The Iron Ore Train across the Sahara Desert, through Mauritania
I know, I know the title of this article is a big shout, but wait until you see the pics and hear about this epic adventure….
So I was in my 180/197th country, Mauritania, in West Africa. A country that most people have never heard of, yet one of the biggest in the region. I’ve added a little image here for you guys to so you can get some context about the madness of this train journey.
I had read about this epic train journey, on the longest train in the world, for a year or so on travel forums, then Brendan a blogger friend of mine took it last year from the coast in Mauritania into the Sahara too. Once I had made it as far as Nouakachott, 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 Noukachott, 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.
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 11am 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 track side all afternoon and take no risk of missing it.
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, 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.
I should add that the desert at night is cold, and the forums had told us that the train gets your 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 raybans 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 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, thats 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 headscarfs. 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.
HOW TO TAKE THE IRON ORE TRAIN ACROSS THE SAHARA IN MAURITANIA
First of all, anyone can do it if they have enough of the travelers spirit. 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. Here’s how you can do it to:
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 one of the largest exports. 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
From the capital of Mauritania, Nouakachott, you can take a shared taxi all the way out to the depths of the Sahara to a quaint little town called Atar. Spend a couple of days there, sleep under the stars in the Sahara, amazing. Once you’re done in Atar, you can take an off-road, pretty umcomfortable 4X4 ride to a dusty little outpost called Choum. This isn’t even a town, just a few mudbrick buildings and a gathering of people who’ll be surprised to see you.
From Choum, you wait around until around 6pm/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, make your ‘bed’ for the night and get ready for the experience. There’s very little time to waste.
- Take the train from Choum to Nouadhibou, not the other way around, it’s much cooler
- Be prepared – it gets very cold at night, buy some disposable second hand clothes from somewhere in Noukachott, Atar or Nouadhibou. They’ll get very, very dirty.
- Bring sunglasses – the iron ore gets everywhere
- You don’t need to ask permission, or book anything, just be there
- Water is important but food is almost impossible, bring lots of food and eat it just before you jump onboard. Once you’re on, you can’t really eat due to the iron ore in the air
- Brag about this experience for the rest of your life 😛