Nouadhibou to Atar

Trip Start Sep 13, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Mauritania  ,
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

After a days rest in Nouadhibou, we were ready to carry on with the next leg of our trip. All of us had at some time or another read about Mauritania and subsequently the train trip from Nouadhibou to Choum, the very one that we were planning on taking today.

Mauritania is obviously a desert country with well under 3 million people. Who, up till the droughts of the 1970 were predominately nomads. 30% Moors, 30% Blacks and 30% mix of the two. They all speak a variation of Arabic and having been colonised by France at the beginning of the 20th century so a lot of them also speak French.

Having up till recently been nomadic they haven't had much in the way of industry and have had limited exploitation of resources. Of which the two most important to date has been fishing and iron ore. Mauritania has the worlds' richest fishing grounds, but was forced to sell all the fishing rights to Europe to pay off their national debt. Now although locals still manage to catch fish here, inland Mauritanians find themselves buying their fish back after being canned in Europe at somewhat inflated prices. Iron ore is to be found inland and needs to be transported to the coast this is where the train comes in. Iron ore exportation produces half of Mauritanian's entire export revenue and requires the world's longest trains to work night and day carting it about.

The train that leaves between 1 and 3 pm has a passenger wagon but it's free to travel inside the empty wagons coming from the coast or on top of the iron ore coming from inland. At first I was seriously considering buying a ticket as I figured it wouldn't make sense to wreak 100 euros of clothes to save 9 euros for the trip. However the train arrived and by the time all the carriages had finally come to a halt I'd made up my mind to take the free ride.

We climbed into the closest wagon with all our gear and were standing around feeling pretty pleased with our self when we heard a distant roar coming towards us. It was travelling incredibly quickly, a bit like a low flying fighter jet passing overhead at supersonic speeds; and all of a sudden there was an almighty BOOM and I was flung to the ground. Not quite sure what had happened, I got back up feeling a bit dazed and Boom it happened again, but this time I managed to hang on to the sides and didn't fall. After a few more Booms I realised the train was slowly moving away from the station. Due to the length of the train, the shock waves of the engines pulling were running up and down the entire length. In fact anytime the driver decided to change speed or when we went up a slight slope one could expect a resulting Boom.

At first the train was travelling along at 30 km and hour and while leaving Nouadhibou we got to see all the shanty towns and the people living in them.
Having arrived at some double tracks, we had to stop and wait for another train coming from east to cross us before we could continue. Again with many Booms we got going again. Getting well out into the desert we started seeing sand dunes rather then rocky landscapes with the odd camel heard standing staring at us. Generally there was plenty of nothing.

The train started to pick up a bit of speed and we must have been travelling at around 50 kmph at which speed the entire wagon is shaking so hard that I couldn't sit down for more then a couple minutes before I had to stand again so that my legs could absorb the vibrations. At the same time it sounded like you had a 40 gallon metal drum over your head and someone was beating the hell out of it with a sledge hammer. It was then that I realised that this trip would be pretty hard going.

Towards the end of the afternoon I managed to make and eat a couple of sandwiches with tomatoes and cheese without eating too much iron ore. We shared the fruit we had with the other Africans who offered us milk in exchange. Because it was more comfortable I tried to keep standing and took plenty of photos but the landscape really didn't change a lot during the entire trip. Instead there was an excellent sunset and then the desert night sky to look at.

Later when one had spent enough time looking at the stars Antonio and I tried talking but couldn't hear each other even when screaming at each other. So I instead alternated between standing, during the rough parts of the track and sitting when the track smoothed out sufficiently.

Obviously during a long trip like this one, nature will inevitably call and we had to each find a way to go to the toilet. The Africans further down just left a wagon between groups of people and this became the pissing wagon. However for us; we had various techniques, some managed to go over the sides or into containers or in some cases just held on.

The noise and shaking was to endure another 8 hours till around 2 in the morning when we slowed down for the last half an hour at which time I think I actually managed to sleep 20 minutes.
When the train finally stopped it was pitch dark except for the bright lights of 3 pick up trucks parked along side the tracks. In a sleepy stupor we got down from the train and walked towards the light. Some of us stopping along the way to relieve bladders. Not asking questions we just found space in one of the trucks.

We hadn't gone more then a kilometre before we stopped in the small desert village of Choum and negotiated a price for the 3 or us to get to Atar. The others climbed onto the back of the Toyota Hiace with 6 others and sat on luggage with the odd tied up chicken poking through here and there, while I paid a little more and got a back seat inside the truck which I shared with 3 other men. The man immediately to my left turned out to be the driver's religious adviser and he spent the next 4 hours yelled stuff at the driver who every so often would chant verse out of the Koran with him. After and hour of this guy yelling in my ear, I told him he should lean forwards and he didn't seem to be too offended that at 4 in the morning I wasn't appreciating his pearls of wisdom. After a prayer stop and 3 more hours of travelling we arrived finally at Atar which had the same feel as Nouadhibou but was maybe more filthy.

Still suffering from sleep deprivation we walked around town and got some bread to fill our tummies. But not wanting to get a hotel room in Atar we searched for a communal taxi to take us the next step which was the infamous town of Chinguetti.
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