Riding the rails in northwest Africa

When there's no road between cities, what do you do? This writer hopped on top of rail cars carrying iron ore.

Train travel, it is said, is romantic. I have been on trains that conjured up images of Cary Grant evading pursuers in a fold-away bed, later falling back into the same in the arms of the movie's heroine.

The iron-ore train in the interior of Mauritania is not one of those trains. Its primary function is the transport of ore within Mauritania. However, for people trying to get from Choum to the large port city of Nouadhibou, as I was, it doubles as the only realistic mode of transportation, since there are no roads connecting the two cities.

Just getting to Choum to catch the train is its own adventure, as almost all travel is in Mauritania. Distances are long, paved roads are few, and the daytime heat often necessitates uncomfortable night travel.

While traveling here is never easy, it does have one luxury that I would gladly see reproduced elsewhere - on long overland journeys, the driver of the vehicle is responsible for keeping his passengers fed. For this reason, you encounter a network of what can only be called truck stops along the most desolate, remote routes imaginable.

A typical stop includes a desert tent - built low to the ground - numerous brightly colored rugs on which to lie, countless pillows for leaning against, a handful of men and women cooking and serving, communal expectations for eating and sharing, a generous dose of inquisitiveness, and, most important, the understanding that you can sleep to your heart's content in the midst of everyone without concern for theft or that your driver might leave without you. This was what I was most looking forward to when we finally arrived in Choum, where the truck stop was different only because it had no tent, probably indicating that the desert winds were slight in this area.

I had just arranged my head on a pillow when a fellow traveler tapped me on the shoulder and announced that the train was about to arrive. All at once, there was a flurry of activity, people jumping up and throwing things on their backs. Someone must have telegraphed the news that the train was on the way, because I couldn't see it anywhere.

But perhaps five minutes later, we all turned our heads to watch the slow approach of a single, remote headlight. Slowly, slowly - whining and hissing all the way - it came to a stop.

The next few minutes witnessed a dazzling display of the strength of a community of travelers. In a flash, three or four men climbed on top of each car, while travelers below began to heave their belongings up to them. Luggage and boxes of dates and water jugs went flying. Goats and sheep were only slightly more gingerly passed up. Remarkably, nothing crashed to the ground, even though the only light was supplied by the moon. When I clambered up after my bag, it wasn't the top of a boxcar that greeted me, but the soft silt of unprocessed iron ore. Being ignorant of the ways of industrial shipping, I had expected to find myself sleeping on metal siding all night, desperately trying not to slide off. In fact, the bed of ore was soft (like sleeping on sand) and recessed into the train car, so that there was a 10-inch ridge surrounding us on all sides - there would be no falling off this train. We were, though, doomed to be covered, turban to sandal, with a deep-gray dust. Even from on top of a train with ore dust whipping your face and penetrating everything you own, the view was breathtaking. In the desert, the slightest texture takes on particularly strong qualities, like a red stain on a white tablecloth.

At every vantage, from every direction, solitary boulders and crags stood, lonely in the desert, as if thrown up by the earth. The light was strong enough to show detail and shadow, but soft enough to shroud the scene in mystery. Occasionally, an enormous dune would rise up majestically from nothing, only to disappear back into the flats of the desert that made it. It was awe-inspiring, and the combination of beauty, remoteness, and singularity made me content to be there, witnessing the earth's diversity.

Perhaps this is the point - that the pleasure of travel is not necessarily what you expect to get out of a place, or even of a train, but is found in the beauty of the unexpected that may simply spring itself upon you, even from atop an industrial train that runs through the desert of an "unknown" country.

The train itself may not be romantic, but the experience is not without romance.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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