It’s dirty and it’s dangerous and you probably shouldn’t do it. One traveller’s daring ride atop the infamous iron-ore train in West Africa.
Story and Photos by Chris Elliott
Some train journeys take place in rolling green countryside. Some trains have air-conditioning and some trains have snack carts. Some trains have seats and benches and bathrooms with toilets that flush. Some trains are smooth and fast and sterile, like space shuttles moving between orbital stations.
The train I was on was nothing like that. I was in the middle of Mauritania, on top of a freight train, bucket cart piled high with iron ore. Supine and covered in fine black dust, I gaze up at the night sky. Like every night I’d spent in the Sahara, it is black and it is forever and it is filled with uncountable stars. My glimpse of purity is unimpeded by the contours of a landscape. The desert is dark and flat and silent, and the train is long and noisy and dusty.
Encased, mummy-like, in my thin, discount-bin sleeping bag, I close my eyes. A gust of wind blows along the train, whipping spindrift off the iron mounds. Again and again, I am blanketed in dust and with each flurry I can taste the faintly ferrous texture of mineral grit between my teeth.
No, I wasn’t travelling first class across the French countryside. But, I was travelling for free.
There are a lot of superlatives that can be said about the iron-ore train of Zouerat. One of the longest trains in the world on certainly the longest railway in West Africa. The dirtiest train in the world (though I’m supposing here). The cheapest train ride in the world.
But lying prone in my iron-ore dugout, with dust blowing in my face and the endless night above me and the empty desert all around me and the wheels of the carriage rattling and sparking beneath me, only one superlative comes to mind—this has to be the most adventurous train ride in the world.
I arrive in Choum, a railroad outpost at the heart of the Mauritanian desert, in the tray of a pickup truck. I’ve been travelling through the desert for almost a month now and a deep fatigue, a primal exhaustion the likes of which I’ve never experienced, has begun to set in.
In the last few weeks I’d slowly made my way across the Sahara by foot, by hoof and by wheel. On the horrendous bus rides between West Africa’s capitals, I had been privy to more ear-splittingly-loud African rap than I cared to remember.
I haven’t showered in two weeks, and I haven’t seen a Western toilet in six. My clothes are torn and filthy—the sleeves of my once-blue shirt are brown and the legs of my hiking pants are little more than an array of threads without patches. The driver, a wiry Berber man in a tan-brown turban, unloads my baggage and shakes my hand.
He knows very little French and the Arabic he speaks (called Hassaniya here) is different to any of the Arabic I recognize. I look around at the tiny town—little more than an unpaved, sandy plaza girded by a few cuboid middens. I spy a railway track and the carapace of a decommissioned train carriage. Beyond that, only the desert. Interesting spot.
I look back at the driver and point at the ground. “Choum?”
He nods. “Choum.”
I shake his hand again and watch as he sidles back into the truck, revs the engine and speeds off across the sand. He’s in fifth gear by the time he’s spanned the railway track, and that is the last I see of him. I return to my surroundings. Bienvenue à Choum.
I’d read somewhere that Choum was the stepping-off point for “the most adventurous train ride on Earth,” and since riding in one of the iron-ore carriages was supposed to be free, it seemed like a logical way to cross the Western Sahara on a shoestring budget.
I walk across the dusty square to a small mudbrick building where everybody seems to be congregating. The word restaurant is written in Arabic on a placard out in front. A bowl of rice with a sloshing of brown sauce awaits me within.
I hazard an attempt at speaking in my high-register Arabic to see if anybody knows what time the train will be coming. Just as English is the result of a tryst between the Germanic tongues and The Romance, Hassaniya is not so much a dialect of Arabic as it is a conglomerate of many Saharan languages, with some loan words thrown in by the descendants of Mohammed.
Being a linguistic universe away from the formal Arabic I learned in the classroom, I wonder if I’m the equivalent of a new arrival to a Western country trying out Shakespearean prose in the queue for a bus ticket.
Everybody seems to have a different opinion about the arrival time of the train. I take an average. If I’m at the train station before five o’clock I should be on time. But where do I board? Everybody seems to have a different answer for that too. I’d read somewhere that the train, depending on how much iron ore it is carrying, can be up to three kilometres long, so I don’t want to ruin my chance at getting a free ride to Nouadhibou by waiting in the wrong place.
Presently, after a short game of mimes where I’m playing the part of the failed Arabic linguist, an old man comes along and speaks to me in what seems like perfect Parisian French. I learn that the tiny shelter-like structure which serves as the train station is three kilometres east of town and up-track, just au-delà des arbres (beyond the trees).
I shoulder my bags and begin walking down the railway tracks to the little building in the distance. I pass a small hut where a gendarme sits with his Kalashnikov in his lap, smoking reds. Behind him, his friend is asleep on a small cot. He asks for my passport and I hand him a photocopy. He nods and I continue on my way. I can’t help but notice there are no radio antennae exuding from their little outpost, unlike the others I’d seen near the regional hub of Atar. I suppose their commanders in Nouakchott weren’t very interested in what was happening in Choum.
As a country built by the descendants of Berber nomads, Mauritania today resembles less a state than it does a confederacy—the product of a group of tribes who got together for the sole purpose of naming and delineating the desert in which they dwelt. On paper there is a small country called Mauritania in northwest Africa. But in the real world, though the government had recently made the notable decision to become the last on Earth to abolish slavery, Mauritania is anything but a centrally-governed country.
Ruling from coastal Nouakchott in the southwest—a city that 60 years ago was just a fishing village—the government seems to have very little actual interest in what is happening in the deserts of the country’s interior. Here, like elsewhere throughout the Mauritanian Sahara, the police, the military and the gendarmerie had all formed their own little mini-tribe—just another clan in the confederacy—the Ouled Militaire.
Despite its tribal nature, in piecing together the bare essentials of a state, Mauritania has obtained a measure of stability—almost an island of security compared to the Nietzchean tragedy playing out elsewhere in the Sahara.
Arriving at the little shelter beside the railway tracks, I meet Saidou, Alioune and Moustapha—three Reguibat fellows from the Adrar on their way to Nouadhibou by the Atlantic. In the late-afternoon shade, they sit around brewing sweet yellow tea (the traditional way, over coals), humming to the voice of Phil Collins swooning from the speakers of an MP3 player. The coals are glowing red as the song reaches its crescendo.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life,” Monsieur Collins is singing.
Drumbeat. The pot boils. Tea’s ready. I am invited to sit with them and they pour me a glass as we chat in French about our favourite music. It seems they are fans of the classic sounds of Francis Cabrel and Rod Stewart. But Phil Collins is their favourite. Everywhere across the Sahara, I am met by these fusions of two worlds—the Western with the Islamic; the Old with the New; traditional society with encroaching modernity. I’ve met goat-herders with smartphones; tribesmen who’ve visited Paris; imams in Real Madrid jerseys. The anthropologist Ines Kohl writes that the Tuareg often refer to their Toyota pickup trucks as “alam n japon”—Japanese camel.
This ’80s-pop-rock-themed nomadic tea party is just another snapshot of the truly global village that is the Sahara. Indeed, we can see globalization at work even in the very existence of tea in Mauritania.
In the 16th century, the aromatic leaves of camellia sinensis arrived from China in the cargo holds of the Portuguese fleet. The mint came from Morocco, and the sugar from Senegal. The objects of the tea-making ritual—the tiny glasses, the teapot, the pyx in which the sugar is kept—are all venerated, and are all foreign. Everything about mint tea, a centerpiece of Mauritanian society, is imported. But all the same it has been indigenized, such that the Mauritanians have made tea and its cultural meaning their own.
A cloud of dust appears on the horizon, followed by the serpentine form of a diesel-powered train. It approaches quickly and the lads reach for their smartphones to snap a few pictures. The conductor is hanging half out the window as he rolls past, heralded by the hiss of pistons and the screech of scrap iron. The bucket carts trail behind, slag-heap upon slag-heap.
The train shows no sign of slowing. I shoulder my bags as the carriages roll by. Hundreds of them. In the time it takes to see the back of the train where foot passengers board I could have savoured another glass of tea.
Finally, with the sun dropping lower in the sky, the train comes to a stop, all three kilometres of it. People start running, frantically shouldering sacks of food aid as they scrabble for prime position in the passenger carriage.
The passenger carriage—where the luxury traveller can scrabble for a bench—costs about $9. But we’re travelling for free in the bucket carts. I’d read of travelling in the ore cars that they were dusty “on the way into the interior,” and “impossibly dusty on top of the ore heading to the coast.”
As we sprinted along the tracks looking for a vacant cart, the shapes of soot-clad riders were profiled against the sky, kings of their castles, each staking claim to his own little black mound. We find a free cart and clamber aboard. The train begins to move and we carve out foxholes for ourselves amongst the ore.
We pass a chain of sun-baked mountains on our left. Shrouded by dust coughed up from the parched earth, the sun appears not as an orb but as an expanse of brilliant light. Sunset happens in hues of orange and white, hovering over the mountains for a moment, before sliding below the horizon, leaving behind the purple night. Moustapha, headphones-on-turban, lights up a cigarette.
With the going down of the sun, Saidou and Alioune unroll a little prayer rug, and, sharing half each, they inch in close to conduct their maghrib (sunset) prayers. I look to my left towards the mountains where the sun disappeared. Soused now in the cool darkness, the earth and its inhabitants, have finally found reprieve from the burning heat of day. I give thanks for this as I reach for my water bottle. The intonations in Saidou and Alioune’s prayer give thanks for this too.
Of course, Islam cannot be thought of in isolation to the stark and inhospitable desert from which it sprang. As the geographer William Norton reminds us, Mecca itself was once but a lone, alkaline well amongst barren mountains. Even in the pages of the Qur’an we see not only an image of Mohammed the Prophet but also of Mohammed the Bedouin—the mirage as the faith of the unbelievers; the rain as a reward for Submission to His Will; the thirst as His Reckoning. And finally, there is Allah himself, seated on the throne of the universe as the cameleer at the head of his caravan.
The essence of the desert is travel because to linger in one place for too long is to die. Thus, the essence of Islam is also that of travel—a religion for the eternal pilgrim, ever on the road, ever on his hajj to Mecca.
At some point near midnight, we pass by the lights of a rail-side rest house. A pair of bleary-eyed Mauritanians board the bucket cart behind us and dig out their sleeping spaces beneath the light of a lantern. The A-carriage is changed, and the train, with a new engine and driver ploughs on. Wearing all my clothes and with my face tightly wrapped in an indigo turban, I roll over and shiver in the nighttime chill. Beneath a layer of black silt, I sleep very little.
Dawn breaks in colours of pink and I emerge from my foxhole. I take a #selfie, and, after reviewing it, realize I am covered head to toe in black soot. The train veers left and passes between two tall sand dunes and then, with neither pomp nor warning, the ocean reveals itself before us—my first view of the Atlantic. I feel like Xenophon emerging from the deserts of Persia, gazing upon salvation in the blue beyond.
Thalassa, thalassa. The sea, the sea.
It was Xenophon and his soldiers who shouted that, right? I’m sure it wasn’t Phil Collins.
Later, on the shores of the Cap de Beguin, I gaze out at a graveyard for abandoned ships, hundreds of them dragged up on the beach. From the different makes and sizes, the ships had been sailed from all around the world to be disposed of in the nautical grey area that is Mauritania. Their rusty hulls are illuminated by the early morning light, shades of russet brown against the white sand. I wonder what this beach would have looked like in an age before fraudulent insurance claims.
I look across the bay as the wall of a distant cliff crumbles, sandcastle-like, into the sea. This was the end of my journey through the desert. Behind me lay the Sahara—its peoples, its landscapes and its stories—now mine to remember. In front of me lay the rest of the day. **