Morocco tourists make tracks on 007’s ‘desert express’
Edouard Kunz knows timekeeping is important but the former Swiss watch precision mechanic admits that James Bond’s Oriental Desert Express in remote eastern Morocco never runs on schedule. The train, made famous in the 2015 Bond movie Spectre, trundles tourists between the town of Oujda and the former mining city of Bouarfa along a 350-kilometer-long stretch of desert. “It takes between eight and 12 hours to make the trip, sometimes even more,” says Kunz, 70, who is known as Edi, blaming sandstorms for frequent delays. His passion for trains put him in the driver’s seat more than 10 years ago when he persuaded Morocco’s National Office of Railways to let him run a tourist train on a disused railway line. The track that runs near the border with Algeria was originally built nearly 100 years ago when Morocco was a French protectorate.
It was part of an ambitious project, the Mediterranean-Niger railway, to link the sea to inland Africa. However, the project was short-lived and, in time, the mines and factories in Bouarfa shut down, until the desert region with its lunar landscapes was rediscovered by Kunz and the location scouts for Spectre.
In a good year, Kunz says, he makes five to six trips between Oujda and Bouarfa.
On the route to Bouarfa, the first dozen or so kilometers are through a fertile plain, and then the train passes through the Tiouli tunnel. After that it is mostly desert. One of the passengers on the Oriental Desert Express is Mona, a young Moroccan.
“It is a welcome change of scenery. It’s nothing but an infinite desert behind us and ahead of us,” she says.
“There’s an extraordinary atmosphere on the train,” she adds, comparing its slow progress through the Saharan sands to being rocked in a cradle.