Skip to content

A train in the desert

Did you know that there’s a railway in the Sahara Desert? Or that you can take a ride on a special tourist train there?

The Mauritania Railway opened in 1963. It consists of a single, 704-kilometre railway line that links the iron mining centre of Zouérat with the port of Nouadhibou. Trains on the railway are up to 3 kilometres (!) long and have 200 to 210 cars each carrying up to 84 tons of iron ore. Passenger cars are sometimes attached to freight trains, but more often passengers simply ride atop the ore hopper cars freely. Conditions for these passengers are incredibly harsh with daytime temperatures exceeding 40 °C and death from falls being common.

The train for tourists, though, has only one locomotive and two carriages, one with panoramic windows and the second with the compartments. The trip takes a week and has multiple stops on the way, for the tourists to visit the mines, explore the landmarks, meet the locals, stay with them or in tents, ride 4×4 or camels and learn the folklore.

I didn’t know about this. But a while ago I was getting ready for a walk and decided that I needed a coupe of French podcasts to accompany me. I wanted something about travel and warm faraway places. After an hour of searching I chose one programme about two women who made three trips to northern Africa in the mid 20th century and another one about Mauritania, one of the countries they visited.

Now, I was lazy to read the description of the podcasts (I wanted out, to enjoy the sun and the walk). I looked at the pictures, scanned the first paragraph and that was it. The story about the women was fine, more or less what I expected. But then, imagine my surprise: I prepared to find out more about Mauritania as a country, but instead had to follow the presenter on her train (?) journey across the country (and learn about its mining industry).

So I had to have another look at the programme page, and there it was: the train on the left side of the picture and the desert on the right. No idea how I managed not to notice this before. But, as it goes, I’ve no regrets. My curiosity is totally excited.

I would never have thought that there may be a railway in the desert. Nor that you can cross it in a tourist train. And it’s so interesting, don’t you think? What is it like to see the sky at night? It must be so huge and so bright… To hear the silence of the sands? To feel their heat? How does the landscape change? And how do people live in the desert? And what are they like? I’ve discovered another piece of the world of which I knew very little and now I’d like to explore it more.

Why am I sharing all this here? Well, apart from the fact that it’s an interesting fact, there are two reasons.

  1. It does make sense to read the programme description to prepare yourself for listening, especially if it’s something long and not easy. This time I was lucky, but there were a couple of occasions when I couldn’t understand what was happening half the programme.
  2. If you find something exciting, do follow it up. I believe learning languages is not only about communication (or God forbid grammar and vocab), it’s about the wonders of this world that may make us look differently at our own life. Once you start following what interests you, you get much more language practice without noticing it or forcing yourself, and you get a good reason to remember the new language you come across (to share this later).

P.S. Here‘s an article In English about the long train by a photographer who rode on top of it + wonderful photos.

Photos from the internet and cover photo by Alan J. Hendry on Unsplash


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *