Riding the Iron Ore Mauritania Train across the Sahara Desert in
Riding the iron ore train Mauritania is one of the best travel experiences in the world. That’s why I run trip s there regularly, COME JOIN ME IN 2024 HERE! I’ve ridden the iron ore train in Mauritania 7 times, more time than any other foreigner on the planet, so I hope this blog post helps convince you to do it too.
Of all the 54 countries in Africa, Mauritania is one of the least visited. But Mauritania is home to the COOLEST train journey in the world. The iron ore train. 2.5km train, 700km through the Sahara. Cold, uncomfortable, illegal. So yeah, that is if you’re up for a hard-core adventure of course.
The infamous Mauritania iron ore train is used to transport iron ore from the mines in the depths of the Sahara, all the way to the west coast of Africa. It then unloads the iron ore in the Mauritanian coastal town of Nouadhibou, and returns empty, back deep into the Sahara, to the area around Zouerat, 700km from the coast.
Locals in Mauritania know that this train runs almost daily, so they hop on the back of the train in either direction. No ticket, no timetable, just hop on and hop off where you like. For free. So you too can do the same thing. But only if you’re ready for the most hardcore train journey in the world.
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Table of contents
- Riding the Iron Ore Mauritania Train across the Sahara Desert in
- Where is the Iron Ore Train In Mauritania?
- Mauritania Train Map
- How to Ride the Mauritania Iron Ore train through the Sahara; Step By Step
- Riding the Iron Ore Train In Mauritania; My Experience
- Final Tips for the Mauritania Train:
- IRON ORE TRAIN MAURITANIA FAQs
- Packing list for riding the Iron Ore Train
- Can I sleep on the train?
- Can I eat on the train?
- When is the best time and season to ride the train?
- Can I do it alone?
- Is it safe for women?
- Is it safe to ride the Iron ore train?
- Is it safe to visit and travel to Mauritania?
- Can tourists ride the Iron Ore Train?
- How long does the journey take?
- What can I expect to see during the ride?
- When does the train depart each day?
- MAURITANIA IRON ORE TRAIN TOUR – JOIN ME!
Where is the Iron Ore Train In Mauritania?
First of all, where is Mauritania?
It’s in West Africa. north of Senegal, and south of Morocco. Only 4m people live in Mauritania, despite it being huge. This is largely due to the fact it’s mostly desert, the Sahara desert. The people are lovely, and not used to tourism at all. They generally come from Arab-Berber ethnicity, with some west Africans there now too.
But where is the Mauritanian train? It runs from the Nouadhibou all the way to Zouerat, about 700km deep into the Sahara Desert. The last stop before the mining town of Zouerat is a town called Choum. It’s in Choum where you will either get on the train and ride it to Noouadhibou, or vice-versa.
Mauritania Train Map
In the image below you can see the single-track iron ore train running right across the top of Mauritania. From Nouadhibou, on the coast, to M’Haoudat deep in the Sahara Desert. Generally speaking, most Mauritanians only ride the train to Choum, at roughly the halfway point. The only reason to go further than that would be if you work in the iron ores mines at the end of the line.
How to Ride the Mauritania Iron Ore train through the Sahara; Step By Step
First of all, anyone can do it if they have enough of the travelers’ spirit. And the best way to do it is to join one of my Mauritania tours. It’ll be one of the best travel experiences of your life. But it’s not easy. It’s hard on the body, it’s cold, it’s dirty, but this is what we travel for.
The train journey itself runs every single day of the year. And it’s the longest train in the world at 2.5km long. Despite Mauritania being quite poor, they are rich in natural minerals with Iron Ore being the largest export.
So each morning an empty train runs from Nouadhibou on the West coast of Mauritania to the iron ore mines at Zouerat, via Choum/Atar. And each evening, the train now full of iron ore, makes the 700km journey back to Nouadhibou. From Choum to/from Nouadhibou, the journey takes roughly 14 hours. If you’re going all the way to Zouerat (I wouldn’t recommend it) then add another 5 hours or so.
Here’s how you can do it too:
STEP 1: Choose your route.
You have to choose 2 things.
- Do you want the 14 hour train (so start/finish in Choum). Or do you want the full train (20 hours, all the way to the way in Zouerat)
- Do you want to start or finish on the coast. It’s much better to finish on the coast. If you start there, the train is empty and THERE IS NO IRON ORE.
Once you’ve made your mind up, you need to get to a main hub in Step 2. The best route option is the 14 hour train from Choum to Nouadhibou. Why? The train is uncomfortable. Why do an extra 6 hours?! Also, it’s a waste of another half-day drive to go even deeper in the desert to get to Zouerat.
STEP 2: Get to Nouakchott (or Nouadhibou)
You have decided your route, now you have to get to your Mauritanian hub.
If you’re riding the empty train (from Nouadhibou to Choum or Zouerat), you simply get to Nouadhibou and take a 20 minute taxi to the train station outside the city, and hop on. Simple.
If you’re taking the cooler option from Choum/Zouerat, then you must start Step 2 from Nouakchott.
Both Nouakchott and Nouadhibou have airports. And there is a visa on arrival for almost everyone. So this bit is easy.
STEP 3: Get to Atar
Once in Nouakchott, sleep 1 night then go to the main bus station EARLY (around 6am) and take the shared minibus for 7-10 hours to Atar. Sleep there. If you’re in a rush you can leave the next day, but I’d actually recommend checking out Chinguetti, the White Desert, Terjit Oasis etc. When you’re ready, go to Atar town centre, near the market, and grab a shared taxi.
Whilst in Atar, you can do all your shopping for the trip. Blankets, headscarfs, snacks, water etc.
Step 4:Get to Choum (including a google map)
From here, throughout the day, they have shared ‘taxi’ to Choum. This isn’t even a town, just a few mudbrick buildings and a gathering of people who’ll be surprised to see you. Wait by the train tracks from 2pm. Within the next 12 hours, it’ll arrive.
From Choum, you wait around until around 6 pm/sunset by the train tracks. The train runs every single day, so don’t lose hope. It’s frequently late. But equally, don’t go wandering. Once the train arrives in Choum, it only stays for around ten minutes or so. So you have to choose your carriage quickly, get your backpacks and blankets read and throw everything on the top of the iron ore. Quickly make your ‘bed’ for the night and get ready for the experience. There’s very little time to waste.
That’s it. You’re on. 14 hours later you’re in Nouadhibou, filthy but exhilarated.
NOTE: If you’re going to ride the train the other way (I don’t recommend it), then you simply go to the station at sunrise in Nouadhibou and hop in one of the carriages. It’s empty of iron ore though. So all those epic pics you see in this blog, you won’t get them.
Riding the Iron Ore Train In Mauritania; My Experience
I had read about this epic train journey, on the longest train in the world, for a year or so on travel forums. I knew I had to do it (2023 EDIT: This has now BLOWN UP! So many people are doing it. Very cool).
Once I had made it as far as Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, I knew I had to ride this train. The train requires no tickets, no bookings, no cash. You just hitch-hike and hop on top of the iron ore cargo across the Sahara and jump off when you reach the Mauritanian coast. Wow.
First, we had to work out how to get so deep into the Sahara. The infrastructure in Mauritania isn’t great. Think lots of sand, not so many roads. But after a couple of days in Nouakchott, Josh who I was traveling with, and I managed to get a shared taxi to Atar, quite deep into central Mauritania.
A very early start, $20, and about 10 hours later we made it to Atar, where we spent three or four days exploring the desert, taking camels into the dunes, and sleeping under the stars. Another amazing experience, by the way, I’ll write about that another time.
GETTING FROM NOUAKCHOTT TO ATAR, TO CHOUM
After chatting to the locals about how to get to Choum, the small ‘town’ that the Nouadhibou-Zouerat train runs past each evening, we discovered we could score two seats in a shared 4X4 each day around 11 am for another $16 or so. The journey should take less than 4 hours. And we’ll be there in plenty of time to hitch a ride on the train. Plenty of time indeed.
The whole journey from Atar to Choum was off-road in a jeep. 6 people in 4 seats, and we ate up the time. The guy driving like he stole it. We arrived in Choum around 13.30pm to discover that Choum was just a dusty settlement with a few mudbrick buildings and we were here for the next six hours or so, wonderful. One particularly religious man spent my first half-hour upon arrival trying to convert me to Islam. And with my French just about good enough to order food and get in buses, this wasn’t going well.
After a very dodgy chopped goat lunch, Josh and I went to find the train tracks, which are only a few hundred metres of Choum ‘town centre’. Rather than wait in the town, we set up base beside the tracks. We figured if we miss the train, we’re stuck in Choum until tomorrow night. Not a great outcome, so better we chill trackside all afternoon and take no risk of missing it.
THE IRON ORE TRAIN FINALLY ARRIVES!
Actually, the afternoon went by quite quickly.
Every so often word would spread that two crazy foreigners had set up camp beside the train tracks and hordes of kids would come by and chat with us. The time flew by and before long we could see the lights of the train in the distance, the sun was setting, and it was about 18.30.
We packed up our stuff and walked over to three older Mauritanians who clearly knew infinitely more about the process that was about to transpire than we did. So we stood beside them and tried to ask them what the hell happens next. They explained as best they could with my awful French and zero Arabic, and their awful french and zero English. With that, they ushered us further down the tracks so as not to lay claim to the carriage they intended to jump on. On we went.
Finally, the train pulled up, the front whizzed past us, and then keep kept coming and coming and coming. Literally maybe 10 solid minutes of carriage after carriage of full, fine iron ore heaped on each carriage. Finally, it came to a halt, and judging by the speed of the old boys beside us, we had no time to lose.
Josh and I sprinted to the second last carriage, I hopped up the crusty, rusted orange iron ladder, half hanging on and Josh passed me all our bags, I threw them all up, then jumped on myself. Josh joined me, we were laughing like children, “Wow, we’re really doing this, THIS IS EPIC”. Two minutes later, the chugging started and we were off.
SETTLING ON TOP OF THE IRON ORE
I should add that the desert at night is cold, and the forums had told us that the train gets you dirty. Not dirty like a night out in Bangkok, dirty like you’ve never been dirty before.
So in Atar, we visited some second-hand shops and bought two blankets, extra socks, a hoody and the best piece of all, a local jellaba and a headscarf. An authentic overcoat the guys in Mauritania and Morocco wear, we looked the part. That combined with a pair of ray bans and we were set.
My buddy who had taken the train before took it from the cost TO the mines, so it was empty. We were taking it the other way around, so it was full. This, in my opinion, is much, much cooler. You’re riding IN the iron ore, rather than riding empty carriages. Sure, you get a lot dirtier, but it’s the full experience, and you get to ride through the night, traversing the Sahara, under the stars. This is living. Risky, adventurous, fun. I can’t get enough.
We chatted and chatted for hours, mostly patting ourselves on the back for being such heroes, having a great time. Soon we decided to try to sleep, so we covered ourselves in our blankets, our extra clothes and managed to sleep a few hours. It was chilly, and the super-fine iron ore gets everywhere. Even through your blankets, but it’s not too bad. Sometimes you wake up, sit up and appreciate just where in the world you are exactly, and it blew my mind. Dig deep into the iron ore again, set up a new ‘nest’, and grab another hour or two of sleep.
THE NEXT DAY
The sun rises and the temperature starts to warm up, Josh and I both get up and watch the last two hours of the journey, with the gorgeous morning glow, in amazement.
Now in the light of day, you can see the vastness of the Sahara, the undulating dunes, the remoteness of it all. I loved those two hours that morning, as much as I’ve ever loved any of my manic travel experiences. Eventually, we saw the bright lights of Nouadibhou. It was time to get ready to stop. As we finally stopped to a halt, we threw our bags off the carriage and hopped out.
Thankfully we copied the old guys when we boarded the train, so we were at the train station when we stopped. If you choose the wrong end, that’s a 2.5km walk back to where we got off. It wasn’t until the morning we saw the camels strapped to the carriage three carriages behind us, that must have been quite the job getting those boys strapped on. The owners now came and toppled the camels onto the ground, just as we were walking away, we donated all our spare clothes and blankets for the journey to the local guys at the station. And then took off our headscarves. We were FILTHY.
My sheer dirtiness was the source of amusement for a lot of the Mauritanians at the train station, and after attacking my face with a full two-litre bottle of water it looked vaguely acceptable. We jumped into a shared taxi and headed into Noudhibou to try to find somewhere to sleep. Before long we were showering the iron ore off us and our epic adventure had come to an end. The shower felt amazing, but I have to admit I was sorry to draw a line under that experience, it was something truly unique. I hope you guys can venture out that way one day. Experiences like this are hard to come by in a world dominated by social media and Nat Geo. Go and get it while you can.
Final Tips for the Mauritania Train:
- Although the train goes both directions back and forth. And it seems easier to do it from Nouadhibou. Take the train from Choum to Nouadhibou, not the other way around, it’s much cooler. And when you’re finished, you’re in a town where you can get cleaned and sort yourself out. If you do it the other way, the train is empty when you ride it. And you end up in the middle of the Sahara, filthy and miles from anywhere!
- It gets very cold at night, buy some disposable second-hand clothes from somewhere in Nouakchott, Atar or Nouadhibou. They’ll get very, very dirty.
- Bring sunglasses. The iron ore gets everywhere. Ideally wrap-around sports glasses/goggles.
- You don’t need to ask permission, or book anything, or buy a ticket. Just be at Choum at the right time.
- Water is important but food is almost impossible. Bring lots of food to Choum, and eat it just before you jump on board. Once you’re on, you can’t really eat due to the iron ore in the air.
- Get through a rather chilly, very loud, and pretty uncomfortable night. Then brag about this experience for the rest of your life!
- The Mauritania train is the longest train in the world at 2,500m
IRON ORE TRAIN MAURITANIA FAQs
Packing list for riding the Iron Ore Train
What should you bring on the journey? Prepare for extreme weather conditions, including warm clothing for cold nights and plenty of water. Also, pack food and essentials as there are no facilities on the train.
- A face mask/buff. You don’t want to breathe this stuff in!
- A Mauritania headscarf. It helps to cover you all up.
- SKI GOGGLES! Don’t forget this! Sunglasses don’t cut it.
- A Warm sleeping bag. Some people opt for blankets that they buy locally, i always bring my own warm sleeping bag.
- Thermals. It can be freezing.
- Bag covers. The dust gets EVERYWHERE. It helps to protect your bags.
- Snacks and plenty of water. If the train breaks down, you’re stuck. Bring AT LEAST 3 litres per person. Snacks – nuts and berries are best.
- Inflatable pillow
- A head-torch
- Blankets, as well as your sleeping bag. It helps you stay warm, covers you further from the dust. You can buy this in Atar.
Can I sleep on the train?
Yes. You dig into the iron ore to make your ‘bed’. Then cover yourself up with your blankets and sleeping bag, making a cocoon. Some people (like me) sleep for 8 hours+. Others are too cold and are awake all night.
Can I eat on the train?
Once your hidden away in your sleeping bag, you can snack on easy-to-access foods.
What about the toilet on the train?!
Allocate one toilet corner. Use it for peeing. Take imodium so you don’t have to do anything else!
When is the best time and season to ride the train?
You can ride the iron ore train all year long. But the best time to ride the train is during the cooler months, from November to February. Avoid the scorching heat of the summer.
Can I do it alone?
Absolutely. But it’s much more fun in a group.
Is it safe for women?
Yes, but Mauritania is very traditionally islamic. Better to do it with guys, in all honesty.
Is it safe to ride the Iron ore train?
Very safe. The only deaths occur when idiots try to jump between carriages. Don’t do that!
Is it safe to visit and travel to Mauritania?
Exceptionally safe. One of the safest countries in Africa.
Can tourists ride the Iron Ore Train?
Yes, tourists can ride the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania. It has become a unique and adventurous experience for travelers looking to explore the country’s remote landscapes.
Can I buy a ticket to ride the iron ore train in Mauritania? How do I book a ride on the Iron Ore Train?
It’s best to arrange your ride through a local tour operator or guide in Mauritania. They will help you with the necessary permits, tickets, and logistics. It can be done solo but it’s tricky.
How long does the journey take?
The entire journey from Zouérat to Nouadhibou can take around 14-20 hours, depending on various factors like train speed and stops. 8.
What can I expect to see during the ride?
The Iron Ore Train takes you through the scenic desert landscapes of Mauritania, showcasing its vast sand dunes, unique rock formations, and a chance to observe the nomadic way of life.
When does the train depart each day?
When it’s full! So don’t expect a tight schedule. But it goes EVERY day. It’s big business. So just wait and be patient. If you ride from Zouerat, you should be there around midday, expecting a 3pm departure. Frm Choum, be there from 2/3pm and hope for a 6pm departure. It can be as late as 5am the next morning though. Speaking from experience!
MAURITANIA IRON ORE TRAIN TOUR – JOIN ME!
I run 2 trips a year to Mauritania and take people on the iron ore train. Join me! Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org, or DM me on instagram.com/onestep4ward to join the next one 🙂
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