Sun-Earther

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Sahel Ore

February 27, 2009

Before I start, I must point out that the ore I am about to refer to is mined in the Sahara, not the Sahel; but can anyone spot the clever and hilarious anagram of the title? Now I shall begin.

At a length of about 2.3km the trains that bring iron ore to the coastal town of Nouadibhou from the mining town of Zouerat, a few hundred kilometres beyond the middle of nowhere and left and the third camel, are the longest in the world. Once a day there is one that has somthing that was at one point in its life a passenger carriage hooked on at the back. The night before I planned to try and be on it I was variously told that it left at 2, 2.30 and 3pm, and made my way out to the station early just in case. Upon arrival I was told that it left at 5, 5.30 or 6pm, and it was at this point that I began to suspect that, rather than official departure times, people were telling which slip they had pulled out of the hat in the office sweepstake.

At 8.30, after a couple of non-passenger trains had passed, I and two Polish chaps who had been similarly misled, boarded the train by the prosaically conventional door, rather than being given a leg up through a window, and found ourselves one of the beautifully tended compartments. We were soon rattling our way through the darkened desert on our way through to a collection of sheds poking through the sand, goat turds and discarded plastic that goes by the name of Choum. As the night ebbed away, we chucked our bags from the train (one Pole cleverly cushioning the impact by making sure that the bit of his bag that held the litre of whisky was the first bit to hit the ground) and boarded a bush taxi bound for Atar, at the edge of the Adrar Plateau.

As well as quite a lot of sand, the Adrar Plateau contains a handful of World Heritage listed caravan towns, where salt traders crossing the Sahara would stop on the way to their holidays in Devon and Cornwall. I spent a few nights in and around one of these, Chinguetti, including one in the desert as part of an overnight camel trek. I would say in the middle of the desert, except that at no point did we venture far enough from town for the guide to lose mobile phone reception. It was, however, well past the 500m wide ring of rubbish surrounding the town, and definitely far enough away that I would have been in quite a bit of bother if left alone. It was also incredibly quiet (bodily functions of chamelle and chamelier aside) - so quiet that as I lay half awake in the morning I could hear the wingbeats of a crow flying 10 metres overhead.

During the trek the majority of the time spent not walking was taken up by the making and drinking of tea. Drinking tea is the major past time in Morocco and Mauritania, and some people have even given up their day jobs to focus on it more fully. The process involves a fair bit of ceremony. The firt step is to fill half the teapot with tealeaves and set it to boil. One then adds sugar - either a generous fiustful straight from the bag, or several lumps. I have seen sugar lumps the size of full grown Weetabix. Next comes the complicated bit, as one pours tea from pot to glass, then to another glass, then back into the pot, then in to a different glass, and so on, until a quick taste indicates that it is right for drinking. At first I suspected that some sort of magic was involved, but I think the actual intention is to make sure that all the lovely sugar gets dissolved, for one does not want to run the risk of not inducing type 2 diabetes in later life. It is not uncommon to get through at least 20 glasses a day, and you cannot go into a shop, hotel or roadside cafe without one being offered. Recent DNA studies suggest that the entire population of the region is directly descended from Mrs Doyle.

Another curious ritual that I have noticed in the desert is a bizarre and lengthy greeting. Often when people meet, both parties launch into a long string of questions and set answers that roughly translates into "Peace be with you. And also with you. How are you? Fine, thanks. And the wife and kids? Fine too. Grandma? Yep, her as well. Going anywhere nice on holidays this year?...etc etc etc". As far as I can tell, no significant information is exchanged, it is just a formulaic recital that one must go through. The overall effect is reminiscent of the episode of Blackadder featuring the superstitious actors.

A custom that I have tried to observe myself is that of only using the right hand to eat, this being one of many parts of the world where use of the left is reserved strictly for tending the needs of the other end of the alimentary canal. Left handed people are easy to spot, for though they smell very nice they have bits of dried food smeared all over their chins.

I would, as an aside, mention that although slavery in Mauritania was made illegal in 1981, and some sort of punishment was actually introduced in the early years of this century, the buying and selling of people is rumoured to still happen. But to do so would be a blatant and outrageous lie. If one asks about its continuing existence, the answer is a short, sharp and very truthful No. Followed by a swift change of subject.

It seems that most of the rest of the time between now and when I last wrote has been spent in shared taxis. Very intimately shared taxis, seating two in the passenger seat and four in the back. Not the most comfortable way to travel, particularly if you are 6 foot 5, or have the misfortune to find yourself sharing the same vehicle as someone who is. More often than not there is an outbreak of mirth after about five minutes of the journey following a comment from the poor soul wedged between me and the door (for I invariably lose the game of who can stand about outside for longest so as to avoid sitting in the middle), which presumably translates along the lines of "For fuck's sake, have I got to endure sitting next to this big smelly git for the next four hours?". Battered old Mercedes seem to be the vehicle of choice, although it was in my old friend the dual cab Toyota Hilux that I bid my farewell to the Adrar Plateau and made my way to Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania. But therein lies a tale for another time.

Until then, goodnight.

Posted by jamesb at February 27, 2009 8:36 PM

Comments


Cor I can smell it all from here-and your boots by now. I will keep all these blogs-should be worth a fiver to some publishing place! Hope you are keeping well. Im off to get the atlas out now and look forward to your next part. Love Nancy PS Its dreary weather here-for a change

Posted by: nancy hall at March 3, 2009 10:08 AM


oh my god. hehe

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