Maverick Life

TWO-WHEEL TRAVEL

Cycling from London to Cape Town (Part 2): Luggage duty

Cycling from London to Cape Town (Part 2): Luggage duty
The author prepares to catch the Iron Train in Mauritania. (Photo: Jake Thorpe)

Having reached Dakhla, Jake Thorpe is on the second leg of his two-wheeled journey from London to Cape Town.

Since the age of four, my summers have been demarcated by chunks of time spent on a remote Welsh island. Ynys Enlli is a stone’s throw from the tip of North Wales’ Llŷn Peninsula, separated from the mainland by 3km of tempestuous sea. There’s little electricity, no running water, no shops and just a handful of houses. Saturdays are changeover days: that week’s occupants steel themselves to be thrust back into the bustle of mainland life, and a fresh batch of wide-eyed visitors, still soaked from the spray of the crossing, step into the serenity of island life. 

With Enlli, there’s no such thing as packing light. You have to bring everything you need to sustain yourself. On changeover days, an old Massey Ferguson – the crimson of its youth washed out by decades of salt and sun – paces metronomically up and down the island’s sole rocky track, hauling the arriving and departing luggage with the patience of a trusty mule. Chains are formed and boxes stacked with the habitual speed and precision of a veteran bricklayer. 

As an energetic youth who loved a project, Saturdays were always eagerly anticipated. Luckily, these skills – carefully honed over the years on Enlli – have not been forgotten. 

Ynys Enlli. Image: Jake Thorpe

On another peninsula of another country, on another continent, it was Saturday and I was on luggage duty. As I straddled the coupling between two towering train cars, my bike balanced precariously above my head, I found comfort in knowing that this wasn’t my first rodeo. Disembodied hands emerged from the cavernous belly of the cart, grasping at its ungainly form. There’s nothing quite as awkward as a bicycle that’s not being ridden. Eventually, I felt the balance of its weight shift and watched as it tipped over the lip and disappeared into the carriage below. 

As the twanging staccato of Dick Dale’s Misirlou springs to life, I’m sure you’re left a little confused about where I am and how I got here. But in true Tarantino style, let me take you back. After indulging in two rest days in the slightly sterile Dakhla – a kitesurfing hotspot on a remote section of desert coastline – I made a push for the Mauritanian border. By now, the high-mileage desert days had become routine. I’d even abandoned the early starts. 

At 9am, I was polishing off my second omelette: a concession by the waitress who’d bent the rules – no doubt out of sympathy for the solo cyclist setting back out into the vast nothingness of the desert. With the wind at my back, I made it to the border comfortably and breezed past the stretching queue of HGVs that had travelled through the night, grateful for the agility of two-wheeled travel. 

This was to be my first of many border crossings in West Africa. I’d heard countless stories about currency con artists and bribe-seeking bureaucrats, and had readied myself to play the long game. 

My cousin, who spent a year in Senegal after finishing school, had told me about a time she’d been asked to pay a sizeable visa fee to re-enter the country after a brief visit to Gambia. The officials insisted that the law had changed in the week she’d been away. When she demanded proof, the officials disappeared into an office and reappeared bearing the new law scrawled in Biro on a scrap of paper. Hardly reassuring. I resolved to be stone-faced and unbending in the event of any such trickery. 

My passport bounced between various buildings, couriered by a wisened Sahrawi, and I hauled Madonna along in its wake. Visa printed and passport stamped, I was free to enter Mauritania. 

As I was mounting up ready to ride on, the old man who’d ferried my passport around asked for payment. It wasn’t much, just the €5 I’d taken as change from the visa. Hardened by the stories I’d heard, I refused. He didn’t badger me, or become aggressive; instead he just nodded, turned and shuffled back through the clamouring crowds. 

For the rest of the day, I wrestled with the decision. I hadn’t asked to be helped and, in my naivety, I didn’t realise that his assistance wasn’t standard practice. If I had, I would have insisted I could manage on my own. I didn’t owe him anything. But I’d had a chance to be generous, and I missed it. And that weighed heavy. 

Karma makes an appearance

Karma was eerily efficient in delivering my reckoning. Thanks to my fear of being ripped off, at the border I’d also refused the countless touts with local currency and SIM cards. Confident I’d be able to find these essentials in Bon Lanuar, the first town on my straight shoot down to Nouakchott, I pressed on. 

As the afternoon sun beat down, I put some miles between me and the border. Just outside Bon Lanuar, I was stopped at a police checkpoint. These had been frequent in Morocco but, as a cyclist, I’d often been waved through without needing to break pace. Mauritanian police make no such concessions. 

As I waited for my passport details to be noted, I asked the police if there was a bank in town with an ATM. Nouakchott or Nouadhibou was the curt response. This wasn’t the answer I was hoping for. Nouakchott was exactly 400km away. But at least it was in the right direction. Nouadhibou, by comparison, was only 80km away. But that 80km was straight back the way I’d come. And the wind had been at my back since the border. Reluctantly, I chose the latter. 

Crawling along at 10km/h, I was harshly reminded that I’m not, in fact, God’s gift to cycling. The hubristic veneer of the coastal desert days was quickly sandblasted. I hung my head over my handlebars, spat self-flagellating bile and ground my cranks against the wind, avoiding eye contact with the ground I’d already covered. 

By the time I’d regained the lost ground of the diversion, it was late afternoon and I was feeling shaky. With no local currency, and a way still to ride, I pulled up to a roadside shop and sheepishly dug out the €5 note. “Keep the change,” I managed to mumble as my sugary haul was bagged. With Super Cola coursing through my veins, my spirits picked up a little and, as I turned the corner onto the Nouadhibou peninsula, a plan began to brew. 

This plan was first unearthed months ago, during the very early stages of my trip preparation. While poring over various blogs and forums from cyclists in West Africa, I’d come across stories of an old railway. I’m more than a little partial to a shortcut, so this immediately sparked my interest. When I dug a little deeper, however, I realised that the Mauritania Railway runs horizontally, cutting inland, not vertically down the coast; not much of a shortcut when I’m planning to track south like a crow. 

I wouldn’t have time for frivolous detours into the heart of the country. There’d have to be a rain check on that particular adventure. But, riding down to Nouadhibou, I heard a thundering chatter on the horizon and watched as a locomotive approached, pulling behind it a two-mile train of carts. I let myself believe it was fate that guided me, rather than admitting that I was considering taking a 12-hour train into the heart of the country just to avoid covering the 80km back to Bon Lanuar. Though it would be for the third time…

As I rolled into Nouadhibou, I was struck by a familiar feeling. I remember taking my first steps in Africa, pushing my bike off the boat in Tangier. I’d entered the maze of Tangier’s medina and immediately felt the walls close behind me. It was as if this living, breathing hive had sensed a fresh-faced tourist wandering too close and immediately began to morph, streets sliding over one another, staircases pivoting, doorways appearing and disappearing. 

I’d felt an instinct to keep moving. Stop, and I feared vines would creep up from between the cobbles, ensnaring me, dragging me down into the belly of the city. I’d be digested. “This is Africa,” I’d thought. It felt like a totally different world. My first real taste of Mauritania felt no different. This, too, is Africa. And, as I was swiftly discovering, she has many faces. 

Fleets of Mercedes with patchwork panelling weaved through the dusty streets. Street sellers bellowed and donkey riders cracked their canes. After the desolation of the desert, Nouadhibou bubbled with life. I’d chosen a guesthouse recommended by other cyclists, but with no local SIM I only had a rough location. As I crept deeper into the backstreets of the city, fighting to keep my bike in a straight line through the thick bed of sand that paved them, I began to feel quite small. 

Luckily, just as darkness drew in, some locals stepped in and pointed me in the right direction. I was greeted by Peter, the hotel manager. His soothing Australian lilt made negotiating more of a dance than the staccato sparring my sparse French had allowed in Morocco. Once we’d agreed on a price, I dropped my bags and began quizzing him on the Iron Train. 

Jake Thorpe Cycling across the Sahara

The dusty streets of Nouadhibou. (Photo: Jake Thorpe)

Mauritania’s Iron Train was, until recently, the longest train in the world. The track runs from the inland mines of Zouérat to the coastal city of Nouadhibou; this 700km pilgrimage has been made by four trains a day since 1963, each transporting more than 15,000 tonnes of iron ore. The empty carts that return have long been used by locals looking to travel inland, as no road connects the two points, and more recently by thrill-seeking adventurers for no reason beyond the experience. I was somewhere in the middle. I had no desire to take a round trip for the sake of it, and was keen to travel with my bike to Choum – 460km from Nouadhibou – where the train makes a brief stop. From there, I planned to dismount and ride through the heart of Mauritania to Nouakchott, its capital. Part transport, part thrill.

Peter was the bearer of good news. As it happened, there was another traveller staying at the hostel on a mission to ride the Iron Train who was planning to catch the 2pm departure tomorrow. 

Paul didn’t strike me as your typical thrill-seeker. A recently retired 60-year-old company director from Ireland, he had come to Mauritania for the buzz of a train ride. And he’d done his research. He was a fountain of knowledge, and before long we’d agreed to ride together. This was good news. The train cars stand more than four metres off the ground and aren’t built for easy loading of non-ferrous cargo. I’d definitely need a helping hand if my bike were to make it onto the train in one piece.

The next day, we arrived at the gare ferroviaire at 2pm. There’s a timetable, but not one that anyone pays much attention to. Trains come when they’re full, and leave when they’re empty; that’s the thrust of it. As we waited, Paul told me about his experiences leading tour groups of cyclists from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. He was in charge of making sure people could cut the mustard when it came to riding big daily distances on repeat. 

“When it comes to spotting strong riders, always look at the calves,” he preached. I found this to be an interesting gospel given that mine resemble silver birch saplings. At that moment, two cyclists appeared on the road beside the station. I jumped at the opportunity to expand our troop and went to introduce myself. 

Adrien and Sophie were on their way into Nouadhibou, having crossed the border earlier that day. They’d planned to take the train a day later, but after some quick and effective persuasion on my part, plans changed. Before long, they were stocking up on provisions for the journey and changing into train-ready attire. 

As my new friends busied themselves with preparations, Paul sidled over. “Yep,” he said knowingly. “Just as I thought… they’re clearly newbies.” One look at Adrien’s brawny bottom half gave strong evidence to the contrary. As it happens, Adrien and Sophie are some of the world’s top endurance riders. Both race professionally across various disciplines, including extreme multi-day, self-supported competitions. They’d just come from racing the Atlas Mountain Race – a 1,300km single-stage race through the High Atlas – and were now on a jaunt down the coast to Dakar as a post-race shakeout. 

The 2pm train appeared on the horizon at 5.15pm; the air thrummed with nervous energy as the locomotive thundered past, carriages in tow. Even the locals were taking pictures. After several minutes, the train of passing carts had slowed to a crawl, and the last of them ground to a halt beside us. 

As soon as the motion on the track stopped, the motion off the track began. Passengers poured into the carts like ants and began forming chains of luggage. Familiar territory. I sprang into action. 

And so, we finally return to me, straddling the open air between two carts, my bike held aloft. Paul is on the ground, Sophie and Adrien are in the cart. After several minutes of grunting struggle, the three bikes were loaded and we hopped in to explore our home for the next 12 hours. Paul, clearly keen to be shot of bike-lugging duties at the other end, boarded a nearby cart leaving me and the newbies to bond.

Jake Thorpe Cycling across the Sahara

Boarding the Iron Train – with some difficulty. (Photo: Jake Thorpe)

Almost instantly, we were coated in the fine black silt that covers every surface of the carriage. We began by stacking our bikes against one of the walls; satisfied with our work, we unpacked our provisions and waited to get moving. With an almighty crack, the coupling pulled tight and the train began to crawl forward. The force knocked us all over, and the bikes followed suit. We hurriedly reorganised and laid them flat on the ground. 

As the train picked up speed, we began to realise we’d made a calamitous error in our choice of carriage. Given the age of the train, and the abuse it has taken in that time, it’s no wonder the ride is less than silky. But our carriage was particularly rickety; from a vantage point, we could see that our neighbouring carriages didn’t suffer from the same affliction. In comparison, their inhabitants looked as if they were enjoying a ride on the Orient Express. But the sky was blushed with a beautiful sunset and the journey was still young. Our excitement prevailed and we laughed and joked as we began our voyage into the night. 

After about an hour, the train stopped to allow one of its counterparts – filled with ore – to pass. By this point, we’d started to realise the extent of the discomfort our cart would bring if we decided to stay put for the night, and we’d begun to plot an evacuation to a neighbouring carriage. As if reading our minds – and to show it disapproved of this reckless plan – the train suddenly whipped forward. In the carriage ahead, a local man had been perched on the lip, admiring the view. With the sudden shift of the ground beneath him, he fell backwards falling four clear metres to the sand below. Like a cat he sprung up and leapt back onto the moving train as it pulled away, seemingly unharmed. Our evacuation plans quickly evaporated. 

Jake Thorpe Cycling across the Sahara

The view from the Iron Train. (Photo: Jake Thorpe)

With our fate sealed, we gritted our teeth and sank into the shuddering rhythm of our home. What followed was, without a doubt, the most uncomfortable 12 hours of my life. 

Besides the incessant rattling, every 10 minutes or so there was an immense rush of air, a screech and a forceful impact as the car behind us crashed into our coupling as we slowed. When the time came to speed up again, we were thrown in the opposite direction, moving a metre or more across the floor of the cart as the coupling tensioned again. 

Before long, I began to realise that between these two crashes there was a minute or two’s solace from the cart’s rattle. As the hours dragged on, I began to look forward to the first crack, knowing I could use these precious minutes to close my eyes for a moment’s relative peace. 

By the end, we’d all adopted the foetal position on the floor; I put my headphones in and listened to a podcast on Daoism on repeat – managing six iterations – thinking all the while that there was little better arena to practise the art of wu wei: Lao Tzu’s ancient art of non-doing. There was nothing to be done but endure. 

Jake Thorpe Cycling across the Sahara

Night falls as travellers find their bearings aboard the Iron Train. (Photo: Jake Thorpe)

We arrived in Choum a little after 3am. After a frantic scrabble, all three bikes were safely dismounted and we were left standing, jelly-legged, by a bare track in the desert without a person in sight. Luckily, we’d been told about the one guesthouse in Choum: a complex of open-sided tents and, crucially, a shower. We made a beeline there and after an industrial scrub, we collapsed into bed. 

Thrill-seeking Paul was braving the round trip. Thanks to the haphazard timetable, his return train had left mere minutes before we’d arrived. The next wasn’t until 8am. He chose to forgo the shower, knowing the return journey would be just as coarse, and instead lay motionless on the mattress, no doubt enjoying the simple pleasure of being stationary. The sight of him, and the thought of repeating the experience made me very glad to be only half a thrill seeker. DM

To continue following Jake’s journey, check out his Substack — The magical & the mundane: a (mostly) solo cycle tour  — where he posts weekly.

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