The Iron Ore train is legendary but perhaps not the most enjoyable experience. It’s not the Orient Express. There’s no restaurant car or bar. It’s a bone shaking dusty journey through miles of featureless desert. I doubt it’s something that many travellers would consider going back for a second stab at, but that’s exactly what I did.
I must admit, I was inwardly wincing when I had originally asked if Shaun wanted to join me on a trip across the Sahara and he excitedly declared he’d always wanted to ride the iron ore train. I’d been thinking of nipping down the smooth paved road straight to Nouakchott, the capital. Technically this was my third trip on the train – my original journey, the return having missed my stop and now this one. To add a twist to proceeding, instead of taking a seat in the passenger carriage (the windows were so filthy I could barely see anything and every scrap of padding had been removed from the chairs leaving bare metal) we were going to ride, for free, in the actual iron ore wagons.
We were with Jacob, a young doctor from London who’d been at our hotel in Nouadhibou. “I’m glad I met you guys – my Mum was really worried about me on this trip” he admitted.
We arrived at the station, out in the dunes, in plenty of time and sat around after the obligatory passport checks. Then we were hit by a swarm of dragonflies that swooped around for ten minutes or so before disappearing.
The train appeared, slightly late and wagon after wagon passed us as it ground to a halt. The train can reach two miles long, but this one was relatively short at about one kilometre. There was a ladder of sorts and we clambered up, pulling each other and our baggage up and in. It seemed surprisingly clean – I’d expected it to be absolutely filthy. The joy of discovering this fact didn’t last long. The wagons were empty, heading into the mine at Zouerat, from where they return full. It’s a crucial method of transport for locals who were heaving up crates of vegetables, mattresses and a herd of live goats into other wagons. We were joined in ours by a friendly chap called Abdullah who was on his way to work at the mine.
I then experienced something I hadn’t whilst taking the allegedly comfortable option in a carriage. The engine, a kilometre or so up the track, started up and pulled away and this created a kind of ricochet effect. We could see a ripple running up the wagons and then heard an incredible noise, like a fighter jet passing close overhead – I looked up and noticed Shaun did too, then there was a massive jolt, we nearly fell over and then lurched forwards – slowly at first but gradually picking up speed. It was an incredible exhilarating feeling – a bit like when you stand fairly close to the platform edge as a high speed train rushes past.
It started off okay. This is going to be fun, I thought – we could easily see over the edge and would get great views. The lady in the next wagon was making attaya and passed over glasses for us. Then, as we picked up speed, clouds of dust spewed all over us. And didn’t stop for about 12 hours. We had packed all of our main baggage into a plastic survival bag and were wearing all of our clothing – the desert can get bitterly cold at night. There was then nothing for it, but to lay down on the metal floor, wrap our heads and faces with a scarf and wait it out. I’d put my ipod on and lay there – music blasting away, face covered, sand everywhere whilst laying on a rapidly cool hunk of metal covered in iron filings. As the sun sank, the cold began and soon I was shaking. It was possible to look at the stars, clouds of dust permitting, but then I got a face full of sand, so pulled the scarf back up.
There were a couple of brief stops and at one, I clambered down to relieve myself – just as I reached the ground I felt the low rumble and noise and the jolt and the train started moving. I ran alongside, grabbed a metal bar and heaved myself up. I then, for fun, crouched there for a minute or so hearing Shaun shout my name in a slightly panicked fashion, before I climbed back up the ladder.
I couldn’t see and my eyes were full of grit and felt red raw. My nose was clogged with sand. The noise meant I couldn’t hear and all of my senses were blocked. I was cold, dirty, hungry and about as uncomfortable as possible without being wounded. But at the same time I felt like perhaps the happiest man alive. My mind was racing back over the past month – the book launch, the book itself, the wonderful newspaper articles and response to them from friends, family and new friends. I was on the journey of a life time with a great friend. And despite my current discomfort, this trip was so much better then the previous time I’d made it. I felt a great sense of the joy of my life and had someone ripped off my head scarf and wiped away the sand, they’d have seen a man with a look of ecstasy on his face. And perhaps thought me mad.