January 25, 2004

The Serpent of the Desert

Africa Blog
'The Serpent of the Desert', it says on the postcard I just bought, which depicts the iron ore train that runs across Mauritania. From the air, it does indeed look like a big snake streaming across the desert landscape. From the ground however, it looks not one bit like a snake. More like a dirty, battered old train in fact.
I recently had the privilege of riding this train, which is billed as 'the longest train in the world'. It generally is about 1.5km - 2.5km long, which is not a problem when there is only about 5 bends in the entire 700km plus of track, but it's a long walk to the buffet car if you are at the wrong end of the train.
Actually, there is no buffet car, that was my little joke, and there are only 2 passenger cars - 1st class and 2nd class. They are located at the end of the train, after the hundreds of empty iron ore bucket-wagons (if that's the right word).
The first class carriage has a few beds in it, and requires booking in advance. It is an old French carriage, and is perhaps in the worst state of disrepair I have EVER seen in 1st class. I was almost thankful to be going 2nd class.
I arrived at the station , although 'block of concrete in the desert' is perhaps a more accurate description, and there were 3 other foreigners. A Belgian cycle tourist (he was obviously cheating by taking the train), an Italian guy with a guitar, and a French girl.
To take the train, there are two choices. You can pay about 2 quid and go in the carriage, or you can ride for free in one of the wagon-buckets. It's pretty cold in the desert, so myself and the Italian opted for the carriage. The Belgian had a plan to put up his tent in the wagon-bucket, so he chose that option, and the French girl went along with him.
I had heard and read all kinds of things about this train. One of them being, that when the train arrives there is a mad frenzy to board and get good seats. As the train pulled in, I was prepared for a difficult time getting on board.
Well, I have to say, that as far as 'mad frenzies' go, it was a pretty poor effort, and these Mauritanians could learn a thing or two from the Chinese, who are world experts on train boarding frenzies.
I found myself aboard quite easily, and with only a little bit of running. It was not even that crowded, and the tiny windows I had heard about, were huge and open, and the first 4 hours till darkness I enjoyed tremendously by leaning out of the open window and watching the desert go by.
The train departs at 3pm and arrives at Choum at 2am. This means most of the journey is at night. There are of course no lights on the train, but people compensate by hanging candles from the roof in cut-off water bottles.
Up until about 10pm I was pretty much enjoying the train. Some guy had brought a gas burner and was making tea, and people were sitting around quite jovially. A lot of people were sitting/lying on the floor, but they had to move at dusk so everyone could line up and pray.
I realised at about 10pm that it was getting very cold, and the windows wouldn't shut, and the candles went out, and everyone had laid down and taken up all the space. This resulted in a pretty miserable last 4 hours, and as I stumbled off the train at 2am feeling very cold and tired, and covered in sand, little did I know that the worst was yet to come...

Posted by paul at January 25, 2004 08:55 PM