Mauritania: The iron ore train to Atar

November - December 2004


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The night I arrived in Nouadhibou I slept like a log at Camping Baie du Levrier, despite the rather worn and very soft mattress on the floor that served as my bed. When I woke in the morning it was late and I felt the urge to do nothing for the day after spending the last five days on the road. My new travelling companion Nao, who I had met in Dakhla, did not feel very well this morning and wanted to rest for the day. I took this opportunity to justify my urge to do nothing before catching the iron ore train into the desert the following afternoon. Nouadhibou turned out to be the perfect place to spend a day doing nothing, as there is nothing here to do.

Nouadhibou, previously known as Port-Etienne during the French colonial days, with a population of about 50,000, is in ways very similar to Dakhla, the next town north along the coast in Western Sahara, Morocco. Nouadhibou is also on a narrow peninsula, stretching 35km into the ocean. The peninsula is divided in two; the western side or Atlantic side is Moroccan, the eastern side, Mauritanian and between the two is a liberal scattering of landmines. Nouadhibou sits about halfway down the peninsula on the Baie du Levrier, another 11km south is Port Mineralier, whose name suggests, is where the iron ore trains terminate and the ore is loaded onto ships. Apart from being a major port where all the iron ore is exported from, Nouadhibou has a large fishing industry and the ocean here boasts one of the world's highest densities of fish. These two industries seem to justify the town's existence. For the traveller it is either a stopping off place between Dakhla and Nouakchott or the place to catch the iron ore train. There is really no other reason why you would end up in this town, unless fishing was your sport.

There is a very African atmosphere to Nouadhibou, compared to the towns I had travelled through in Western Sahara and Morocco. The difference between the two countries is similar to the difference between Morocco and Europe; I felt a lot closer to the heart of Africa here than I had in Morocco. There really isn't much to this town, apart from the main street, Boulevard Median and another street, Rue de la Galerie Mahfoud, which runs parallel one block over to the west. Leading west off this street is the Grand Marche, a messy area of crowded, narrow streets and alleyways. Flies covered everything, especially if it was edible, and rubbish littered the streets. Donkeys stood motionless on street corners with their carts, staring at the passing traffic and crowds while waiting for their owners to return. The Grand Marche had a distinctive chaotic air about it, which I liked; it was definitely an African market rather than an Arab souq. Most things were for sale here and I stocked up with some fresh fruit at one of the many fruit and vegetable stalls. Continuing west from the Grand Marche soon led to the railway line and beyond that, the desert.

I found nothing architecturally exciting about Nouadhibou; the concrete one or two storey buildings just served their purpose and nothing more. Donkey carts shared the road with new, shiny 4WDs and ancient Renaults that looked like they had been resurrected from a scrap heap. Dust and sand was never far away, blowing along the streets reminding you that you were in the middle of a desert. The only thing my guidebook recommended to do here was to go fishing. I decided to give that a miss and wandered rather aimlessly around the town instead. The streets were lively with crowds of people going about their business and I almost passed un-noticed along the streets. Everyone seemed friendly enough and I was never hassled as I walked around town.

Camping Baie Levrier is in the centre of town along the main street, Boulevard Median and is a popular stopping place for many overland travellers. During the late afternoon the courtyard began to slowly fill with vehicles including a British couple and a Frenchman on motorbikes and a couple of Norwegian lads in a 4WD van that was experiencing gearbox problems. The courtyard turned into an impromptu garage as everyone with a vehicle began tinkering with their engines, tightening loosened nuts and generally checking over their vehicles. The desert out here has a habit of eating vehicles. The Norwegians also had a large supply of cheap wine they had picked up in southern Spain, which needless to say was very welcome.

The following morning both Nao and I felt refreshed after our day relaxing in Nouadhibou and were ready to embark on the next stage of our journey on the iron ore train. At around lunchtime we took a taxi, one of those battered Renaults, to the train station, about 5km south of town. The station is not really a station, there's just a concrete shelter in the desert between the road and the railway line; it's nothing more than a patch of desert, no different from any other patch of desert surrounding the town. I had to double check with the taxi driver that he had dropped us at the correct place and that this really was the station, as it was not what you would expect a station to look like. We had arrived slightly too early; the train was due to arrive at 14.30, so we had a couple of hours to kill. Already though, locals had begun gathering in the sand along the track with their cargo neatly stacked ready to be loaded into one of the empty ore wagons. A steady stream of donkey carts and trucks pulled off the road and stopped alongside the track where they unloaded more cargo, mostly boxes of fruit, vegetables, sacks of onions and gas cylinders.

I went for a walk along the railway line while Nao kept an eye on our luggage back at the station. The sun was high in the sky shining down brightly on the dunes of white sand causing my eyes to squint. I continued across the road and walked towards the low cliffs around the bay. An impressive array of shipwrecks littered the bay, the rusting hulks all leaning to one side as the hulls rested on the sandy seabed. I think that the shear number of shipwrecks here, dozens of them, all beached around the bay rule out the possibilities that the bay is a particularly treacherous stretch of water. There surely can not be that many careless and navigationally challenged captains out there to all run aground in the same bay. This led me to the conclusion that all these ships had been dumped here while no one was looking, a cheaper option than decommissioning and scrapping.

Back at the station the crowds had begun to gather and the entrepreneurs had set up their stalls selling all the essentials you need for a long train journey, biscuits, water, soft drinks and fruit. As well as the occasional customer the stalls also attracted a huge cloud of flies, which covered everything, much to the exasperation of the traders. A crowd of people now stretched along the railway line together with tons of cargo, waiting under the hot sun for the train to arrive. The ticket salesman made an appearance and began going around the crowds selling tickets. Riding in an empty iron ore wagon is free and by far the most popular choice amongst the locals. A seat in the one passenger wagon at the back of the train cost 2,500 Ouguiya to Choum, which is where Nao and I planned to disembark to reach Atar on the Adrar plateau. Two other travellers turned up, Jeff from the United States and Josh from France, they both had decided to travel for free in a wagon.

The train was running about an hour late but eventually we heard the distant sound of the train's horn and everyone scrambled into position along the track. A deep rumble followed the sound of the horn, like a distant earthquake and in the distance a huge cloud of dust drifted west across the desert as the train approached through the shimmering heat haze. This train holds the record as the longest train in the world, measuring on average 2.5km in length. Three giant diesel locomotives haul this train, which soon thundered past me causing the ground beneath my feet to literally shake. The iron ore wagons stretched as far as my eye could see, disappearing into the haze and dust down the track. I later counted 165 wagons on a passing down train. Wagon after wagon flashed past me until the squeal of the brakes announced that the train would at last be stopping. Eventually it began to slow down, the brakes continuing to scream as they tried to stop this monster of a train. With perfect precision the single passenger carriage stopped in front of the concrete shelter, behind it were two brake wagons, the end of the world's longest train.

I had visions of the passenger carriage over shooting the station and all of us running through the desert after the train, but some good communication managed to bring the train to a halt with the passenger carriage right in front of me. Now the mad dash and scramble ensued to get in the two doors of the carriage to find a seat. People climbed in through the windows followed by tons of luggage; others were trying to climb up the steps into the carriage with giant suitcases and huge cardboard boxes and bags. Very soon it became clear it would take a while to get on board. I decided to take a few photos instead, working on the African assumption that there is always room for one more person on board and that it didn't matter if you were first or last on, you would still be squashed up in the same space. All the way up the tracks people were climbing up into the empty wagons, the cargo being passed up behind them. Somewhere up in that crowd were Jeff and Josh; I began to think that maybe travelling in a wagon would have been a more fun way to travel. However, I had already paid for a ticket, so I turned my attention back to the more pressing matter of trying to get into the passenger carriage.

Nao and I walked down to the door at the back of the carriage, which had a smaller crowd gathered around it. I managed fairly easily to get to the front of the crowd and climb into the carriage, which was not so easy with a backpack on. The carriage was divided up into compartments with six seats in each. I squeezed my way along the narrow corridor looking in each compartment, which were already full of people and luggage. To my surprise in the middle of the train I found an empty compartment and quickly threw my luggage in and reserved a seat for Nao who soon appeared looking as surprised as I was that we had found seats in an empty compartment. We settled down and made ourselves at home in the two seats beside the window and waited for other passengers to appear to claim the remaining four seats.

It wasn't long until a man dressed in a blue boiler suit appeared, weighed down with a huge cardboard box. He took the middle seat next to me. His cardboard box, which turned out to be a huge television set, occupied the seat next to the corridor. He worked at the mines at Zouerat and was returning to work after a shopping trip to Nouadhibou. He probably looked older than he actually was after spending many years working at the mines. A younger man who was very tall with elegant features and dressed impeccably in white robes, clutching a copy of the Koran, came into our compartment and quietly sat down in the seat opposite the television set. He only carried a small, smart luggage case, which he carefully placed in the rack above the seats. The final spare seat in our compartment was soon taken by another man, the same age as myself, although the years spent living out in this desert environment made him look a lot older. He was dressed casually in fatigues and t-shirt, with a warm coat tucked under his arm. As soon as he had sat down he opened his bag and pulled out a gas stove, an old battered teapot, a bag of tea and a rock of sugar; we had onboard tea making facilities in our compartment, which brought a smile to my face.

The train didn't stop too long and we were soon jolted from our seats as the train pulled away from the patch of desert referred to as Nouadhibou station. It was about 15:00, the sun beat down on the desert, shining through the dusty windows of the carriage, which we managed to open to create a refreshing breeze. Dust covered everything in the carriage, piling up in the corners on the floor, engrained in the worn out fabric of the seats, which were torn and faded from the harsh desert sunlight. This dilapidated passenger carriage had seen far better days; boards were missing from the floor, windows missing or jammed and most of the light bulbs had long since expired. It soon became apparent why everything was caked in so much dust; a 2.5km long train creates its own dust storm as it is hauled through the desert and we were right at the back of this huge, choking cloud. Unable to close all the windows, as many were broken, we were left sitting in a hot and very dusty carriage. I soon settled down and stared out of the window, watching the endless desert slip by; we were on our way deep into the desert to the farthest reaches of civilisation.

It wasn't long until Nao and I were offered our first cup of tea; the little stove and teapot spent the next few hours doing overtime keeping all of us refreshed in the dusty atmosphere lingering in our compartment. Despite the track being extremely uneven and the carriage lurching in every direction possible as we rolled across the desert, not a single drop of tea was spilt, quite an achievement. The man sitting next to me with the giant television set soon began chanting verses from the Koran over and over again; it became quite hypnotic listening to these chants while watching the timeless landscape of the desert pass by the window. Occasionally we would pass a tiny settlement, a herd of goats grazing on what little vegetation grew in this extreme environment. Now and again I caught sight of a herd of camels majestically marching through the dunes or across the plateaus on a journey to nowhere in this vast expanse of desert.

The journey soon fell into a routine of tea drinking, praying and chanting of verses from the Koran. I stretched my legs periodically and walked along the corridor of the carriage, stepping over people lying on the floor trying to sleep the journey away. I hung my head out of a window watching this incredibly long train snake it's way further and further into the depths of the Sahara. As the train went around curves I could only just make out the three engines in the far distance, almost 2.5km in front of us. In the evening the setting sun cast an orange glow across the landscape, the clear, blue sky turning a deeper shade of blue as each minute passed and one by one the stars appeared. This was the cue for everyone to pray as day turned into night. All along the corridor and in every compartment men and women were on their knees praying. The carriage became enveloped in the darkness outside, apart from a few lights in the corridor.

Soon most people were sleeping or snoozing as we continued to bounce down the tracks towards our destination of Choum; there was little else to do. At some point during the night we stopped at a station in the middle of nowhere; I could see some bright lights in the distance, but we were still very much out in the desert. Everyone took this opportunity to jump off the train and stroll around or sit down in the sand. The night air was refreshingly cool after the heat of the day and the sand still radiating the warmth of the day. I didn't venture too far from the train, unsure as to how long we would be stopped here for. The distant sound of the train's horn signalled that we were about to move and everyone clambered back up into the carriage. I returned to my seat and soon dozed off again in the darkness as this small, mobile community of African travellers continued endlessly east into the desert.

The man who had been making tea waked me in the middle of the night. In the torchlight I could see that his bags were packed and he was now wearing his coat and a woollen hat. "Choum, Choum, Choum!" he shouted at Nao and I. Looking at my watch I saw that it had just gone three in the morning; it took a moment or two to get my brain into gear, I felt disorientated until I remembered where I was, Choum, our destination at last. We followed the man off the train and climbed into the back of a pick up truck, which had pulled alongside the carriage. The cool desert air quickly woke me up as we began driving alongside the train and into Choum, from where we would need to arrange a bush taxi to take us the final leg of our journey to Atar on the Adrar plateau.

Continue reading this journey: Atar