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Sahara

Day 23: Zouérat to Azougui

Zouérat, Mauritania 
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Not a recycling container, but Première Classe on the Iron Ore Express.
Michael Palin - SaharaGroups of maintenance workers pass by, faces muffled against the blackened sand, dark glasses covering their eyes, looking like mummified escapees from some experimental hospital. Everything about them is threadbare apart from their gleaming new shovels.

Three iron ore trains run every day, seven days a week, between the mines and the Atlantic port of Nouâdhibou. The good news for us is that one train a day also carries passengers.

Just after midday I find myself at a platform-less halt known cryptically as 'Arrêt TFM'. There must be a couple of hundred people gathered here as the monster of a train shuffles slowly towards us. For what seems an eternity, 163 wagons, piled high with rock and black dust, roll past before the two passenger coaches at the back reach the station.

When they do, and the train has shuddered to a halt, there is pandemonium. Passengers don't mount the train, they storm it, scrambling up the steep embankment aiming for two narrow doors, both of which are manned by railway officials whose sole duty seems to be to repel them. They shriek at the crowds and the crowds shriek back. Enormous women with enormous bundles leap onto the ladders and force their way past. A pair of arms emerges from a window and a baby is tossed up into them. A man with a roll of carpet on his shoulder turns, Laurel and Hardy-like, one way and then the other, thwacking people on either side. Human buttresses are formed, leading from the embankment to the train doors.

Casting all human decency aside, I elbow my way past old women, children and blind men and grasp the rail, shouting above the noise that I have a Première Classe ticket. The guard shakes his head and bars my way. I'm about to lose what little control I still have when I realise the guard is directing me to the last car on the train, a box-like wagon with circular holes in its side that looks suspiciously like a recycling container.This, it turns out, is Première Classe.

Once inside the container its appearance begins to make sense. It's essentially a guard's van, with a central raised section like a ship's bridge, from where company operatives can survey the length of the train, which today is roughly a mile. From up here I can see that those who were not able to get aboard the coaches have
scrambled onto the goods wagons and are settling in on top of the iron ore. One wagon is entirely occupied by a herd of goats.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 23
  • Country/sea: Mauritania
  • Place: Guelb
  • Book page no: 81

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