Location: Botany NSW
Train to (almost) nowhere in Mauritania
By Sharon LaFraniere
Sunday, July 8, 2007
NOUADHIBOU, Mauritania: One might ask why any sane person would ride 675 kilometres through the Sahara in a railroad hopper, scorched by a blazing sun, surrounded by goats, fated to pass 17 hours watching desperate companions relieve themselves over the side of the car.
For one, it is free. And two, it is virtually the only way to get to Zouérate.
"Take a car and try to drive, you will be scared to death," said Mohamed Vall Ould Cheikh, who has been hopping the train for 12 years. "You will be driving in the middle of nowhere, no road, no water and no restaurant. If your car breaks down, you are dead."
One might also ask why any sane person would go to Zouérate, a wide spot in remote northwest Mauritania whose only feature is a gargantuan open-pit hematite mine. Yet on any given day in Nouadhibou, a rough-hewn town of 90,000 on the shores of the luminescent green Atlantic, maybe 100 people are bound and determined to make it to Zouérate - or at least to Choum, a dusty outpost of 5,000 people about two thirds of the way.
The mad rush for the train each afternoon is the best entertainment in Zouérate, excepting, perhaps, the sailor-friendly brothel posing as an Asian restaurant on the Boulevard Médian in Nouadhibou.
Nouadhibou is the western terminus for one of the world's longest, heaviest trains, a 220-car colossus that ferries iron ore from Zouérate to ships waiting in the cluttered Nouadhibou harbour. It is not meant for passengers, although it pulls one or two token, ramshackle passenger cars at the end.
But for Mauritanians, who have to get from one place to another in the north without paved roads or planes, the train is the closest facsimile to a mass transit system, even if most of what passes for seating is in three-meter-high, open-air iron hoppers.
"What else can I use?" said Sidini Ould Ali, a 35-year-old schoolteacher from Choum, after he climbed down from an iron-ore carriage one recent Saturday morning, coughing, exhausted and blackened by the load of mineral he rode on. He, his wife and two children wanted to spend the July school break in comparatively exciting Nouadhibou. "There is no plane, no buses, no trucks," he said.
For others, it is a good business proposition.
"It's for free," said Cheikh, a merchant who was busy stacking sacks of goods a few hours later, waiting for the train to head back north. "You know I am a shopkeeper, and I make a lot of profit by transporting my goods for free."
The train's operator, the Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière, or SNIM, officially frowns on the hitchhikers.
"It is not safe for people to be on the train," said Ely Ould Abeilly, the SNIM representative in Nouakchott, the capital. "If there were any other means, we would stop it. It is a very heavy train, and if it derails it can be a very big disaster."
Yet neither the threat of accident, the lack of comfort or the prospect that their goats will leap out and be eaten by jackals deters travellers. At 11 a.m. sharp every day, the train materializes seemingly from nowhere, kicking up a late-morning dust storm after its 17-hour rumble through the Sahara at a top speed of no more than 50 kilometres, or 30 miles, an hour.
The ore-blackened inbound passengers climb down off their perches on wagons brimming with hematite and the train plods off to the harbour to dump its 22,000 ton load. An hour or more before it is due back, the outbound passengers gather at the whitewashed train station - dozens of them in donkey carts and cars, bearing cases of water and canned goods, bags of animal feed, blankets to ward off the frigid desert night air, goats, sheep, family pets, end tables, digital satellite dishes, you name it.
Families stake out positions beside the railroad track, at courteous intervals from one another. Relatives and friends stand by, ready to assist in the boarding process.
The instant the train approaches, at 2 p.m., passengers sprint to the cars, and a frantic rush begins to load people and goods into the hoppers.
Bleating goats are hoisted into the air and yanked by their horns into the bins; bags of sand are handed up, to be used as bases for charcoal fires or as a form of toilet. After a 15-minute pause, the train lumbers away, some goods heaved in during the final seconds, others left behind with owners who failed to move fast enough.
Its outbound riders are better off than their inbound counterparts because their containers are empty except for a patina of ore dust, the odd automobile or camel loaded in the harbour and whatever goods they have managed to load.
Still, the journey is exquisite torture, the iron hoppers like ovens in the day and freezers at night. Privacy is nonexistent. Men have an option; when the train slows to a crawl as it passes through towns, some jump off, relieve themselves and race back before it speeds up again.
Most Mauritanian women, who are prized here for their heft, are not up to such escapades. "Can't you see how fat I am?" asked Marième Mint Ahmed, who was travelling to visit her Zouérate relatives over the holiday. "You think I can jump out of the wagon every time the train stops to get something to drink or go to the bathroom?"
A $4 ticket in hand, she battled her way into a passenger cabin that was equipped with a rudimentary toilet and at least enclosed.
Not that that would make the trip pleasant.
"We are 75 for a cabin designed for 25 people," she groused. "But at least we are not with the goats, sheep, dogs."
Western back-packers, as rare as thermal underwear here, are invariably nonplussed by the race to board.
One Swedish travel photographer, who rode the train in 2003, advises trying to outrun the heavily laden Mauritanians to secure a spot on one of the wooden benches in the second-class passenger car.
He was too slow up the ladder, he wrote, and a stout Mauritanian woman grabbed him by the neck, swung her hips and neatly bumped him into the sand. He wound up sharing the floor of a dark, windowless cabin with 150 people.
"We probably would have had a better time in one of those iron buckets," he wrote.