The Iron Ore Train

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Africa » Mauritania » Adrar » Choum
March 31st 2011
Published: April 8th 2011
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Will there be somewhere for me to sit down, lay down? Will I have to stand up the whole time? What about a toilet? Will I be able to breath? Where’s my luggage going to go? Even if I am able to sit or lay down, what’s the state of the floor or seat? Will I be able to cope catching an iron ore train for 12 hours not equipped for humans and getting sand blasted by the Sahara for my troubles?

I crossed over from Morocco and we cross the train line, which was going through maintenance so that brought confidence and concern at the same time. I reached Nouadhibou, which is the second biggest city in Mauritania. It is used for its port and is a desert landscape. It is also the location to catch the only train in the country. It goes inland to Zouerat, which transports iron-ore from the Sahara to the coast. Since there are no alternatives there are two trains a day - one going each way – which allows passengers to come on board.

Mauritania is French speaking also so I was forced to use my Spanish, which has come in handy the past 3 weeks. There is always someone around that has as much Spanish as me so it’s at least a form of communication other than hand gestures.

I walked around the town and a really unexciting place it is. I made it to the municipal stadium and saw a live football match between two teams with an awful first touch. The game was played on artificial grass. I’m not sure if they thought I was a European scout or not. The linesman’s were doing a first class job and they were kept busy with plenty of offsides. I had to leave at half time before I started yelling out “Why the hell did you pass it there for!” or “WHY ARE YOU STANDING OFFSIDE ALL THE TIME!”

I continued my walk along in search of the port and maybe a beach and I saw a tarred road to the left. It was the marine military area. I got to the water and the place was heaving with military drills. Men in uniform, some with fluorescent vests on. This is assumed to be an effort to battle the continued illegal boats trying to cross over to the Canary Islands (part of Spain).

A lot of illegal boats try and cross over to the islands in which it’s off to mainland Europe from there, where they’ll probably sell sunglasses to tourists in Italy. This as well as other parts of the West African coast is their last sight of Africa before the ‘Promised Land.’ There is also a strong Spanish contingent in the city to tackle this issue with a guarded building proudly flying the Spanish flag.

At dinner I met the chef from the restaurant who was from Gambia. I asked the question, “Why are you here? Wouldn’t the chances be better in Gambia, which has a higher package tour trade?” He said that when he goes home he gets a bad exchange from here. But the most likely thing is that he is in Mauritania for the long term. He is biding his time until he manages to get to Morocco and from there he’s into Spain and to the EU where he’ll start either by selling sunglasses to tourists in France or an illegal chef in London.

I managed to meet and have dinner with 3 Austrians who have their own vehicle. One of them is on his 25th visit to Mauritania - He just can’t get enough. The previous night they had some wine for dinner at the last small town before the border. Two border guards saw them drinking it. The next day those guards were working at the border and searched the Austrians vehicle and ordered that they should have the wine. In the end the Austrians had to let go of 2 bottles of wine. They tried to get rid of the beer but the guards refused - they wanted wine. After dinner we got picked up by some locals. I was later told that they are from the border too - This time Mauritania side. They came to pick up some clothes that the Austrians promised to give them at the border. Incredible!

It had been 36 hours in 48 hours of travel by this point and I could feel the bags under my eyes. It was like they were carrying a fortnights worth of groceries. But I battled on knowing that once I got through this section it was smooth sailing.

Mauritania was only part of a European colony in 1904 when the French after trying for years made it part of their colony. But independence was granted in 1960 with no problems as the Spanish and French didn’t want Morocco to expand. There is a class difference here very similar to Sudan, which indicates that the white man is not the only culprit of putting down the black man.

The higher percentage around 60% are Arab Moors or Berber descent. The other majority group are the black Africans, which are mainly in the south. Those southerners have been treated like second-class citizens for most of independence. In 1989 mainly black African southerners, 70 000, were expelled to Senegal.

It’s hard to really see it first hand but when you look at the business owners they all look to be of Arab descent. At passport check before Nouadhibou the black African lady in the car with me was like “Come on are you serious you don’t think I’m Mauritanian?” So she makes a bit of a fuss about having to hand over the passport, she was insulted. The more Arab skin toned guard than arks up with finger pointing telling her what position she is in the pecking order. Our driver (who is also Arab decent) turns to her and basically says. “What the hell are you doing? Just hand over the passport! Who gives a shit! What’s the difference?”

That was my introduction to a country I was now going to the middle of. I later found out I was going into an area marked as a red zone or scaled at 6 in a 1-6 scale system – 6 being the worst with some embassies because of terrorist kidnapping threats.

I heard that the train leaves between 1 and 3pm each day. So I get there early where the flies really hit the target with force. The station is 5kms west of town and is a white concrete building with not much else going for it - Just desert. As the people started to build up I was thinking. ‘What the hell am I about to put myself through?’ I couldn’t help but have some typical prejudices that you have towards Africa. That it’s not going to be clean. I tried to make myself feel better by coming up with this. ‘If I manage to find a place on the floor that doesn’t have any piss or shit on it than luck is on my side.’

It is 2pm and the sounds behind the station sounded like the train was coming but it was the cranes working in the port. Local women came and set up stands with plenty of egg cartons with no eggs just a cushion for water bottle, biscuits and bread.

I went up to buy some bread off one of the ladies but was rejected. I could only think that the reason was because I was white. I touched one of the baguettes and it didn’t feel stale. It’s a very lonesome feeling when you are by yourself and no one is there to explain why I’m the only person not allowed to buy bread. I just had to cop it sweet and sit back down leaving it to a mystery. 10 minutes later another guy tried to buy but was rejected. Only 15 minutes before I went up, bread was making a roaring trade.

All up I waited for 3 and a half hours for the train to arrive. People gathered around the track as it approached. It is one of the longest trains in the world getting up to 2.5km long. I had deliberately not gone up to the office to buy a carriage ticket or sleeper as it reads uncomfortable. I wanted to go into the iron-ore wagon and let the Saharan sand hit me. The train now accommodates for passengers on the last carriage behind the 2+ kms of iron ore wagons.

The train stops and its just follow the leader because there is no idea what’s going on. It’s a massive panic as there is only a minimal time to get on. I end up fighting my way onto a carriage. I throw my things on there, hoping what I am doing is what I want to do. I realise it’s a seating carriage and think ‘Oh this is not what I want.’ At this stage there is no chance to get off because everyone else is struggling to get in. But as I wait to get off I am forced to go in even further when I notice that the green bag that has some of my food and drink (I was wise enough to split things in case of this exact situation.) had been mistakenly taken in the rushed panic down the aisle.

So I follow this green bag that is disappearing up the aisle whilst people inside on the aisle are getting passed bags full of who knows what through the window and filing the aisle up. I try to manoeuvre myself around them with my backpack on whilst getting my last glimpse of my green bag entering into a cabin. I eventually get there to the amazed panic of the occupants. “Non, non, non!” They put their hands in front of me. They think I want to sit with them. There is failure to express what I want verbally so I have to point at the bag “Myuoi!” I get my bag.

I am now 4 cabins in and no chance to get myself into the iron ore wagon. I am told to wait in this one cabin vacant and joined by 5 others. I then have to pay 2500 about $9 to sit on a chair with a comfortable yet dirty back cushion and a missing bottom section - Its just timber now. The windows dirty and the sliding door has no door. I often wonder what the thoughts of the first people to ever ride on this carriage back in Germany would be now when they have a look at how it has turned out.

Eventually as the day turned to night. A guy would be sleeping in the baggage storage area at the top. Someone on the floor, another on the 3 wooden seats and the rest, including me, in a ball trying to rock to sleep.

They made tea and had a burner. Mauritanians love to make mint tea with some froth. They pour from glass to glass and as they pour they raise it in the air to great heights until the froth covers half the glass. With the trains rocking it’s an impressive sight. But one time when the train shuddered the tray and tea went everywhere, pretty funny at the time.

Again my Spanish came into use as one passenger could speak a bit better Spanish than me so we communicated through him. There were talks about how poor the country is. I was told that Australia is a very rich country. In fact all week locals were telling me this (The Aussie dollar reached $1.04 to the US$.) One smart arse would keep asking for money. But I’ll give them this much. They don’t mind asking but they wouldn’t take when you say no. One thing about Arab countries is that they are honest people and petty stuff like that you don’t have to worry about as much. But still my time in South America means I can’t travel like that so I did keep close contact with my bags throughout.

I spent a bit of time looking out the window from the aisle. A few times when the train made a gradual turn you could see the length of the train. Combined with the desert landscape as its backdrop and with the horizon seeming so far away. This train is just stretching out for it.

Towards sunset and in the carriage the aisle people started to prey - kneeling down. One time I was about to eat and held back. I then started about 20 minutes later and someone else started preying next to me. I was too far into the meal to stop this time.

I ate in the aisle outside the window, as I felt shit eating in front of them. They ate before boarding whilst I didn’t. I was deliberately starving myself to a point where I needed to eat because if I ate food early on than I would hate the trip, starving knowing I had no food left. They did serve sandwiches to buy.

Honestly it wasn’t all that bad and that is because I had expectations so low and I’ve been travelling in so much shit over the years I don’t expect much anymore. I met some Italians who managed to do the trip in the open top wagon. And they got sand blasted. Their camera didn’t work anymore because sand penetrated the minute gap in his bag and managed to get into the camera.

It’s not just one train on the line too, there are multiple trains running. We stopped numerous times for the line to become free with a train going the opposite direction. At this time people took the opportunity to do a desert pee and prey. A desert pee is when you kneel and pee. Mainly because the wind is unpredictable and at any moment a change and you are peeing on yourself. One of the trains had people sitting on the top of the actual iron ore. The open top wagon is a free ride but still that’s a bit outrageous.

The stars at night were another one of those moments where you witness millions of tiny stars that hide behind the other tiny stars. If you look carefully the whole sky almost turns into a sparkling white. Also since sleep is at a premium and we were rocking back and forth. Looking out the window was given new meaning than just to brake the time. Throughout the night I saw different constellations (that I don’t know the names of) move position throughout the night.

Towards the end I heard mice when we stopped at about 00:30. I think the guy heard them opposite me so he started preying. They were communicating to each other “DENNIS! There’s some lovely filth down’ ere!” so there was definitely more than one. It was at this point I was thinking okay that’s a bit much.

We arrived at 3am into a town called Choum. It’s a small town of about 10 or so buildings and its pitch black. We are picked up by a Ute and driven off the tracks. After 45 minutes we re-load the Ute and I take my position on the back of the Ute. There is so much luggage that I will take my seat out the back above the roof. I thought I was up for smooth sailing but I was only half way.

Mauritania has Ben Amira the worlds second biggest rock behind Australia’s Ularu. Unfortunately it cannot be seen going the direction I was going. But going reverse is a better chance. You leave from Choum in daylight and the site is not that far down the track and is visible apparently from the train.

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9th April 2011

Very nice blog
Thanks for sharing your travels. This is a very nice blog.

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