Sand, stars on board Desert Ex­press

The New Paper - - LIFESTYLE -

“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.

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