15 – 16 March 2014
Nouadhibou – Choum
I spot two friendly looking guys climbing into one of the cars, and decide to join them. I hand them my backpack, climb the narrow ladder, and jump into the freight car. It’s all rust-coloured metal, with a few holes here and there, and a thin layer of reddish iron ore dust on the bottom. Other than that and our personal belongings, the cars are completely empty. One of my newfound travel companions is named Mustapha. He’s half Mauritanian and half Senegalese, and used to be an Army Engineer; I can’t quite make out if this was in the French or the Senegalese military. Either way, he’s now working at the mines in Zouerat, while his family lives in Senegal. I never find out the name of my other travel companion; judging by his appearance, he’s a white Moor, but he doesn’t speak French and I don’t speak Arab. Mustapha finds out he’s not an employee of the mines, but lives in a desert town along the route. He’s clearly not the only person using the train to get himself and his belongings home; people are manually loading all kinds of household appliances, including whole refridgerators, into the cars around us; quite a feat if you consider that the walls of the freight cars are some 3 meters above the ground! Some time after climbing aboard, there’s a distant rumble, like the sound of thunder. Mustapha gives me a warning sign, which is just about in time; with a massive shove that nearly has me flying through the car, the train starts moving, some two and a half hours later than planned. At first there’re some scrubs dotting the landscape; the locals call this part of the desert ‘sahel’, Arab for ‘coast’. In the Western world that term is only used for the Southern border between the Sahara desert and the savannah regions of sub-Saharan Africa, but locals seem to use it for any lightly vegetated area at the edge of the desert. As the sun sets, the increasingly empty landscape turns into an abstract painting of silver, gold, orange, purple, and blue, with the train’s dust clouds being rendered a bronze haze. I try to shelter from the dust by sitting down in the cargo wagon, but it doesn’t matter; I can still see the layer of ultra-fine sand accumulate on my clothes by the minute, so I tighten my turban, fix my sunglasses, and get up again to enjoy the otherworldly views. We pass sand dunes with crazy shapes, like sleeping dragons turned to dust, and the occasional settlement with impossibly tiny, rickety shacks made of some old planks, huddled around a few sorry-looking trees. The train turns its back on the setting sun and heads East, straight into the desert. On the left hand side of the train, the heavily mined border with the Western Sahara is just a few meters away from the train tracks. When Spain gave up their colony of Rio de Oro, Mauritania wanted to confiscate it, but the train was (and is) the country’s economic lifeline and runs just along the border for over a thousand kilometers, making it easy for the Saharawi independence fighters to cripple Mauritania’s economy by sabotaging the railway. As we move further inland, the landscape becomes less diverse – but somehow no less interesting. The subtle differences in the small dunes, the colours, the stones, the texture of the sand… in this incredible expanse of nothing, I find endless variations and patterns that keep me staring, absorbing for hours. Suddenly the geometric, repeating patterns in Arab visual arts make perfect sense, even though (or perhaps exactly because) they don’t represent anything concrete. The same goes for the endlessly sinewy vocals in Arab music, which had previously annoyed me to no end.
After sunset, it’s time for some socializing. The nameless fellow trainrider has brought a blanket which he spreads out on the floor like a carpet; we all settle down on it and share some peanuts, dates, and water. I try not to eat too much and drink hardly anything at all, since there’s no toilet in this cargo wagon. The only way to relieve oneself is to climb over the edge of the wagon and then hold on to it tightly while you do what needs to be done into the desert, with the violently shaking train moving at a good 50 kilometers per hour. There’s no way I’m going to try that, although the nameless fellow trainrider does it twice and, to my relief, manages to climb back into the wagon both times. It’s dark now, and the nearest street light is probably several hundred kilometers away, but I decide to stand up and have a look at the desert anyway. I’m absolutely blown away by the view that greets me. My great luck is that the moon is full, and it lights up the pale sand enough to see a couple of hundred meters into the vast night landscape through which we’re making our way. At the horizon, the desert blends into the deep blue sky. It’s the most magical view I’ve ever seen. I don’t know for how long I stand there, staring at the desert; I feel a bit like a silly tourist for it. However, when I finally do look to my left and right, I see Mustapha, the nameless fellow trainrider, and every single person in the other cargo wagons, all silently staring out at this mesmerizing beauty. I’ve never felt a stronger sense of shared humanity in my life, despite the massive cultural differences between myself and everyone else on this train.
Some two hours after sunset, it’s time to get some sleep. The three of us settle down on the blanket / carpet, and lie down. It’s at this point that the reason why passenger trains were invented becomes clear. Iron ore doesn’t care about deafening noise, or sliding over a rough metal surface, or bouncing up and down, or being covered in dust. All of which is why it’s no problem for iron ore wagons to be open-topped containers of rough metal with zero suspension, sound dampening, or cushioning. Human beings are, I find out, not as tough as iron ore. The dust storm going on inside the wagon and the deafening bangs and clangs and scrapes would be enough to make sleeping a challenge. However, as the night goes on, the train speeds up and the tracks get rougher. When standing up, your legs give just about enough suspension to make it bearable. But when lying down or sitting on the floor, all the shocks of the wagon are transferred directly to our bodies, making it impossible to sleep; from time to time, my entire body is lifted straight up from the wagon floor and bounces up and down at roughly 45 beats per minute. I try every position conceivable to mankind, but nothing helps. The only relief comes at two or three stops in the middle of nowhere, but since my destination is also in the middle of nowhere, I have to be alert with each stop so that I don’t miss my get-off point. Thankfully Mustapha keeps an eye on our progress. After four hours of trying and failing to sleep, I finally find a magic position that works to minimize the bouncing; but as these things go, five minutes later we reach Choum, my destination. Mustapha helps me negotiate a price for the “taxi brousse” (a pickup truck serving as taxi in places where the track is too rough for regular cars), after which I say a heartfelt ‘merci pour tout’ to both him and the nameless fellow trainrider for their company and assistance.
I didn’t take the photo of the train in the middle of the desert myself (I couldn’t, since I was on the train), but if you imagine this scene in the light of the full moon, you’ll understand how magical it was. Photo is a postcard I found in Mali (oddly enough), copyright j.-ch. plat 2007-2008, Zeineplat@yahoo.fr