[ Nouakchott, Mauritania]
After a full ten days holed up in Nouadhibou, the Grand Adventure into Mauritania’s interior began when I hopped one of the world’s longest trains. I biked out to the train yard–about 10km north of town–wayyyyyy too early. (I was two hours early, the train was two hours late. I’ll leave the math to you. Let’s just say there was plenty of time to sit and observe the sand blowing, the flies flying, the donkey’s and camels going about their chores. )
Although there is a passenger car with tickets and other such niceties, most people ride the iron-ore wagons for free. Most People = People Like Me. Folks began arriving with goods to transport into the interior for sale, or to return back for work shifts at the mine, or simply to return to their families. This is a daily ballet, and an entire support structure has grown up around it–military and police representatives checking papers, a guy selling flashlights and snacks, that sort of thing. Not surprisingly I was the only non-Mauritanian on the train, and certainly the only guy with a fully loaded bicycle planning to get himself dropped off deep in the Sahara in the middle of the night.
Turns out that’s quite a conversation starter, and I had lots of new, curious friends before the train arrived. ‘Twas a good thing, there being absolutely no way to get heavy items up into the wagons without help. I had plenty.
When the train pulled away at 5:30pm, I was in a car with four others, the bike settled and ready for the journey.
To describe the ride as “exciting” is inadequate. Riding into the desert with the setting sun, leaving all paved roads and easily accessible settlements behind was fantastic–and another of those “I’ve been imagining this ride forever, and now I’m here” moments that put a huge and stupid smile on my (dusty, weathered) face.
It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t photograph the night-time experience: a moonless, cloudless night hundreds of miles away from any light pollution was a stargazer’s experience par excellence. Jolting, banging, screaming train cars don’t lend themselves too well to tripod use, though, so you’ll just have to take my word for it or–better yet–come to Mauritania and see it for yourself.
At some point I curled up inside my tarp on the floor of the wagon and fell asleep under the stars. We stopped once at midnight for a toilet break (about 20 minutes), and I was jolted from a deep sleep at 3:30am when we stopped at my destination, Choum (sounds like “Shoom”). I was alone in the car at that point, but my former car-mates hopped in to help me unload. Five minutes later, I was standing alone by the side of the tracks in the starry Saharan night.
If you want to know what happens next, you’ll have to stay tuned. It’ll be in the next post, I promise.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, the captions for these photos are often extensive. They are not written to fit conveniently in the pop-up text window (they were originally written for posting to Facebook, which is where the images are stored). For easier reading, click on any image and scroll through them in the image viewer. Thanks!