Daily Archives: January 26, 2020

Chemin de fer

I randomly found internet posts about journeying on the iron ore train’ Deep in the Sahara there is a massive iron ore mine. Typically twice daily the ore is transported on freight train carriages in a train that is 1 mile long making it the longest train in the world. Backpackers have found that you can board the train from Choum about halfway at around 5pm and spend the next 12-16 hours sitting on top of the ore getting off at Nouadibou by the sea. There are no passenger cars and the ride is both free and laissez faire as the locals will often hitch a ride as well.

Similarly the empty wagons are hauled back to the mine and the most reliable way of riding this train is to pick it up between 3 and 4 pm at Nouadibou and ride in the empty carriages. We only have about 5 minutes to climb up the ladder and jump 5 feet into the empty wagon. Noone checks those who are hitching and the train departs at the driver’s whim. We are safely on board and the engines fire up. The first lurch of the engine sends the first carriage bouncing and sets up a shock wave that roars down the train with a massive boom and jolt a pattern that would happen at random but frequently throughout the journey adding to the discomfort.

As the train picks up speed a plume of desert dust is raised and funnels straight back over the carriages and their occupants. We cover our faces with masks and goggles but still the fine dust gets in everywhere. I stand up and peer over the side for the first 3 hours until sunset taking photos while trying to protect my camera. As the sun sets the temperature plummets to around freezing point and we done thermals and warm apparel and snuggle under blankets lying down on the hard metal floor to hunker down for the night.

The train arrives at Choum at 2am and filthy and sandblasted we climb out into the darkness and sleep the rest of the night in the relative luxury of the tents put up for us by our drivers who have met us there.

Am I glad to have done it, yes. Would I do it again, never! At 62 years of age I found myself asking why do I put myself through such ordeals? I have no idea why but I am sure that there will be other harebrained travel experiences that I will hear about in the future and I will be off again.

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I don’t really know why I romanticised that Mauritania would be a land of sweeping golden Saharan sand dunes against the deep blue Atlantic sea. Unsurprisingly first impressions did not match with the fantasy. Starting with the interminable wait at the border and then the drive to our first stop, Mauritania’s second city Nouadibou. All around are typical grubby African streetscapes set among flat arid wastelands. On our first evening we drive over roadless countryside on a 4WD bush bash to a 400 year old Spanish built lighthouse and then down to a beach that used to be the site of the ship’s graveyard one of the iconic pictures online of things to see here. The ships are gone and we just enjoyed sunset there.

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Sadly the new ships’ graveyard is being tidied up by the ubiquitous Chinese (what an altruistic nation!) and whereas last year there were 15 wrecked ships here today there are only 2 and by next year there will be none.


The rest of this city has absolutely nothing scenic to offer. This is Africa!

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