Bathed in the golden hue of the setting Sahara sun, I found myself perched on the lip of a freight wagon, my body swaying with the rhythmic cadence of the Train du Desert. An iconic behemoth of the Mauritania landscape, the train stretches over 2km and makes a daily pilgrimage across 704km of sandy plains and low dunes from the Atlantic coast at Nouadhibou to the iron ore mines in Zouerat.

The voyage across the Sahara isn’t for the faint-hearted, it’s an intoxicating dance of extremes – the unforgiving desert sun, the grit stinging your skin, the booming and grinding of the colossal train that reverberates through your very core. It’s a relentless journey of contrasts, yet, it’s a venture embarked upon by brave passengers and adventurous souls, like my companion Mike and I.

The nostalgia of my parents’ journey aboard the Train du Desert drew me back to this iron giant. As a child, their tales painted a canvas of endless dunes, echoing the emptiness of the Sahara, and a humble cargo wagon, loaded with hopes and dreams, journeying into the heart of the desert. Their only testament to this adventure was a single Kodak slide; a snapshot into a world that seemed far removed from my own reality.

Fast forward several decades, there we were, Mike and I, sitting atop a freight wagon, ready to etch our own tale in the sands of the Sahara. We hoped to relive my parents’ journey, disembarking at the tiny settlement of Choum, and then venturing on to the ancient city of Chinguetti. As a homage to my parents’ spirit, we willingly exposed ourselves to the elemental symphony of heat, wind, and noise, embracing the austerity of our open-topped metal box, our temporary home.

Navigating the journey, Aiba, our hotel receptionist in Nouadhibou, became our beacon. He helped us protect our belongings from the unavoidable sand and dust and guided us to the best wagons. The journey from Nouadhibou to the heart of the Sahara wasn’t just a physical transition; it was a cultural voyage, drawing us into the complex ethnic realities of Mauritania.

As the train chugged through the night, the human cargo sought refuge in the wagon corners. Bundled in Berber robes, we attempted to sleep, all the while caught in the desert’s chilly embrace. It was in this surreal setting that the stark beauty of the desert under a star-studded sky revealed itself. I couldn’t help but think of my parents in a similar situation, under the same sky, four decades earlier.

Our arrival in Choum was announced by a symphony of sounds – voices, torchlight, wagon wheels grinding against the tracks. We disembarked hastily, loading our bags into an old Peugeot that would continue our journey. In a matter of seconds, the Train du Desert was a disappearing silhouette against the expansive desert sky, leaving us in a cloud of dust and fading echoes.

Nestled in a guesthouse in Chinguetti, with the whispers of date palms overhead, I found myself caught in the dichotomy of being in the present yet living a memory. The sounds of the train still echoed in my ears, intermingling with the memories of my parents’ journey. The ruins of Chinguetti, an emblem of lost grandeur, seemed to mirror our train ride, a voyage that seemed more and more ethereal with every passing day.

Our journey across the Sahara might have ended, but the residue of that unforgettable voyage lingered. The iron ore dust that we carried with us was more than just physical remnants; it was the embodiment of a childhood dream fulfilled, a voyage of self-discovery, and a tangible link to my parents’ past. It was a testament to the constant dance of adventure and nostalgia that is the journey aboard the Train du Desert.