By Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times
Nouadhibou, Mauritania - One might ask why any sane person would ride 419 miles through the Sahara in a railroad hopper, scorched by a blazing sun, surrounded by goats, fated to pass 17 hours watching desperate companions relieve themselves over the side of the car.
For one, it is free. And two, it is virtually the only way to get to Zouerate.
“Take a car and try to drive, you will be scared to death,” said Mohamed Vall Ould Cheikh, who has been hopping the train for 12 years. “You will be driving in the middle of nowhere, no road, no water and no restaurant. If your car breaks down, you are dead.”
One might also ask why any sane person would go to Zouerate (pronounced zoo-WARE-ate), a spot in remote northwest Mauritania whose only feature is a gargantuan open-pit hematite mine. Yet on any given day in Nouadhibou (pronounced noh-AH-dee-boo), a rough-hewn town of 90,000 on the shores of the luminescent green Atlantic, maybe 100 people are bound and determined to make it to Zouerate — or at least to Choum, a dusty outpost of 5,000 about two-thirds of the way.
Nouadhibou is the western terminus for one of the world’s longest, heaviest trains, a 220-car, mile-and-a-half colossus that ferries iron ore from Zouerate to ships waiting in Nouadhibou’s cluttered harbor. It is not meant for passengers, although it pulls one or two token, ramshackle passenger cars at the end.
But for Mauritanians, who have to get from one place to another in northern Mauritania without paved roads or planes, the train is the closest facsimile to a mass transit system, even if most of what passes for seating is in 10-foot high, open-air iron hoppers.