The “Red Lizard” was the personal train of the Bey (the King, before 1882 and the French colonisation) and makes a little known but iconic sightseeing journey. Restored 19th century carriages are pulled by a modern diesel locomotive – unfortunately not steam – up into the Seldja Gorges in the mountains east of the mountain oases. It doesn’t run every day so we’d arranged a few days around making the trip. If you get to the station at Metlaoui early you get the best seats. We arrived very early, way ahead of the hotel day trippers, and were rewarded with the plush leather sofa in the Bey’s own carriage.
The train trundles very slowly up into the series of gorges, often with sheer rock on either side and with fabulous views in between. It stops here and there so you can all get out and take pictures. Although we had the best seats, we also spent a lot of time standing by the railings between the carriages and peering out of windows.
At the end of the line – right in the heart of the phosphate mines – you get out and watch while the locomotive is moved to the new front of the train for the slow journey back down. Also fascinating to watch were the massive trucks emptying mining waste on the heap high above the tracks.