The Red Lizard is a wonderful train journey which carves a sometimes seemingly impossible path through the gorges and phosphate mountains of southwest Tunisia.
The line was originally built by the French at the end of the 19thC to transport the rich phosphate deposits from Metlaoui to Redeyef, from where they were taken to Sfax before being processed and exported.
Later the line was used by the Bey of Tunis when travelling between Tunis and his summer palace at Hammam Lif. He had his own private coach. In 1995 the original 19thC carriages including Bey’s private car, were restored to their former glory and now run as a tourist train.
There is a large station at Metloui with booking hall and a basic toilets at the far end of the platform which aren’t capable of dealing with large numbers of visitors. There is parking outside the station. Our driver sat in the cafe watching the car as there have been outbreaks of trouble in the town.
When we arrived there was a manky orange diesel at one end of the train. Later a big butch black diesel appeared and was attached to opposite end.
The Bey’s private coach is splendid with a carpet and half a dozen arm chairs arranged down sides. It had its own washroom and toilet. You need to arrive early to secure a seat in here. On either side were coaches with white plastic seats and at either end was a small coach with wooden seats. We decided to sit in there working on principle that wooden seats were likely to put off people. They did. There is a high guard’s seat at one end with hand brake which was popular with people taking photos of each other. There were a few opening windows so established ourselves on either side of the coach.
Entry to the coaches is up steps at either end with a small platform area outside coach. Metal gates are closed before departure.
The train was away promptly. We were accompanied by a police car and police motor cyclist as went through town to stop potential trouble as the area has been affected by discontent of phosphate workers protesting about poor wages and working conditions. There have been cases of stones thrown and cars being burnt.
It took about 10min before we left town and another 10min to reach mountains. The train now begins to climb up through the valleys. We went through a tunnel and emerged by the Seidja river in a deep valley for the first photo stop.
The train continued to climb and Michael and I kept changing sides so he could get the best views for photos. The river valley got narrower becoming a canyon with dry side valleys on either side before we emerged into a large amphitheatre area surrounded by sheer, high cliffs and the second photostop. It was quite difficult to get down from train as it was a long drop from bottom step. We viewed from inside. Michael found if he was quick he could take photo before the hordes descended. The guard blew his whistle but ignored by people continuing to take photos of themselves. He eventually got everyone back on board.
The train now runs through series of tunnels cut through the spurs of canyon. We had brief glimpses of the increasingly steep sided and narrowing canyon between tunnels.
We finally left the canyon and arrived at Seija station in middle of nowhere with huge piles of black phosphate being loaded into wagons by a digger. There are assorted small buildings associated with phosphate workings and bits of track lying around. The river meanders across a flat sandy valley bottom leaving black deposits of phosphate against the pale sand. Few plants grow here. After about 15min, the train returned to Metaloui. The outward journey took 75minutes. Back to Metlaoui with no stops was 30min.
This is an excellent and most enjoyable run.