The continent got some crazy train rides, but riding through the night on a cargo train meant for transporting iron ore, not passengers, compares to nothing else.
10.05.2016 - 11.05.2016 30 °C
I happily endured a few extra hours of scorching Saharan sun to get the worst seat available. The shady area around the station building was reserved for those who had been intelligent enough to buy a ticket for the one passenger carriage that makes up the rear of the train. It wasn’t like the tickets were sold out either. Or too expensive. But I was here to ride the Iron Ore Train and I wasn’t going to take the easy option out as other, more famous, travellers had done before me (Michael Palin, I’m looking at you). To travel this train, you simply jump into one of the open waggons, endure the scorching sun, the freezing night and the impossible dusty twelve-hour journey. During those twelve hours, this train will bring me from the coastal city of Nouadhibou and 400 km into the Sahara.
This train is the longest in the world, averaging2.5 km in length and maxing out at 3 km. That’s between 250 and 300 waggons. It’s also one of the heaviest when these are loaded with iron ore dust. From what I’ve been told that also makes it the dustiest train ride in the world. But initially, the dust wasn’t a problem, the sun was. The train leaves once a day; at any given time, between two in the afternoon and midnight. So once you’ve shown up at the station, it’s basically a waiting game. For this train passengers aren’t the priority, the iron dust is. I turned up about a quarter to three, with no train in sight. The first hour was spent explaining the police why I was in Mauritania. Not in a controlling manner; they were clearly bored and wanted to chat. And their office was in the share, so I was in no hurry to get out of there.
I’d come prepared, for the sun, the cold and the dust. My long ski underway has been surprisingly useful in Africa. I’ve used it for hiking in the jungle on previous trips and wore it for much of the mishaps in the Banc du d’Arguin. It covers me from the sun; it transports the sweat away from my body and it isn’t as hot as you might think. Come night; it will also help keeping me warm. For the dust, I’d gotten a flour sack for my backpack and I’ve practised my turban/terrorist-scarf skills for a few days now. It worked out pretty well, but still amateurish compared to the Mauritanians, who are experts at covering their faces from the dust. People will go most of the day with scarves covering their face, and at times, it almost looks like Mauritania is a country inhabited by bank robbers.
While waiting in the sun, I quickly made friends with a handful of locals… Well, some of them where Mauritanian and somewhere refugees from the Sahrawi camps in southwestern Algeria, who worked as seasonal workers in Mauritania’s harbours. Oh, and they probably made friends with me – not the other way around. I tried to explain to them why I wanted to ride in the carts instead of the more comfortable carriage. They didn’t understand it. Why wouldn’t I just share the room in the carriage with them? I played the tourist card, telling them I was there for the experience of riding in the empty iron ore carts – “tourists are weird”. Truth be told, not even all the people crazy enough to go to West Africa is crazy enough to do this. I, however, had been looking forward to doing this for months.
And riding in the carriage has some drawbacks to it too. Getting a seat on one of the two benches along the walls will require vigorous infighting with around 50 locals. They will all be better at it, more experienced and less merciful than me; I would most likely end up sitting, with too little legroom, on the floor. It’s going to be overcrowded and stinking hot, so I’d rather try my luck with the dust.
The train rolled up at around five p.m. in a cloud of dust that only grew larger for each passing waggon. At least they were empty going into the desert. I picked some nice-looking locals and followed them up into one of the carts. Their friends, in the meantime, were busy loading the neighbouring cart with ten goats. If the goats could do this, I could too. We settled in, in the cart’s shady side. My new companions came armed with thick jackets, blankets and a small teapot. I’d broad along my trusted travel sweater, a windbreaker and a sleeping bag. For a bit of comfort, I’d copied numerous homeless people and brought a thick piece of cardboard to sit on.
The train sets out with what is by far the most frightening sound I have ever heard. Like a building coming crashing down on top of me or a thunder rolling ever closer. Instinctively I duck down into the cart, just before the waggon receives a heavy pull, moves forward and bumps into the waggon in from of it. In the same instant, the waggon behind ours does the same. The sound is the continuous ‘clonks’ of carts hitting each other, getting closer and closer. It was the same ever time we had stopped and during those twelve hours, I never got used to it.
Once the first excitement of rolling out had settled, this train ride – like most train rides – get pretty boresome. The landscape ‘outside’ is endless desert, impressive but dull. Whenever I got up to enjoy it, the dust storm generated by 250 train waggons hits me at full force. The interesting bits of the journey are experienced inside the cart. The little teapot, somehow, produced endless amounts of tea, which were generously shared amongst everybody. The talks quickly fell on football. Did I like Barcelona or Real Madrid better (Spanish football is the only football worth anything here)? I tried to play it diplomatically, as I actually prefer Athletic Madrid to the two formers, but that wouldn’t do. I had to pick one. Then, I’m easily a Barca-man, to the great satisfaction to that half of passengers who share my conviction. The other half insisted that Danes don’t know anything about Spanish football.
Despite the languish barriers, conversation flew relatively easy and day turned to night. This is where choosing the open waggons really pays off. The desert night’s sky is unrivalled, and if you haven’t seen one, you need to head to your nearest desert right away. Just lying on my back in the open cart, enjoying the view, made time fly. Suddenly, we arrived at Choem, in pitch blackness. Until the waiting pickups turned on their blinding headlights, ready to drive us the final kilometres, further into the Sahara.
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