The Iron Ore Train

We’ve had a handful of long bus, train and boat rides on our trip–going over the Torugart and Khunjerab passes, crossing the Taklamakan Desert, ferrying to Sulawesi, traversing the Balkan Peninsula, taking the COMANAV up to Timbuktu–but none has approached the chaos and uncertainty of the journey we just completed, from the Adrar to Nouadhibou on Mauritania’s famous iron ore train.

The iron ore train travels a few times a day from Zouerat in north-central Mauritania to Nouadhibou in Mauritania’s northwestern corner (link to map), carrying blocks of iron ore in hundreds of cars that form one of the world’s heaviest and longest trains, usually around 2.5 km long. Once a day, the train carries a passenger wagon, which most tourists (and many locals) opt to take over the free alternative of riding in one of the iron ore wagons (on which the Rough Guide says that the dust will work its way into your soul). Well, this sounded like quite an adventure, and, needing to go from the Adrar to Nouadhibou, we thought we would go for a ride this world famous train.

Our trip started at 8 AM in Chinguetti, a city of much peace and solitude that we were sorry to leave, when we caught a truck taxi for Atar, the main city of the Adrar, where we arrived a couple hours later. Atar being about three hours from Choum, the train’s sole stop between its origin at the mining city of Zouerat and its terminus at the port of Nouadhibou, and the train being scheduled to depart from Choum around 5 PM or so, we hung around Atar, using the internet and whatnot (there was no Internet in Chinguetti) until around noon, when we found another share taxi, this time to Choum.

The ride from Atar to Choum is said to be scenic, but even with high expectations what we saw was exceedingly beautiful–stark and endless rocky desert, with the huge cliffs of the Adrar Plateau nearby, and scattered, isolated tents and settlements. There was no way that someone who didn’t know the region well could possibly find the route along a track that seemed to keep disappearing and re-appearing, perhaps because even our driver lost it now and then, to regain it further on.

We arrived in Choum around 3:30 PM. Now, I didn’t expect Choum to be much–the only reason for its existence is as a service point for the iron ore train–but I did picture it as something like a town. No, it is pretty much a square–ringed with “restaurants” serving only tea and grocery stores selling only dry goods–surrounded by a bunch of ramshackle houses not so different from those in a sub-Saharan African village. There isn’t even a real train station, only a sort of shack as we would later discover. Surprisingly, considering that we were not in a big city or near the Senegalese or Malian borders, most of the residents seemed African, leaving us to wonder to what extent the current residents of the town had chosen to live there, or had arrived with some degree of compulsion from their employers (or masters or owners, given the supposed state of slavery in Mauritania, outlawed in 1981–yes, the eighties–but still persisting).

When we first arrived in Choum, not finding any ticket or train office, we just waited around. Hungry, but not finding any real food for sale, we ate the bread and canned tuna that we had brought along, together with ginger-pineapple flavored Foster Clark’s, a powder drink bought from a local shop. We played with the children who were begging us for money (and later dug out from the garbage and licked the empty can of tuna to see what it was that we had been eating). We watched the local men play some form of lawn bowling. Others were clearly expecting to board the train–they had luggage–and so we figured that we would just follow their lead. Eventually, a man told us that the train was coming at 9 PM, not 5 PM, which made us sigh but, well, it was not as if we hadn’t been warned that the schedule of the iron ore train is far from fixed.

The same man identified for us the ticket office, or rather the man in charge of selling tickets, and so we walked over and bought two, at around USD 10 each. The guidebook said that there were two available classes of travel–seats and berths–but the man didn’t mention anything of the sort, and offered only one type of ticket. We were told that the train was going to arrive around midnight, and that we should wait starting around 9 PM from a small white building on the horizon. And so it appeared that the train was already running seven hours late.

When we left the office, a dark-skinned, heavy-set man indicated to us in extremely broken Spanish that we should come to his house for dinner. (The Western Sahara, at one point a Spanish colony though a much neglected one, is still a sort of Spanish-speaking region, especially among the native Saharawi, as opposed to the Francophone Moroccans who have settled in the region after after its occupation/annexation by Morocco in 1975). Every time he spoke to us in Spanish, presumably the only language he knew other than his mother tongue of Hassaniya Arabic, he would look at a little crib sheet, with a short list of Spanish vocabulary written in the Arabic script.

We went over to the man’s house, and drank the tea made by his young son in the elaborate local fashion. To pass the time and minimize awkward silence we shared photographs from our trip that we had on our iPod with the man and his precocious son. There was much interest in the great architectural and cultural sights of the Muslim world, such as Cairo and Damascus, and we were surprised by how easily they recognized all of the key politicians of the region, calling out their names when they saw them. But the only pictures for which the man would have us go back? Photographs of women, which he would admire leeringly (we were told once that one reason that Muslim women dislike having their pictures taken is that they are afraid men will use them for some prurient end–and so it may be!).

Our show and tell was interrupted by the sudden sound of a train outside. It was only about eight–four hours before midnight, when the train was supposed to arrive–but it was clearly here. We grabbed our bags and ran through the darkness for the tracks–not far from the man’s home–and then ran the couple of kilometers along the tracks to the small building where passengers are supposed to board. The darkness, our small flashlight and headlamp bobbing up and down, the frantic and sudden physical exertion, the sound of the endless train rushing past–it was nothing short of surreal. We made it to the designated place, and could see other passengers who had made it there by truck, but the train didn’t stop, it just rushed past.

Now, there are supposed to be three iron ore trains a day, only one of which takes passengers, and so it made complete sense that there could be another, earlier train to pass Choum without stopping. Understanding that that is what must have happened, we went back to the man’s house.

And good thing, too, because he had been preparing dinner for us. We sat down to enjoy a communal plate of pasta with a meaty stew, typically basic but hearty Mauritanian fare. Not wanting to experience again the mad dash to the train, we left shortly after dinner, and the man asked a friend to drive us over to the “station” this time, saving us the long walk in the dark. Parting, we offered the man a bit of money for our meal, which he accepted with much gratitude.

We finally saw what that little white building was–a shed. With a dirt floor littered with broken bottles and crumbling ceiling and walls, it did serve as a shelter from the ferocious sand-laden wind that was blowing outside, but just barely that, as there were holes in the walls. There were eight or so other people–mostly young men–who were also waiting for the train. One of them told us that the train was expected at 1 or 2 AM. We made ourselves as comfortable as we could, lying on the dirt floor using our backpacks as pillows. One group of men boiled tea–Mauritanian men often travel with a full compliment of the tools necessary to make tea, including a teapot, fuel canister, tea, cups, etc–by building a small fire in the middle of the shed and using the hot embers to heat the pot. Gradually, everyone started to fall asleep.

Around midnight, we all awoke to the sound of an approaching train. Everyone gathered their bags and rushed over to the tracks. It not being clear where the passenger car would stop, we jumped on to a couple of trucks that had been hanging about, so that the driver would drive us over to the right car. But again, the train simply rushed past–another false alarm. We trudged back to the shack, and went back to sleep.

Finally, around 3 AM, about ten hours past the time we had originally expected, the train came.

Boarding was, as we should have expected, a fiasco. With only one real passenger car already packed with men filling the aisle alongside the six-person compartments, most of which had more than six passengers, it was not at all clear where we could go. Finally, someone squeezed us in into a compartment that was not yet overfull–we had to push aside the current passengers, who were somewhat sprawled about and initially unwilling to yield any room, but we pushed and shoved ourselves enough room on the bare wood seat (the cushions were no longer in place) to pass the night.

Any upsetness over our squeezing into their cabin had mostly evaporated by morning, and it was a jovial ride to Nouadhibou. The train would start and stop with no apparent cause, and it was clear that we were running many hours behind, but no-one had been expecting to arrive on schedule. When the track turned south from its generally westward course, we knew we were getting close. We were about twelve hours behind schedule when we reached the 43 kilometer mark, at which some passengers hopped off and we passed another iron ore train, and arrived at Nouadhibou around 7:30 PM.

Snaking into the distance, to the left and then to the right

Inside our cabin–note the condition of the seats

Iron ore

Sheep and humans can ride for free on the iron ore wagons.

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