just have to face travel direction in the train’s narrow corridor, as the train heads to the East. They go there one after the other.

Somewhere in the desert, sometime in the night

It is completely dark. I am the only person in the whole train who was a flashlight. It helps me to stay awake, as I have promised to watch our belongings.

But I couldn’t say that the train’s hum rocks me to sleep anyway: every thirty seconds or so, the old locomotive suddenly slows down and the 2-kilometer-long wagons brutally load into the head of the train. Then it accelerates again for a few seconds, and slows down again.

Choum, middle of the night

Finally we arrive somewhere – this is Choum, a small town. The train continues to Zouerate, but we get off here. Our final destination is Atar, and we have been told that we could easily find a car from Choum.

Actually, there is only one Jeep waiting, so it leaves us with little choice and room to negotiate a price. We end up with another traveller, a young French dude who had decided to travel not in the passenger cars but in one of the empty iron cars – a much more intrepid traveller than me, but who would end up robbed from all his belongings just a few days later.

Not incredibly happy with the price, still I have found us room on the back of the Jeep. We pay, the Jeep starts and we believe we should be in Atar in about 2 to 3 hours. But unfortunately, this is not what happens. First the Jeep stops somewhere – really in the middle of nowhere, and for a while. Then we are told that it’s not the Jeep that will drive us, but a pick-up truck.

Angry – but what to do? in the middle of the desert – we jump on the back of the pick-up which is already full of goods of all kinds. It’s dark and we cannot see much, but we try to find somewhere to sit, not knowing what is under us.

Somewhere in the desert, sometime in the night

The air is astonishing. It generally feels a bit chilly, especially as I am on the top of a loaded truck that is driving, but every now and then there is a brief stream of hot air. It is beautiful.

Suddenly, I realize that something is moving. To my great surprise, there is a sheep almost under me, and the stupid animal is biting a pocket strap of my backpack. I realize that I should keep my backpack higher if I don’t want it to be fully eaten by the time we arrive. This requires me to lift and hold it with my left arm.

While I am trying to secure my position, my left foot slides, something moves under me and my whole body slides down. My left foot is now literally in front of the sheep’s head. The sheep is not only very keen on biting all he finds, but he also has two sharp horns. I therefore shall need to re-adjust my position.

I end up in the worst posture I could think of: squatting with all my weight on my feet (if I sit on my butt the sheep will eat me), knees curled up, the left hand holding my whole backpack and the right hand holding the truck structure so I don’t fall off – the truck is driving on a bumpy desert track.

Needless to say, this is fine for a few minutes but imagine for hours!

Somewhere in the desert, close to dawn

So far, this journey has been physically challenging, but emotionally quite stimulating: what an adventure!

But the emotional torture starts when I am trying to call for help. This is because the sheep is now completely excited and is trying to jump and give head shots. I am a little scared of being bitten.

The owner of the sheep is also on the pick-up, but higher and closer to the front. When he realizes that I am a bit desperate and calling for help, he threatens me: “If you kill it, you pay it!” I beg your pardon? This sounds like the most irrelevant remark to me. Me, killing an animal? I would not even eat one.

I explain I would just like to stop for a minute and fasten the animal a little bit tighter, so it cannot jump so high and eat my foot. But this is hopeless: the man doesn’t care, because of who I am. Since when is a woman’s comfort relevant? Why would we stop and delay everyone, just for one woman who is scared by a sheep? The man mocks me and despises me. To whatever I say, he rolls his eyes and gives me “Nyah, nyah, nyah” and “Blah, blah, blah”. I feel humiliated and this is the most painful part of the whole journey.

Atar, dawn

Finally, we arrive in our destination, Atar. I cannot feel my legs anymore, yet I still find the energy to throw my backpack off the truck then jump out of it myself.

I have lost my temper for a while now; angry about the initial rip off, and furious about the misogyny, regrettably I don’t have the patience anymore to thank the driver and say goodbye. I just want to be in the hostel, wash my gross hands and lie on a mattress.

Of course, there is only one taxi waiting and he rips us off; but at this stage, I can’t get bothered anymore.

Bab Sahara hostel, Atar

mauritanie 082 - atar - bab sahara
Bab Sahara hostel, an oasis in Atar, Mauritania

The smile on my face is back. The hostel’s watchman is a friendly dude who welcomes us cheerfully. We walk into the sandy yard, and it is absolutely charming. There are a couple of huts that look like yurts, a few khaimas (big Mauritanian tents) and what looks like a very cosy resting area. The watchman offers to carry my bag and says: “I will bring you to your caravan”.

Wait.

What do you mean, “your caravan”?

mauritanie 086 - atar - bab sahara - our caravan
A Dutch caravan in the middle of the desert. Not an illusion.

Turns out, there is a Dutch caravan, a real Dutch caravan, and that’s what we have booked for the night. I imagine that the perplexed look on my tired face must be hilarious! But yes, we are going to sleep in a Dutch caravan; this is what happens when you let your Dutch travel companion make phone calls without supervising him, haha!

In the caravan, I fall asleep with a smile on my face. What a bizarre end of a bizarre journey!

 

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