listen to africa

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Geotag Icon Pains, trains and automobiles (travels in the heart of the Sahara)

Blog posted by on Aug 6th, 2009
Bex, sleeping after the ride on the iron ore train. © Listen to Africa

Bex, sleeping after the ride on the iron ore train. © Listen to Africa

When I’m writing a blog, I normally write as much as I want to and then delete half of it in a desperate attempt to get it down to a length that people might actually read. This time, Huw suggested posting the full version so, with apologies (blame Huw), here it is – a 3800 word blog on 36 hours (is that a record?).

But keep reading! There’s an overnight train journey through the Sahara in an iron ore wagon, a failed attempt at cycling through the desert, paralysing heat, black eyes, and the kindness of a Mauritania we’re just starting to get to know:

Sunday, 1.30pm: We cycle to Nouadhibou’s train station – a three-sided shelter – in good time for the train which some people say comes at 3.30pm and others say 6.30. We sit on the floor, among the other would-be travellers. We wait. The sun moves across the floor of the building. Every now and then, little groups inch out of its glare in unison.

The train station © Listen to Africa

The train station © Listen to Africa

And we wait. We listen to the four Senegalese women selling food and drinks arguing among themselves. Occasionally, mid-argument, they all collapse into laughter – presumably at some insult one them has conjured up.

Sunday, 4.30pm: We wander outside for a change of scene. A man introduces himself and invites us for a walk over some boulders to look at a stretch of beach – empty and pristine apart from a couple of dozen shipwrecks.

“There should be a hotel for tourists here,” he says. “The ships should be cleared – they’re not good for the environment. Somebody should clean the beach and build paths. But nothing – nobody does anything. This is Mauritania’s problem: the government does nothing.”

“And the new government? Aziz?” we ask (Aziz is Mauritania’s former coup leader and newly elected president). He laughs at the question, loudly and genuinely. “Now Aziz, he is another Mauritanian problem. The Europeans don’t like him, and we need Europeans to like us. For investment.”

Together we walk back to the station and part, easily. Huw and I settle down on the station floor again. A young Mauritanian man moves to sit near us. Three minutes later, he starts a conversation. He is a desert tour guide, working in Nouadhibou for now and going home to the Adrar region to help with the date harvest.

He tells story after story – very well – about his experiences of guiding tourists. He finds it hilarious, absurd, that if a tourist ever falls ill on one of his desert tours, the others always demand immediate motorised transport. They don’t trust his first aid (he is well trained). They just want a car and a hospital. What car? Where from? How will it reach a place that only humans or camels can get to? What hospital? How long will it take? Do they realise where they are?

There is a joke, he says, among his tourist guide friends: in an emergency, the only way to get tourists to stop obsessing about cars and calm down is to write a list of how much the car, driver, petrol and hospital fees will cost, and ask who is going to pay. Suddenly, they start believing that the guide is capable of treating the problem after all…

Waiting © Listen to Africa

Waiting © Listen to Africa

Sunday, 6.30pm: We are still talking to Dher (at least his name sounded like Dher), the tourist guide, but now we’re talking about the delayed train. When does he think it will come? He laughs. “Inshallah [God willing] it will come. That is enough. Welcome to Mauritanian local time,” he grins. “3.30pm local time means 8.30pm your time.”

Other Mauritanians have joined the little group over the hours. Someone buys a round of hot, sweet, green tea. During our conversation, I realise that, to British ears, Mauritanians are not polite. There is no flattery here, or outpouring of superfluous pleases and thank yous, or great show of what the British call manners (and much of the rest of the world calls hypocrisy). Instead, with this group at least, there is a sharp and surprising directness, an easy intimacy, and a love of words and ideas and riddles and jokes and discussion.

And waiting © Listen to Africa

And waiting © Listen to Africa

Sunday, 7pm: We wander over to the tracks for a change of scene. The sun is dropping fast; the people dotted around the track in the near distance are turning into silhouettes.

Sunday, 8pm: We hear the train approaching before we see it – a great clunking, sighing metal thing. We’ll be travelling in one of the open iron ore wagons instead of the passenger’s carriage – after so many nights in a hostel’s stuffy room, we want space and open skies. Just as we wonder how the two of us are going to manhandle the bicycles and panniers up over the high sided wagon, Dher and two of his friends appear and help us.

Travelling in the iron ore wagons © Listen to Africa

Travelling in the iron ore wagons © Listen to Africa

Everything is loaded and Dher and his friends climb into the wagon too. They had been planning to take the passenger car but have decided to travel with us instead. I worry about their immaculate white robes and ironed shirts in all the iron ore dust in the carriage. “So what?” Dher laughs. “That is the journey!”

One of our companions is carrying a holdall. The other two are carrying nothing for this journey across half the country. We – with our bikes, our eight panniers, our two bar bags, our tent and our assorted bits and bobs – are clearly not of nomadic stock.

The iron ore train © Listen to Africa

The iron ore train © Listen to Africa

The five of us lay out our tarpaulin and tent on the wagon floor and have just sat down when the train jolts forward and starts its journey east to Zouerat. There’s nothing “lulling” or “rocking” about the motion; this is a colossal iron beast wildly hurling its cargo from side to side.

In the wagons around us, Mauritanians stand up and wrap black turbans around their heads as protection against the wind and dust. We and our companions make do with shirts, sarongs, sleeping bag liners. A cloud of dust hangs over the train as it snakes through the desert and we laugh at each other’s whitening faces, stiffening hair and shining eyes.

As the sun sets and the nearly full moon rises, our companions settle into what we suspect is their real reason for travelling with us: a really good conversation. We talk, and talk. Occasionally, we stand up to give our bruising backsides a break and to peer over the top of the wagon. Once, we see a small settlement of tents with a single fire burning. It seems a magical sight. Huw hums “Freight Train Blues”.

Dher wants to explain Mauritania’s very complex social structure (“to understand Mauritania, it is important that you understand this”) – its ethnic makeup, its white Moors and back Moors and sub-Saharan southerners. This is a subject that I’ve been desperate to understand properly (especially in relation to the country’s practice of slavery – made illegal in 1981 but still practiced), but I can’t follow the intricacies or the French in all the commotion.

The conversation turns to Mauritanian marriages and weddings. There are traditional marriages, Dher says, where the family chooses the bride, and there are modern marriages, which happen for love. One is not better than the other. Thinking about the traditionally widespread – although apparently increasingly rare – practices of female genital mutilation and the enforced feeding of girls (big is beautiful here), I ask about the balance of power between the sexes. I don’t think his friends understand the question but Dher – married to a French woman – answers that, in Mauritania, “the man is society’s brain, its intellect. The man makes all the decisions”.

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  1. Well done, guys – with flu bubbling under that cycle could well have been your last.

    I’ve fancied that iron ore train ever since I first learned of it. You can follow its route from Nouadhibou to Choum on satellite maps.

  2. :-)))) Your ‘favourite sound in Atar’ was not what I expected at all, although I should have guessed better! :-)))
    I hope Huw’s eye is okay and the flu gone, and many thanks for not abridging the update! (I wish I could write that many words in such a short period of time…)

    I laughed a lot at the tourist guides’ joke, and find it very sad at the same time that some tourists still refuse to adapt to the conditions they find themselves in, and instead, expect the world to change its ways around just for them… It also reminds me a lot about the film Babel…

    I had heard about slavery in Mauritania and female genital mutilation before (both atrocious) as well as ‘big is beautiful’, but force-feeding comes in as a shock. What a horrendous practice! It is hard to believe that, despite poverty, some parents will overfeed their daughters to make them more attractive to the male eye. At the same time, I guess that having attractive-looking girls is a guarantee for the family to have them out of the house quicker (in addition to pride, and respect, it gives them), and perhaps this is where the problem lies…

    As always,I will be very much looking forward to your next update…

  3. :-) Oh that feeling of turning back… mind you sound very happy with the cool room and clean bed. That’s a good feeling!! I hope you are both in better health now and Huw is over the flu…It is great to get the full shabang blog…v diverting. With care and love p.s. Been practising knots…Huw can you describe how to tie a Truckers hitch?

  4. ohHH How well I travelled today during my lunchtime break …sitting on my desk chair with the air-cond sound on the background…yes, howfull setting…(and yes I’m a slow reader and but didn’t want to miss every mouthfull of the story). Thank Huw for recommending Bec to writte without deleting her precious words… . Well done both of you, looking for more, more boundless stories : )
    Take care. ps/ Phil, Hugh and Leo have been cycling along the Canal du Midi for the last 4 days (I will meet them today on the seaside – with the car…)…and the boys pretend they are ‘Bec&Huw’ how cute!

  5. Great adventure, and as always, great story!

  6. “Never cycle further than you can drink” seems to be the saraha rule (not like “never drink more than you can cycle” as a rule for the pub?)

    Love the soundtrack – you can almost feel the crisp white sheets smoothing away in the background…

  7. What an interesting and gripping story! It resonates well with the title of Kate Adie’s autobiography “The Kindness of Strangers” which we have on our bookshelf. We are so glad that you (belatedly) took Shikali’s advice and, as concerned parents, we are indebted to him and the good people of Choum for making you so welcome.
    Hope Huw has recovered from flue and injury and that you are now both suitably rehydrated and recovered from this latest and difficult leg of your travels.

  8. Wow! Want to know if you found your airconditioned bedroom – and en suite bathroom which I am sure you sorely need! Hope Huw better now. Nothing worse than flu in the heat. I completely agree with Val and David about being indebted to all those who have helped you. What it is to be a parent, let alone one with a mad daughter like mine and an equally mad boyfriend like Huw!!

  9. wow lovely story of your train ride and hard decision of cycling or not cycling, a pleasure ti read and beautiful to rediscover Mauritania through your eyes

  10. Thanks for all the comments, folks. The flu is better and we’ll be setting off (pre-dawn) tomorrow for a short day to an oasis. Then on towards Nouakchott after that…

    Harry, if you ever get the chance I really do recommend it. Maybe in January or something :)

    Marlene, glad you liked the sound! And thanks for the comment – yep, Mauritania is a surprising country.

    Laurence, thank you! Ohh, that is very, very cute. I bet Hugh is Huw and Leo is Bec :) Send them lots of love at the end of their canal expedition! We still have their drawings on our bar bag map cases and we’re sending them something soon…

    Thanks Roy!

    Steve – heh, on balance, I think I’ll try and stick to the drinking more than I can cycle in future. I suspect it’s more fun.

    David and Val – Huw is well rested and just has an interesting looking eye now. And yes – the phrase “The Kindness of Strangers” (I’ve always meant to read it and never quite got around to it) often pops into my head these days!

    Mum – yes, we found the airconditioned bedroom (read the last paragraph again, before your glass of wine!) and it’s been lovely… Glad you’re back on the internet!

    Isabel – thank you, what a lovely comment.


  11. Chris – here it is, the trucker’s hitch (for southpaws), with Huw describing / miming and me typing:

    Hold the attached end that’s dangling down with your left hand at the point where you want to do the hitch. About a metre lower down, take a small bite of the rope in your right hand. Bring the bite up level with your left hand. Then cross the bite of rope over the top of the attached rope and hold it there. Then, with your left hand, from below the bite, wrap the attached rope two full turns around the bite (coming from behind and below and going in front and above). You’re now left with a big loop in the rope. Now, twist that loop two or three times and you’re left with a small eye at the bottom. Now take the free end, make another bite and thread it through the hole at the bottom. Pull enough through so it can be hooked onto what you want then yank the loose tail.

    Alternatively, watch this. Or use a ratchet strap :)

    Anything else?


  12. Wonderful views, is it the real stroy. may be africa is the nice place in the world.

  13. Thank you Johison

  14. We had a similar experience in Choum as you did when travelling from Nouadhibou to Atar. It was the hottest place I’ve ever been, and after the sandy train ride from Nouadhibou, was entirely exhausting. Our taxi left Choum at around midday as well, and the heat was almost unbearable. I remember how empty the desert was around there – there were tracks criss-crossing each other and I don’t know if you would have found your way if you had tried cycling it! When we arrived in Atar our hostel had a cold water swimming pool under a tarp – the best feeling ever was lazing in there for hours cooling off!
    The whole thing was worth it for the train journey – probably the most amazing journey I’ve ever made.

  15. Wow, a swimming pool – that would have been fantastic! (When we got to Terjit Oasis, we lay there in the pools for a good long while – could almost see the steam sizzling off us.) Yep, I’m glad we didn’t try and cycle that stretch. And I agree with you on the train journey – it was a truly amazing experience. Cheers Luke.

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