This is Africa

After spending the best part of a week travelling through the desolate desert, arriving in Nouadhibou was an assault on the senses…. it felt like we had finally arrived in Africa: battered cars weaving down the dusty roads, swerving now and then to avoid an overloaded, donkey-pulled, rickety, wooden cart; the drivers beeping the horns for any reason, and no reason; streets lined with shops – shops selling a delectable array of tinned food and cold cokes, epiceries with the meat carcasses hanging from hooks, plagued by flies even in early in the morning; the occasional boulangerie with the smell of freshly-made french-style baguettes subtly wafting down the street, for a while overcoming the stale odour of rotting vegetables piled into a rubbish heap; slim, young, men in tattered clothes sitting, strolling, not noticeably working and buxom ladies in traditional, elegant, vivid, flowing print dresses and neatly wrapped head-scarves that remain perfectly in place regardless of the wind, purposefully walking with bags of groceries.

This is the place where Muslim north Africa and black sub-Saharan Africa collide and unite. This is the place I rode into town, seemingly unnoticed, just another face in the crowd. What a change from Morocco and the Western Sahara – my importance on the road instantly diminishing from red-carpet hollywood star status, where the passers-by and drivers all wave and smile at you, to ranking somewhere above the wandering goats, on a par with overloaded donkey carts, where you have to constantly watch out for cars turning, reversing, speeding or swerving.

Cafe, computers and kipping

I spent the best part of four days in Nouadhibou. It’s not a big town and there’s little for the foreign tourist to see and most overlanders only stay the night before continuing their journey south. Having said that, it is a lovely laid-back place to relax for a few days. I spent most of my time there in one of three places and wandering between them… the friendly auberge for sleeping, showering and washing clothes; the taste-of-Europe cafe with good coffee, tasty pastries, mini-pizzas and free wi-fi; and the Mauritanian-style fast-food restaurant and take-away for cheap hamburgers, fries and kefta sandwiches. Afterall, there’s little else the modern day cycle tourer needs than somewhere to recuperate with a comfy bed, internet access and copious quantities of high calorie food.

The great train ride

After Lars had departed, I continued to procrastinate in town, as I usually do when left to my own devices until something sparks my energy and enthusiasm. The spark in this case was to take a ride on, at 2.3km long, the world’s longest train – a series of iron-ore wagons which run along tracks following the border with the Western Sahara between Nouadhibou and the desert mining town of Zouerat.

I cycled the 5km south of town to the ‘gare du voyageurs’. Actually, that’s not entirely correct. True, I did cycle to the station and it was 5km out of town. However, while chatting to a local shop owner in town (if you’re a regular reader of my updates, you’ll have guessed that I was buying food) he had said that by bike, it would take 30minutes to the station and it did in the end take 30minutes – that’s because, taking him by his word, I was happily cycling along and sweating in the midday sun with head turned left, fascinated by the ship cemetery in the estuary on my left – large, rusting ships, run aground and now resting at a tilt with hulls visible in the shallow waters. I was a good 12km out of town before it was clear I’d gone too far and I confirmed this with the only other person around.

Danger of Death
Rail tracks - Danger of Death

So I made a u-turn and pedalled back the way I’d come; looking to my left again, this time along the line of the train track to make sure I didn’t end up back in Nouadhibou. It’s not all that surprising I missed the station – it was nothing more than a small building beside the track. The large writing on the white-washed wall was the giveaway though – ‘Gare du Voyageurs’ printed in bold!

I pushed my bike over the sand and took a seat on one of the benches lining the walls on the three sides with the large room (the entirety of the building) opening out onto the tracks, along with a number of fellow passengers. In the centre of the room several ladies sat, each by their own small table, toppling with foodstuffs and fizzy drinks for sale, but they weren’t trying very hard to sell and nobody was interested in buying anyway.

Train station silence

There’s something about train stations the world over…. set a group of strangers in a train station and they become self-absorbed, self-concious, introverted and unwilling, even incapable, of striking up conversation or interacting with each other in any way. There’s an unspoken rule that conversation but on no accounts be entered into. Put the same people in a park and they’ll comment on how lovely or energetic the dog being walked is followed on with how beautiful the snowdrops/daffodils are but they seem to be flowering very early this season and oh isn’t it a lovely day for a walk by the way. Put the same people in a bar and they’ll talk about the premier league football results or progress with the test cricket, indeed any significant sport which inevitably involves some discussion of the weather as this usually affects the results in some way. Put the same people in a market and they’ll comment on how unusually busy it is, but no-one seems to be buying anything and it really is a struggle these days for the local producers having to compete against the likes of Tescos and Waitrose, and of course there’ll be some mention of the weather – either because the bad weather made it so difficult to get into town or the recent rains ruined the latest harvest. The weather, house prices and the recent favourite being the recession are universal topics of conversation which are discussed by strangers in all manor of places… but never the train station.

Breaking the rules

And so it was in this train station of sorts. We all sat there in silence – staring blankly straight ahead, with the occasional sideways glance but making absolutely sure to avoid eye contact should the other person happen to see you and try to shrivel up and become part of the wall for fear that he might have to say something to this clearly odd person staring back at him. And it was while I was making a sideways glance I spotted two white faces – two Europeans. Maybe, just maybe, we could have something in common and just this once break the train station rules and strike up a conversation. And it was while I made a second glance at these two white faces that I spotted an Ortlieb handlebar bag laying alongside them – not just two Europeans but two cycling Europeans, here in the same station waiting to catch the only train in Mauritania. That was the decider. This time, I was going to break the unspoken, universal train station rules.

Lots to talk about

And so it was, that I got chatting to Ivor and Jamila, students from Switzerland on a four month cycle tour from home to Dakar. Of course we had plenty in common and plenty to talk about… cycling, cycling in Europe, Morocco and the Western Sahara and then of course we could talk about the weather, most notably the wind and the heat. We chatted about all sorts of things over the course of the next couple of days we travelled together, but it all began in the little white building that served as a train station, while waiting for the world’s longest train to come by and take us further into the desert.

The twelve hour ride

The train arrived, practically on-time (being only one hour late) and we clambered aboard the passenger cabin at the end of the ore wagons of the world’s longest train.

Iron ore wagons on the world's longest train
Iron ore wagons on the world's longest train

I decided to pay and take the luxury seating in the passenger carriage, rather than riding for free in one of the ore wagons, where I was guaranteed to end the 12-hour journey covered in entirety in a layer of iron ore dust. The luxury seating however, which surely had seen better days, now consisted of a bum-numbing, hip-crushing, hard-bottomed bench and although the cushioning of the seat-backs still remained in place they were rather faded and dust-encrusted. There were no doors and the windows were jammed in place, mostly open, and since the passenger carriage was at the very end of the longest train in the world, the sand and ore dust which was lifted into the air by the passing ore wagons, made it’s way into the compartment where I sat and there it settled… it settled in my hair turning it grey; on my clothes mixing with sweat to form dirty smudges over my once-white kaftan; in my lungs so that I breathed heavily as though I’d smoked since a teenager; at the back of my throat which became so sore I wanted to cough all the time and had to constantly sip water to calm the burning. But worst of all, it settled thickly on my bike… the one that I’d spent a good couple of hours cleaning that morning in the hostel; carefully degreasing, painstakingly scrubbing off rust from the chain with a toothbrush (an old one, I’ll point out, and not the one from my washbag) and then oiling so that it was like new. In a matter of minutes, all my hard work had been undone. C’est la vie!

The 12-hours went surprisingly quickly. The first few hours I chatted with my new Swiss cycling friends. We drank tea with the local passengers and ticket inspector – the elaborate, and on a moving train highly skilful, method of rapidly pouring the tea from pot to glass to pot and back in the glass from unnecessarily high heights being successfully carried out without a drop being spilled. I sat, very still slightly scared, while the guy next to me examined a huge, sharp knife while the train jolted forcefully as the wagons tried to close together and prise apart like a jammed concertina.

Window view - Seeing through the dust
Window view - Seeing through the dust

I once put my head out of the window, but the blast of dust was too great and temporarily blinded me and made my eyes red raw. I even managed to sleep on the hard seats while the train rocked, vibrated, bounced, bumped, jerked, jolted, shook, swayed, creaked and squeaked it’s way through the desert. Each time we stopped, I would wake up and look to see where we were, but it was pitch black outside except for the stars – they were ‘official’ stops though because there would be 4×4’s waiting by the line to take the departing passengers. Where they went I couldn’t say – there must have been a village nearby, but no lights could be seen in the distance and there were no roads. The desert in the dark can be an eerie place for a stranger.


And so perhaps it was because of this, that when we arrived at our destination Choum (another stop where 4×4’s were waiting, the driver’s impatient, in the blackness with no lights to be seen in the distance and no roads either) I decided to put my things on the back of a bush-taxi like everyone else, rather than attempt the 120km of desolate piste to Atar, with no signs, villages, people or water along the way.

The bush-taxi to Atar was an interesting 120km ride but I think I’ll leave for another update…. it’s getting late here in Nouakchott now and I haven’t had my second dinner yet. I’ve bumped into Lars again here and we’re heading to Senegal on the bikes tomorrow. Hopefully, in three days we’ll be in St. Louis and I’ll be posting another update. Inshallah.

Good night.