Today started before dawn as we needed to travel 3(ish) hours from Dakhla to the Mauritanian border via taxi. We found numerous taxi drivers but none of them was willing to take us down and they all said we needed a Grand Taxi. A Grand Taxi turned out to be an antiquated Mercedes saloon which wasn’t leaving until 0730 which was an hour and a half after we had anticipated as the border opened at 0900 and we needed to get on the train in Nouhadibou (Mauritania) at 1400.
The taxi was extremely uncomfortable for me who had ended up in the middle, as we were sharing the fare with a Moroccan couple, and I don’t think it was much better for Nick next to me. We stopped a couple of times en route but the remainder was spent looking out the windows at vast nothingness as we headed through the remainder of Western Sahara.
The Moroccan border check point (Western Sahara isn’t internationally recognised as independent) was quite straight forward, getting stamp out of the country and filling in a couple of forms was all it took. To then get to the Mauritanian border control you had to go off road for 3km through ‘no-mans land’ with a rough track which was lined either side with land mines. More worrying though was just before the border there was a Mexican standoff between the Moroccan Arny (half a dozen vehicles) and the Western Saharan forces (a couple of vehicles and a couple of built up positions) with 3 UN vehicles in the middle, off to one side. Not the ideal last impression you would want to give visitors.
The Mauritanian border was much more complicated. First we had to have all our details taken down and explain our itinerary, then we went to another building where we could actually get a visa but in there there was absolutely no order and people kept jumping to the front and the man scanning passports and making visas seemed to just take passports from his pile at random. Pur finger prints were taken as well as a photo for our visas, mine however I was looking down at the time so I look asleep in mine… The passports then get handed onto another guy who sticks the visas in and charges €120 for it!!! One of the most expensive visas in the world, which is dropping down to €40 in 2017… We did however meet our first fellow English traveller who was a plumber who owns a house in Gambia and who was driving down, taking a similar route to us. We finally had to go to a third building where they asked more questions and then stamped the visas, validating them.
Once inside Mauritania it wasn’t plain sailing yet as every few hundred metres there was a check point where we had to hand over our passports or even get out on a couple of occasions to wrote down our details. Unfortunately 10km outside Nouhadibou we saw the train, which runs alongside the road, heading towards us having left on time from the station. We went to the station anyway to enquire about the next train and we were told between 15-1600 which suited us perfectly as we needed to get food and water for the 12 hour journey.
The journey is on a 2.4km long iron ore train, one of, if not the longest in the world. We were catching it from the port and travelling overnight for 12 hours into the Saharan Desert, in one of the empty ore carriages. Most locals sit inside one of the passages coaches at the rear but it is free and accepted and almost encouraged to ride in the carts.
We bought loaves of bread, a lot of water and some nutella for sustenance for the journey then had great hilarity with currency before paying to get back to the train station, just after 1500. We actually had to wait until 1700 for the train to finally turn up but we were greeted by a very friendly customers officer who spoke excellent English and told us we were very welcome and it wasn’t often they had visitors from England which is true as neither Nick or I know of anybody else whom had been travelling here.
Needless to say we clambered aboard and had a truck to ourselves and the train lived up to our expectations. Trundling through the desert with dust and iron ore flying in your face, seeing the vast expanse of desert was unbelievable. I could honestly write an essay on it but it still wouldn’t convey the awesomeness of the experience. Probably the coolest thing either of us has ever done.
Also I would challenge you to find anywhere with a more clear night sky. The stars were unbelievably clear.