December 29, 2019

How to Speedy Board an Iron Ore Truck

I decided to have a meditative session in the bath at HQ the other night. I don’t take baths very often – but please don’t think I’m unclean, I’m just more of a shower person. Too many memories of all the dirt from communal baths at boarding school. Anyway, I’m lucky now in that my new home has an enormous freestanding bath underneath a big window in the roof, and it’s so dark in these parts that you can stargaze from the tub. No telescope is required. So I lit the scented candles, poured in the Tibetan bath salts and drew a deep and steaming fill of water.

I shall take more baths in 2020, as it was quite a productive experience; thoughts came to me about several things I was writing, ideas for new material and solutions to minor problems that had been clogged in my mind. But all good things come to an end, so I drained the water and air-dried myself a bit before getting out. But there was the snag. The bath is really deep and narrow, and to get out you have to be able to bench press your bodyweight behind you, as if on parallel bars. These are muscles I haven’t had to use for some time, and after some effort, I eventually managed to haul myself out. But if I can’t pull myself out of a domestic bath, how will I pull myself up into an iron ore carriage carrying all my belongings? So its time for some pre-trip fitness training. Nothing too serious, but some simple weights and the bike are now on the daily to-do list.

Between finishing some marketing work for my latest book, I have had some more time to prepare for my 2020 adventures. So I have been catching up on kit preparation and working out what I need for each trip. For me, that’s a good sort out of half a dozen bags each carrying a similar mix of mainly the same things. I need to get more disciplined to stop this duplication. I remember when I used to play games in khaki whilst at university, we used to have very simple lists, the most important one being called ‘CEFO’, or Central European Fighting Order. It was quite a big list, but you knew that if you had everything on it you would be just fine. So I now need to create a ‘NARO’ (North American Rail Order) and a NADRO (North African Desert Rail Order)..

The US trip is fairly simple as Amtrak will let me check in far more than I need – two bags up to 25 kg plus hand luggage. In California, I can even carry a surfboard on as hand luggage if I get carried away in Santa Monica. I can bring all my gadgets and creature comforts with abandon. The simple challenge is that I will need to plan for the cold of NYC and Chicago as well as the relative winter warmth of Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico. The only other thing to watch out for is that an individual bag can’t weigh more than 25kg or they won’t accept it.

Mauritania presents a very different challenge. No checked-in luggage and a carry on size limit. There is too big a chance of it not making a flight connection in Morocco. So I have been laying out kit on a bed and discarding essential items until they all fit in a little rucksack. The only bonus is you are also allowed a laptop bag, which of course I shall bring without a laptop. I had prepared well and printed out the luggage rules for the airline, but now my companion tells me we will be flying internally on one leg as well as the road route looks a bit dodgy, so I’m juggling mixed carry on rules with airlines I have no experience of. As my Africa old hand next-door neighbour said to me, ‘it’s Africa, anything is possible’.

The only major sacrifice in my bag has been my main camera, a Fuji X-T20, which is just too big. Instead, I’m taking its older little brother, my trusty X-100. I have had to add a few mission-specific things like goggles, face masks, and protective clothing, but anything bulky we will buy locally. I have simplified my electrical devices and cables significantly and this has saved a lot of room. I still plan to take an iPad and a Kindle if space permits.┬áThe first aid kit has been quartered, and really just now contains an assortment of pills. The one place where would have liked to carry a full kit, but I will just have to go with this. Any spare space will be filled with jelly babies until I reach the maximum carry on bag weight of 12kg. The more I wear on the plane the better..

On the subject of health, I had an appointment with the nurse at my new local surgery last week. I doubt she sees many people heading to these parts, and first of all, we had a quick chat about my sanity, but when I showed her my past travel clinic records she just got down to sticking lots of needles in my arms. At one point she asked me the purpose of my visit, but I decided not to confess my love of trains. The only point of contention was to do with having a valid Yellow Fever certificate. This is a compulsory item, and you used to need one every 10 years, but the new international standard is that once in a lifetime is now considered enough protection. I have a certificate from about 25 years ago, so hopefully, there will be no problems with the paperwork. I have printed off the changes to the rules in English and French and added them to my little pile of red tape. I have to say that this was an NHS clinic at a local surgery, and it was brilliant. The advice was excellent and jabs were done with precision and efficiency. The only vaccination I could not get there was a booster to my Rabies, but as I have had the full course before, I’m not going to worry about that.

Social media has made many jokes about the aviation term ‘speedy boarding’ (I vaguely remember this as originally an Easyjet term?). As travellers, we get conditioned to certain Pavlovian behaviours and often queue to get on board planes as soon as possible. Perhaps a fear of having luggage put in the hold or being left behind? But how do you apply this mindset to an iron ore train that is nearly two kilometres long with a couple of hundred wagons and no numbered seats? Or rather, no seats at all. Where do you stand if you don’t want a long walk in the desert, and how to choose a truck that ‘works’. I say that, as I read an article written by a couple of travellers who picked a wagon that jolted and jumped so much they decided to change wagons whilst the train was on the move. I’m not sure I would want to do that. So ‘speedy boarding’ Mauritania style will involve no queues at all and being ready to scrabble on with the kit quickly as the train only stops for a few minutes. It will also involve climbing a ladder that looks a long way up. I will, of course, let you know how this goes and if my weight training was sufficient preparation in due course.

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