Sand, stars on board Desert Express
“It is a welcome change of scenery. It is nothing but an infinite desert behind us and ahead of us.” — Oriental Desert Express passenger Mona
As a former Swiss watch precision mechanic, Mr Edouard Kunz knows that timekeeping is important, but he admitted that the Oriental Desert Express in remote eastern Morocco never runs on schedule.
The privately chartered train, made famous in the 2015 James Bond movie Spectre, ferries tourists between the town of Oujda and the former mining city of Bouarfa along a 350km stretch of desert.
“It takes between eight and 12 hours to make the trip, sometimes even more,” said Mr Kunz, 70, 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, which runs near the border with Algeria, was first built nearly 100 years ago.
It was part of an ambitious project, the Mediterranean-Niger railway, to link the sea to inland Africa. But the project was short-lived and, in time, the mines and factories in Bouarfa shut down, until the region with its lunar landscapes was rediscovered by Mr Kunz and the location scouts for Spectre.
Exterior shots of the train making its way through the desert were used in the spy thriller starring Daniel Craig, and one of the most striking sequences was of a romantic dinner between Bond and Lea Seydoux’s character that is interrupted by the villain (Dave Bautista).
The tourist train that Mr Kunz hires from Morocco’s national railway operator is not quite as luxurious as the one featured in Spectre though.
Tourists can choose from a first-class, air-conditioned carriage and another that dates back to the 1960s, in which they can open the windows.
The train moves at a top speed of 50kmh, but this often drops to 10kmh. Sometimes, the train comes to a complete halt because of sand on the tracks.
“Some people buy BMWs, but I bought myself a train,” Kunz said, recalling how he struggled to make a profit.
In a good year, he said, he makes five to six trips between Oujda and Bouarfa.
The first dozen or so kilometres are through a fertile plain. Then, the train passes through the Tiouli tunnel. After that, it is mostly desert.
Along the way, passengers see abandoned train stations and a former Roman Catholic church turned into a judo club.
Mr Kunz is hoping to transform one of the abandoned stations into a restaurant, but for the time being, dinner is served in the train.
Chef Aziz prepares local specialities — spicy tajine stews and mint tea — for the tourists.
“This train is important. It creates jobs and helps promote our country,” he said.
One of the passengers on board is Mona, a young Moroccan based in Paris.
“It is a welcome change of scenery. It is nothing but an infinite desert behind us and ahead of us.
“There is an extraordinary atmosphere on the train,” she said, comparing its slow progress through the Saharan sands to being rocked in a cradle.
(Above) The Oriental Desert Express train en route from Oujda to Bouarfa. (Below) Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux by the train track in Spectre.