The African continent may only have one real high-speed train, in Morocco, it does boast all sorts of splendid railway journeys. From the Mediterranean coast to Cape Town and port Elizabeth, hundreds of lines (with very diverse backstories) criss-cross the most otherworldly of landscapes. And of the lot, Tunisia’s Red Lizard must have one of the weirdest names of all. Let’s jump on board.
This is Metlaoui, a city of around 40,000 inhabitants in the west of the country. The atmosphere in the white and blue building on the station platform is relaxed. It’s far from the bustle you’d expect in many of the major African metropolises. You rarely see tourists in this small commune, whose population is largely dependent on the region’s phosphate mines. But those who do are usually here to experience the Red Lizard, which is often nicknamed “the Orient-Express of North Africa”.
The backstory of this train is as long as it is fascinating. Introduced by the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer Bône-Guelma, managed the Algerian and Tunisian railways during the time of French colonisation, the train was built between 1910 and 1926 in two different workshops: those of Blanc-Misseron and the firm Dyle-Bacalan. It was then given to the Bey of Tunis who used it to travel around the country. The sovereign travelled in a special carriage, known as the beylicale, which was just as legendary as its cousins the Orient-Express and the Train Bleu. His court would travel in two other carriages that very resembled the most lavish salons of the time.
Overall, at least three generations of the Bey of Tunis, as well as their prestigious guests, travelled on board this train. As the channel Art reported, this practice even survived after the independence of Tunisia in 1956 and the establishment of the Republic the following year. But soon the president, Habib Bourguiba, did away with it and instead opted for a personal car (much more discreet and flexible). It wasn’t until April 1974, thanks to an agreement between SNCFT and a tourist firm, that the Red Lizard arose from its slumber to link up Tunis and Tozeur via El Jem and its majestic Roman ruins. Ten years later, in 1984, it was moved to its current route.
Following the Gafsa-Redeyef route, the Red Lizard travels along the tracks as 28 freight trains, as well as one passenger service. However, as one employee of SNCFT told Arte, the Red Lizard always has priority over the other trains. Sometimes several trains at a time are prevented from moving ahead so it can reach its headline destination: the magnificent gorges of Selja, home to the river of the same name. For those who’ve never visited this part of the world, this is essentially a beautiful canyon, whose landscapes would certainly appeal to directors of Hollywood westerns. It’s one of those places you can hardly believe is real, the sort of place you’d only expect to see on a TV or cinema screen. And that’s the real joy of travelling on board the Tunisian Red Lizard: it has an incredible ability to transport you to the nether zone between reality and fantasy.
What’s more, the train itself is pretty over the top too. Propelled by a 2,000-HP locomotive diesel engine, it carries its passengers in six lavish carriages, including a restaurant-car and the beylicale carriage, which functions as a “wagon-salon”. It also looks pretty stunning on the outside. With its ‘royal’ red hue and the golden yellow strip above its name, its look will certainly appeal to train lovers. But as the SNCFT website points out, there are several ways to make the most of this train. As well as its regular services, it’s possible to book excursions on board the train, including a trip to the region’s oases and mountains. Even better, you could also have your journey be subject to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’-style attack (yes, really).
Whichever option you go for, the Red Lizard is an extraordinary railway adventure. But not only that. It also reminds us that trains can have several lives and that even the most luxurious aren’t necessarily just for the privileged and powerful. Like many others, these metal lizards have seen their role evolve in step with different eras, regimes and the emergence of new ideas. The only thing that doesn’t change is the undeniable pleasure to be found in travelling on board.