The only link for many locals between the coast and the desert, Mauritania’s famous iron ore transporter may be the longest train in the world. I learned about it from a Michael Palin documentary, and subsequent research showed me that, for all the blank mystery of Mauritania, the train is one thing that still brings in curious tourists.
The train leaves from Nouadhibou at least once per day — ask around for what time it’s likely to depart. I was told 2 or 3 o’clock, but knowing this line ain’t operated by the Swiss, I got there a couple hours early to be on the safe side. The train station is a little to the north of the city; I took a private taxi which cost 500 ouguiya. There’s a pleasant waiting room with a snack shop. A cop showed up to look at my passport and to take a fiche. As the fateful hour drew closer passengers started to gather in the dusty quadrangle beside the tracks, and I went outside to join them. There were vendors strolling around selling snacks, but it was all junk food; nothing to sustain you on a 12 hour train journey except perhaps fruit. If you don’t have sand goggles, these guys also sell sunglasses; try to get some wrap-arounds.
I was about to spring for some of the junk food when an older lady whistled at me and beckoned me over to where she was sitting. She made contemptuous gestures at the vendors and filled my arms with tangerines, bananas, and that mauritanian delicacy, the individually-packaged muffin. Her name was Fatima, a grandmotherly sort who said she had three children living in Germany. Her French was about on par with mine and she was a blast to hang out with. I was used to Moroccan society, where it’s nearly impossible to get acquainted with women. In Mauritania, the lassies are as open and approachable as the men. Fatima was the first of several natives I made friends with with at the station. There was also Lehbib, a cool, swell-headed guy who drove up in a sleek SUV with his family in tow. He spoke decent English; more significantly he was one of those compulsive communicators. We shot the breeze through his car window for an hour. We talked about the desert, and what my job prospects would be if I decided to settle down in Mauritania. He spoke of the powerful role of women in Mauritanian society; I taught him the expression ‘to wear the pants in the family’; he laughed fit to burst and agreed this was a fitting term. Some young dudes, Hamed and Mohammed, insisted I take a photo of them. They didn’t speak much French, but we got along.
Mild chaos erupted when they opened the passenger cars for people who had paid for tickets. But for those riding in the cargo cars (I believe ‘jenny’ is the proper term for this type of car) it was a relaxed process of gathering one’s effects and choosing a comfortable place. I hung back to see how it was done. The jennies took some clambering to get into. A man who had pulled up with a pickup full of wrapped packages was flinging them one after another into one car; further down goats were being passed bodily from man to man and dropped into another. The only thing I was nervous about was choosing the right company for the long journey. My new friends Hamed and Mohammed seemed a good bet. I climbed in with them and they greeted me like a brother. While they knelt and said their afternoon prayer I had a few minutes to stomp around and learn the ropes. It’s best to set up your bed on the side with the most shelter from the wind, and common practice to sweep a little pile of iron dust into one corner to urinate in.
I won’t spoil the trip for potential train riders by describing the experience too much. Once the train gets moving and the dust starts blowing like a plague, you are immersed in a hostile environment which tests most aspects of your endurance. I felt a heightened sense of reality once the wheels started turning, and I lay on my back between the sky and the iron carriage, hearing my companions’ prayers faintly through the gale of wind and feeling the vibrations in my teeth. The ordeal of getting all the way down here had been worth it, whatever the next few weeks had in store.
Listed below are the absolute essentials for riding the train.
- Sand goggles
- A flashlight
- Comfort food (a flask of 18-year-old Talisker helped me sleep)
- A sleeping pad, or a big piece of cardboard. This is important not just to insulate you from the cold metal floor, but also to dampen the vibrations which were the main thing that kept me awake.
- A sheet to protect you from the dust. The reason I was so miserably cold was that I didn’t want to expose my nice sleeping bag to the billowing clouds of iron particles. Nouadhibou has hundreds of secondhand clothing shops; an old sheet could be bought for pennies.
- A sleeping bag; see note above.
One important thing to remember: when you hear a sound like an approaching jet engine, either hold on to something or hit the deck. The driver has just hit the brakes and those carriages kick like a mule.
I hardly slept at all, thanks to the cold. I awoke just before dawn to find Hamed and Mohammed at their prayers. I started to brew some instant coffee over a hobo stove. It took so long to heat up thanks to the wind that it was barely worth the effort, but just because you’re hopping trains like a filthy hobo doesn’t mean you can’t sip a civil cup of coffee while you watch the sun rise over the desert.
I took the above photo of Mohammed while I sipped my coffee. Shortly after, he turned to me and said, “I thought you said you were getting off at Choum.”
I nearly spit out my coffee. So much for the wakeup call!
My two hours of sleep had turned out to be at the worst possible time. In some smothering dreams I’d thought I’d felt the train stop and heard people unload. Now I was stuck heading north in entirely the wrong direction.
But as I had no concrete plans, I had no real objection to continuing to Zouerate. I had my cup of coffee, and the scenery after Choum gets interesting. Fans of industrial infrastructure will enjoy the ride between Choum and the mining city of Zouerate. Mining sites, both new and long abandoned, and resembling the post-apocalyptic level of many video games, are set into a black massif which stretches alongside the track.
Away to the east is the border, and beyond that is the sandy section of the western Sahara controlled by Polisario rebels (the train actually passes through it for a couple miles).
When the train arrived at Zouerate I debarked and stood by the tracks waiting for providence to direct me.
Providence stumbled out of the sleeper car behind a large basket of muffins and bananas. It was my pal Fatima, who gave a little shriek when she saw me. She served as a translator, shaking down the railway workers for info on the next train departure. I could get on my way to Choum at 3:00pm, they said, and of course Fatima, proclaiming herself my ‘grandmere mauritanienne’ insisted I rest at her family’s home for the interval.
The ride from Zouerate to Choum takes about 5 hours. This time I was able to relax in a shipping container instead of in one of the bucket cars. I’d also been given the option to ride inside an old Ford truck which was being transported on a flatcar, but I’d opted for the container since it was free.
I was joined by a young Mauritanian who spoke educated French and a bit of English. I never got his name but he’d just hitchhiked across the Sahara from Algiers and was making his way home to Nouadhibou. We shut the door of the container to keep out the grit, and by the light of our torches we shared food, told stories, discussed politics and language.
He gave me a hell of a shock when he said, “I don’t know if this train is stopping in Choum.”
I reeled at this; it would mean two wasted days and a second 12 hour trip through hell. As I counted down the hours I kept a close watch on the remaining daylight. I told my companion, “if it’s still light when we go past Choum, I think I’m going to jump. The train will have to slow down for the curved track, and you can throw my bags after me.”
I tried to make it sound easy so he wouldn’t think I was crazy. I brewed us some coffee to cool my nerves and we stepped outside the container to enjoy the sunset, leaning over the rail to watch the hues of sky and sand growing darker and more muted, until they were the same three dimensional inkiness. Below the train I watched the ties flash by at their lethal speed, the rocks and the uneven ground whizz by, and I made up my mind I was still going to jump.
Mundane reality snatched me from the jaws of adventure. When we drew near to Choum the train shuddered to a gentle halt, and I was able to bid my friend a civil farewell.
Navigating Choum: The Choum police are always cruising around in their truck when a train arrives; if you look foreign they’ll definitely pick you up and give you a lift into town. I was ‘invited’ to pitch my tent in the police station courtyard. It was about 8pm; I was told once the 4am train arrived from Nouadhibou the bush taxis would start running to Atar. These cops were extremely friendly and let me watch their TV for a while. They said they’d give me a wakeup call when the train came, but of course it was the train that woke me as it screeched into town.
I don’t know if there are any proper hotels in Choum, but behind the police station there’s a large dingy room where you can sleep on wicker mats for a small price. You’ll definitely get a better night’s sleep in the police station courtyard, however.
Getting to Atar: The bush taxis are white 4WD pickup trucks. You have the choice between riding in the cab or in the back. I chose the latter of course; I paid 2000MRO going to Atar and 1500 coming back. The comfort of passengers in the back comes secondary to whatever cargo needs to be jammed in there, and it turned out to be a harrowing two hour ride, with four other people balanced on top of the cargo and no paved roads until we neared the city. We left Choum while it was still dark and I clung on with white knuckles to the luggage net, trying in vain to pick out detail in the desert beyond the glow of the headlight. Everything was black. We were offroad, and here and there I saw other pairs of headlights making their own way through the scrubby terrain. As dawn neared I caught my first glimpse of the Adrar — a sublime region of jet black plateaus and scrub vegetation, set about with large villages which had a lot of cool examples of traditional architecture.
When using shared transport, have your fiches handy as there are multiple checkpoints and you don’t want to delay everyone’s journey.
Atar: Atar is a lively little city, the tourism hub of the Adrar. It holds the sad ghosts of a thriving tourism industry; tour offices and trinket shops which were built before everything fell to pieces five years ago. There’s at least one cybercafé there; just ask a local to show you the way. The cheapest way to get out of Atar is with the bus or bush taxi companies, of which there are several in town. Shared taxis can be fairly expensive unless there are a lot of other people up for sharing the lift.
Dealing with transport in Atar was the only time in Mauritania that I suspected there was some measure of conniving going on. If someone tells you that there are no more departures to your destination that day, ignore him and go ask someone else.
If you need help with anything in Atar, I made good friends with Moktar, an outgoing young guy who really saved me when I was stuck with no money. I can vouch for his honesty. He can arrange any kind of tours, camel treks, or even (as he says with pride) a traditional Mauritanian wedding. His phone number is 00 222 360707 99 (email@example.com). Though I can pretty much guarantee he’ll find you one way or another.
So after a few hours in Atar you’ve updated your Facebook and escaped from the scarf sellers. Now stock up on bread and dates, book your transport, and get ready to see some of the real beauty of Mauritania.