Across the White Man’s Grave

Traversing the Mauritanian Sahara on the world's longest bulk train

By Michal Huniewicz In Mauritania 15 MINUTES READING TIME

Finally, there it was. When we climbed to the top of the wagon, tired but excited, unsteady as our feet sunk in the heap of iron that filled it to the brim, my friend Ammar and I congratulated each other, our faces grinning, lit by the faint glow of each other’s head torch. It was almost midnight. After weeks of meticulous planning, there we were, about to ride the longest cargo train in the world, from the dry nowhere in the middle of the Sahara, past landmine fields and no man’s land, into the refreshing, cool breeze at the coast of the Atlantic. It was going to be a long ride.

The train was late, and we had spent what felt like hours in complete darkness and sepulchral silence, after a seemingly mute driver had dropped us off. “Right. Where are we, what’s going on?” No word of explanation. So we just stood there with our bags, thinking of scorpions and snakes, and looking ridiculously out of place, armed head­ to ­toe with digital toys, as if through some quantum blip we had been teleported from a Kings Cross St. Pancras platform while we were on our way to work, to this fairly random place in the desert. In the car, before we lost reception, I texted my friend back in England that “we are being taken into the desert by an unknown driver, heading east”, and it all seemed reasonably mad.

Mauritania from a cargo train

But then, as if it were a near-death experience, a little light at the end of the tunnel appeared, and it steadily grew bigger and bigger, and turned out to be our train, trundling towards us. Then, other cars brought other people. Everything was fine, after all. And now we were on the train, and the difficulties were over. Or so we thought, and we were wrong.

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Welcome to Mauritania, West Africa. It’s a strange country, this Mauritania. Bridging the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa, it was once a fairly bustling area, with busy caravan routes between Morocco and Timbuktu, transporting salt, gold and slaves. It was the cradle of the Almoravid dynasty, short­lived, but ruling the fairly vast lands from Mauritania to Islamic Spain, with its headquarters in a city they founded ­ Marrakesh. Later, it became a forgotten and neglected French colony, and therefore many of its citizens still speak French, and if you wish, you can buy a baguette. Finally independent, it is one of the poorest countries in the world, and “slavery’s last stronghold”, with between 4 and 20 per cent of its people enslaved, all of whom are black and the black people of Mauritania actually prefer speaking French, as they perceive Arabic as the language of the cruel slave master.

Being until recently one of the countries hosting the Paris­-Dakar Rally, Mauritania has been abandoned by the rally organisers and tourists alike after several terrorist attacks took place. Today, more people visit the Lake District daily than Mauritania yearly. You see decaying tourist infrastructure here and there, forgotten concrete stumps and grey skeletons of buildings, while everyone is assuring you that the country is safe. And they’re trying – we went through over 50 military or police checkpoints in total, not at all convenient, but installed there for our safety; we saw no crime, people were kind, showed some curiosity or ignored us. More convincingly, there have been no attacks on tourists in the recent years, which cannot be said about popular tourist destinations like Egypt or Tunisia or Turkey. To be fair, on one occasion we did have to bribe a police officer to get our passports back, humid from his sweaty hands, but overall the bad opinion the country has is greatly exaggerated.

In their own way, people do welcome you. Children scream with excitement, “Bonjour monsieur!”, one girl told me she loved me before disappearing among her giggling friends; in cities, they offer you a ride when you’re looking for something. Travelling across the desert, you are offered a lukewarm broth with dissolving bread, served in a large bowl for everyone, where everyone dips their hand and, yes, it’s rude not to partake. Maybe clumsily by our standards, but they do want you to feel at home, and they’re not trying to lure you into paying for their hospitality. Sometimes a person would appear from nowhere with a bowl of camel milk for us. Clumsily by their standards, we offered our energy bars in return, which was pretty much all we had for food, although many people had no idea what they were or how to go about eating them.

You will notice it’s the men who cover their faces here, not the women.

Mauritania is a Muslim country, but heavily influenced by its pagan past. Here, Muslim women usually wear a traditional dress, but do not cover their faces. The ablutions one is meant to perform with water are done with sand instead, as sand is everywhere, and water is too rare and precious. There are places where you’re not supposed to walk barefoot, as someone might curse your footprint and while driving across the desert we saw a strange mausoleum, dedicated to an important local figure, and the driver insisted we go around thrice, and we do not photograph.

But none of that matters now as the train begins to move with a violent jerk, as if it demanded our attention banging its fist on the table. There are no inspectors, no tickets to show (the best things in life are free), and instead we drop to the surface of the train and frantically begin to dig holes in the iron ore with our bare hands, so that the wind doesn’t blow us off. “Put your scarf on!” Suffocating dust storm commences; coughing and mildly swearing we continue to dig, and then fall exhausted in the shallow pits.

Ammar is on the left of the wagon, I’m on the right, about a metre and a half apart. It’s pitch black, and the sky has never been so magnificent, and I’ve never been so dirty; I’m loving every moment. The Milky way clear like never before. Our home galaxy it makes me want to think profound thoughts…

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But then I prosaically remember to stick two light sticks into the no man’s ore between Ammar and me, so that we can keep an eye on each other. Almost unnecessary, but boy, does it look cool.

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Earlier, we experienced temperatures above 50 °C during the day, but the worst were the nights, above 30 °C, with no escape from the heat. The places where we stayed for the night had no air­conditioning or inadequate air­conditioning at best. In my little oven of a room, swarming with lizards, I just couldn’t sleep. Lizards are fine because they eat spiders. If you’re afraid of spiders, lizards are okay. I left my room, took a cold shower in a modest bathroom facility in the caravanserai, decorated with cobwebs, but the cold water was in fact warm, and I was completely dry five steps later anyway. No escape.
Well, I can’t complain now, it’s surprisingly comfortable, refreshingly cold from the wind, and the train is gently rocking me to sleep.

But later I wake up freezing ­the wind has become unforgiving, and the shallow pit I’m in doesn’t give me much cover, even though I’m clutching my backpack in front of my head. It’s painfully cold now, and won’t be getting much warmer before the morning, so I begin to stuff my dirty underwear into my jumper, my hood, and put socks on my hands. Ammar will later say he was freezing too, but then all feeling stopped altogether, and he thought he was actually dying. I do freak out when I look over to his side of the wagon, and he’s not there. Then, it turns out, he’s just shifted down the wagon, while I have shifted up. Look, there he is, partially covered by sand and iron, virtually indistinguishable from various bags travelling with us in the wagon.

I wake up minutes before sunrise, wiggle my toes to make sure I’m complete despite the cold, and… what a sight. We’re riding a huge sandworm through endless dunes of this petrified sea, immobilised by geological rigor mortis. This is the first time I can really see the train ­and it is so long I can’t even make out the front of it. A friendly kick, and I find out that Ammar has also survived the freeze, which makes me happy, as he is my friend, not to mention the difficulties I would have to face had he died.

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The wind is moving the bags around us.

It looks surreal, you can easily imagine those bags are alive… wait, they ARE alive!

Due to the train’s movement we didn’t notice it earlier! It turns out there are more people travelling like this, and we are as surprised to see them as they are to see us, now that they begin crawling out of their heaps of blankets, staring at us, then yawning and stretching.

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We smile, shake hands, wave, but don’t interact much more than that. Not that I can tell from what they are saying.

Supposedly, when you greet people in the desert, you address them in plural, because you are referring to them and their guardian angel, as no one in their right mind would venture into the Sahara without their protection.

There are no women and no children. In fact, one of the last women we saw before getting on the train, was a large mother of a young baby – imagine our faces now ­– whose bulging breast someone suddenly grabbed and began to shake to attract Ammar’s attention, causing a wave of benevolent laughter among everyone ­ including the woman – with the notable exception of Ammar and myself (another culture shock for us).

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Ammar is wearing skiing goggles, which combined with his crimson hands gives him a curious steampunk look, like he were some sort of, I don’t know, train­surfer? In fact, all of our clothes and bags are also stained with iron. My workhorse lens inhales a lethal amount of it every time I zoom in, and it won’t ultimately survive this trip. Iron is what keeps Mauritania going ­– the country is Africa’s second biggest producer of iron ore. But the train is also a free means of transport for local people and their cargo, and we can now see cartons of pasta, rice, bottles of water, live goats…

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It’s pleasantly warm and spectacular around us. The endless desert makes it hard to believe that this used to be an ocean once, and that whales’ skeletons have been found in the Sahara. In fact, there are roaring seas and beating waves here even now, but deep underground, while their presence is manifested by magnificent oases one finds scattered across Mauritania.

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And then it starts getting hot again. It’s as if we experienced all four seasons in one day. The Sahara was nicknamed the White Man’s Grave, and with each minute it amuses me less, there is nowhere for us to hide. Just a couple of days ago a torrent of blood gushing from my nose was only stopped after a local man stuffed it with what later turned out to be camel poop, and told me to hold it there for twenty minutes. I don’t want it to happen again.

We have no clue where we are, but I estimate it must about six hours to go before we arrive at our final destination Nouadhibou, the coastal city famous for its ship graveyard, a small seal colony, and not much else. Men kneel in the corner of their wagons to urinate protected from the wind, but if you told me it would evaporate before hitting your trousers, I would believe you. It is often cloudy in the desert, and sometimes it even rains for a brief moment, but right now there’s nothing between us and the sun, and without sunglasses it feels as if your eyes had been sliced with a paper knife. What’s more, it’s been about 24 hours since we saw a toilet, and, as Michael Palin put it, all the flush toilets you see here in the desert are but a mirage.

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With an eerie feeling, I realise how lucky I was that my sleep walking did not kick in on the train, and that there were no tunnels on the way ­ not something I gave a lot of thought before. Sat on top of about 84 tonnes of rusty red ore, I produce a bottle of quite possibly the strongest alcohol in this part of the country, my antibacterial soap, but I’m just too dirty for it to make much difference. The train keeps on going.

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The feeling of achievement is immense, when far on the horizon we notice a thin blue line of the Atlantic Ocean. You can see it and you will soon be able to smell it, the delicious, fresh smell. It doesn’t have the magnificence of arriving at Mombasa with the so called Lunatic Express on the other side of Africa, but it still is beautiful. Like on any other train, people slowly begin to prepare to disembark, and so do we, approaching slowly the Cap Blanc peninsula by the Tropic of Cancer.

We will jump off, go to the best hotel Nouadhibou has to offer, shower and stain the towels and floors with iron, before setting off to see the town. The ore will still travel a few more kilometres, and then sail across the ocean to be purified, to have the phosphorus, sulphur, as well as urine and two light sticks removed, to ultimately become steel.

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Editor’s Note: MichaÅ‚ Huniewicz is a Polish photographer, writer and software developer based in London. His shots have been widely featured and exhibited, including in Hong Kong or Brussels, as well as Wyborcza.pl (largest Polish liberal daily). Discovery Digital Networks recently dedicated a show to his trip to Mauritania. His train ride report was also published in Daily Mail Online. To stay up to date with his outstanding adventures and photography, please visit his website http://www.m1key.me. I totally fell in love with his works.


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1 Comment
  1. Paul Harris September 1, 2015

    M-A-N! This train is long! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BIeWnS4FTA0

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