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November 13, 2019

Ice Cold in Nouadhibou

Let’s be honest, the Mauritania iron ore train isn’t going to be everyone’s idea of fun. I wonder what will I make of it, and will I be tough enough? I’ll soon find out. I sometimes grumble about the temperature of the carriage or the state of the toilets, but on this train, there are no facilities at all. I understand that there is, in fact, a solitary passenger carriage, but I shall be doing as the locals do, and occupying an iron ore truck.

After 700 km sat on top of a pile of rubble in the baking sun and freezing night, it would perhaps be a fair reward to be able to walk into a hotel in the coastal city of Nouadhibou and ask the barman for a long and very cold frothy glass of lager. When J. Lee Thompson directed the 1958 film ‘Ice Cold in Alex’, he embedded perhaps the most famous product placement ever – used by Carlsberg the world over with the copy line ‘worth waiting for’. But there’s the rub. The chances of reliving this moment (assuming I’m lucky enough to reach the coast by train) are zero. Mauritania is a strictly enforced dry country. I will have to get on an international flight to enjoy that well earned cold beer.

I’m fortunate to have a travel partner for this trip – not just anyone, but serial traveller Lindy Pyrah, the only person I know who has taken this trip before, and last time she did it solo. Her trip went well, but she admits that there is a certain safety and comfort here in not being alone. Real or imagined, risks can be hard to assess in a strange place, and there can be few stranger places than in a country like Mauritania. We have regular chats about the challenges ahead and new words crop up in the conversation that rather concern me. Ebola. Kidnap. Fiches. Slavery. Abduction. But then she tells me it’s a lovely (mostly) peaceful country and everything’s going to be just fine.

Certain aspects of our trip remain unpublished for security reasons, but I have set up a map and a new adventure page on the website. The train clearly runs in both directions, so you can travel back to the mine in an empty carriage, or from the desert to the coast in one filled with ore. Well, the view is better from on top of the ore, and Lindy says you can dig out a ‘nest’ in it too. You just have to try and avoid falling off. After the journey, a serious cleanup is needed, and this is easier to achieve in Nouadhibou than back in the desert. So we shall travel by road to Choum, a place where the train briefly stops and climb on board.

If things were not shaping up to be alien enough to me, I have been told to bring a carry on bag and nothing more. The chance of a checked bag making the North African connection that is required are apparently small anyway, and this journey needs to be approached in an ‘alpine style’, fast and light. Instead, we will equip in the desert town of Atar. I’m quite excited about this, because it means I might get to dress up like an extra from ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (or more likely a Jawa from ‘Star Wars”). Come to think of it the landscape is reminiscent of Tatooine, and that’s perhaps also why Luc Besson decided to shoot much of his 1997 film ‘The Fifth Element’ here.

I met a wise Amish man on a train from Chicago to Denver a couple of years ago. He asked me what my hopes were for the trip I was on. I had to think really hard how to answer such a good question. My hopes for this trip, other than coming back in one piece, are that I get to meet Berber and Saharan people, to see the milky way from the middle of the dark desert, and to embrace the thrill of something totally outside of my comfort zone.

The full story will be told when we return, but as the plan and kit comes together I will share updates.

(Top image courtesy of Michał Sałaban, Wikimedia Commons)

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