«One might imagine travelling through the Sahara by train to be a zen-like voyage. In some ways it is – but it is also an unforgiving and ceaseless assault on the body and senses… a constant elemental symphony of heat, wind, and noise.» — Alastair Gill
Mauritania is one of those countries that take up rather a lot of space on the map but somehow flies right under most people’s radar. A blocky chunk of West Africa, this Islamic Republic is larger than Egypt but has a smaller population than Nairobi: just under 4.5 million. A fifth of those reside in the capital Nouakchott, on the Atlantic coast, which was a mere fishing village until selected to be the metropolis of the newly-independent state that emerged from French-colonial rule in 1958-60.
But the most remarkable statistic about Mauritania — apart, perhaps, from it being the last country in the world to outlaw slavery, via a 1981 ruling belatedly enforced in 2007 — concerns its railway lines. Or rather railway line: it has only ever had one, a sideways-L-shaped affair connecting the country’s second city Nouadhibou, also on the Atlantic, with an iron ore mine some 704km away at Zouerate — roughly the distance from Paris to Turin.
You fall, you die
Planned from 1940 and finally constructed between 1960-63, the «Mauritania Railway» is easily the most palpable infrastructural legacy of the colonial era. Built to European specifications and bearing some of the longest (3km) and heaviest trains on the planet, clanking their way back and forth on a 20-hour journey mainly through inhospitable (and sometimes war-torn) desertine land. This railway, which routinely carries passengers in a somewhat hazardously ad-hoc manner, has proven quite popular with the most audacious exponents of ‘extreme tourism’ such as Calvin Sun.
«No tickets, no bookings, no cash, no reservations — you’re supposed to just …
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