Choum Tunnel: The Monument to European Stupidity in Africa

Scars of European colonization are located all across Africa, although some are more obscure and strange than others. With that in mind we come to the Choum Tunnel, built in Mauritania when it was controlled by the French.

At first glance, it seems like an ordinary railway tunnel, however, one look at the local geography and you'll find yourself asking what its builders were possibly thinking with creating the project.

Choum Tunnel in Mauritania. Unknown photographer.

The Mauritania Railway was being built in the early 1960s, and was planned to connect Nouadhibou to Zouérat to exploit the iron ore reserves at Zouérat. That route still exists today in largely its original state, with the exception of the tunnel.

Image: Ammar Hassan via Atlas Obscura

The easiest route required running a short section of track through the then-Spanish controlled Western Sahara, but rather than pay Spain for the land and other concessions, the French engineers instead chose to tunnel under a hill spur near the desert town of Choum. 

Google Maps Satellite Imagery of the Tunnel. Note how the abandoned right of way (in red) goes directly through a hill, when about 3 miles on either side exists nothing but desert.

The tunnel as constructed was two kilometers in length through solid granite, and built for the sole purpose of staying within French territory, and its creation was billed as the "monument to European stupidity in Africa". (Griffiths, 1985)

To add to the absurdity, in the 1970's, once Spain left Western Sahara, Mauritania briefly controlled the territory around where the railroad could have (and should have) been built anyway. 

Today, the tunnel has been abandoned, as in 1991 the Mauritania Railway was relocated into Western Sahara east of Choum, in spite of the tunnel existing solely to prevent that exact occurrence. 

Interestingly, the 5km of track inside Western Sahara is the only railway running within that country, and that has ever run within its borders, making it one of the smallest railway networks in the world among countries that have any railway within them whatsoever. 

Thanks as always for reading!


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