When I first heard about a possible trip to Mauritania, I honestly had to look up where it was on a map. Now after spending a week there, I have had one of the craziest adventures of my entire life. Located deep in the Sahara Desert in Mauritania is one of the largest iron ore mines in the world. To get the iron ore from deep in the desert to factories and cities where it can be processed, there is one train that runs 704 kilometers from the mines of Zouerat to the Atlantic Ocean. This 2km long train is rated as one of the heaviest trains in the entire world. It crosses blazing hot terrain and desert as it carries the iron ore out of the deep Sahara, and I rode on top of it. Riding the iron ore train in Mauritania through the Sahara desert was one of the craziest adventures of my life, and I’m so excited to share it with you,
When I say that riding on the iron ore train in Mauritania was one of the craziest events of my life, I’m not kidding. This train is not a passenger train. There are no train stations, no seats, and no roof. You ride for hundreds of miles through the Sahara desert with the sun beating down on you, the taste of iron in your teeth, and sand in your face. You are not a passenger, you are a hitchhiker. My 14-hour ride on the iron ore train in Mauritania through hundreds of miles of the desert will forever shape how I define adventure.
What It’s Like to Ride the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania
The sun beats down on the desert with no shade and no protection. During the day, the temperatures can reach over 100 degrees, and you are sitting on black rock. At night, the temperatures drop severely and it can become very cold. You are out in the open, so you are living and surviving at the hand of the desert and its climate. Once you get on the train, there is no getting off until it stops in Nouadhibou.
Despite this, riding on the train was simply exhilarating. As the train slowly arrives, your heart is racing as you hope that you will have time to jump on. Once you climb on board, you dig a spot for yourself in the grit so that hopefully you can find some comfort. When you finally stop and look up, the train is moving, the Sahara is passing you by, and you are on the adventure of a lifetime. To just be on board this massive machine is a major accomplishment, but to see parts of the desert that no one else gets to see is simply incredible.
At night you can lay and look up at the stars, during the day you can watch the passing sand dunes. As iron ore and sand smack you in the face, you get to feel what it really is like to live and breathe desert life. As you sit on the train and the hours pass by, you get to stop and appreciate how amazing this train and the desert truly are. There is nothing like it.
It is completely worth the extreme discomfort of sitting on rocks for 14 hours.
How to Get There
Getting to the spot where the iron ore train in Mauritania stops is not an easy feat. You must journey from the capital city of Nouakchott to the desert town of Choum. This drive takes you through miles of desert and includes off-road portions of driving as well. According to Google, it should take about 7 and a half hours to get there, but because it is Africa, it can often take much longer. Driving there yourself is almost impossible if you don’t know the land and the roads, so you need a driver to get there.
Once you arrive in Choum, you walk to the tracks and wait. There are two to three trains a day that come from Zouerat, but there is no true timetable. The trains leave Zouerat when they are filled with ore, not when they are scheduled to leave. They say the trains often stop in Choum around 6pm, but ours did not come till after midnight. There is also no promise that the train will even stop in Chuom either! You just have to wait and hope. There is no train station, and it is not a passenger train. They have no real reason to stop if the driver decides not to. Although some locals who work in the mines take the train back to Choum where they live which is why they often stop there.
While the actual mine is in Zouerat, it is not safe to go there to catch the train. Zouerat borders Western Sahara and is a zone where Al-Qaeda is prevalent as well as some terrorists from Mali. It is generally unsafe to go there unless you are a local. It is deep in the Sahara where no help can be found if you run into issues. Therefore Choum is the place to go to catch the train instead.
When and IF the train finally stops, you have anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes to climb on board. There is no way of knowing how long the train will be stopped. The train cars are around 10 feet high so you have to pull yourself up a small ladder and jump down into the giant pile of iron ore that awaits you. If you miss the train, it will not wait. If you fall off while it is moving, you could die. This is not a passenger train, so you have to just take whatever comes your way.
Once you are on the train, the real journey begins. Before you lies hundreds of miles of train tracks and desert sand before you make it to the city of Nouadhibou and the Atlantic Ocean.
The History of the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania
The iron ore train was opened officially in 1963. It was designed to bring ore from the mines deep in the Sahara, all the way to the Atlantic coast where it could be processed and sold. The train itself is rated as one of the heaviest trains in the world because of its incredible length and contents. Hitchhiking on this massive train is not a new concept, locals have been doing it since the train’s beginning. The hitchhiking process started as locals needed a way to get in and out of the mines from their hometowns in the desert. However, it eventually turned into a way for the desert nomads to get food and supplies deep into the Sahara. Not only would people ride trains out of the mines, but desert dwellers would ride the train to the Atlantic to trade for items like fish to bring back to their families.
Now, however, only the miners (and crazy people like me) take the train as roads have improved and cars are more readily available. When we arrived in Nouadhibou, the locals looked at us as if we were crazy. They even told us “Not even the locals do that! Why didn’t you just take a car, you crazy people!”
One of the things that makes this adventure so unique is that people used to do this to survive. Without this train, the desert people would have struggled to sell and buy key items for their economy. You can learn more about the train from this awesome documentary made by National Geographic.
What We Didn’t Expect
To survive this train ride in the most comfortable way, you must be prepared for what is in store. The iron ore is pervasive and will get in and through everything. I wore a headscarf and mask the whole time and still tasted nothing but iron grit in my teeth. The wind in the desert is strong and the movement of the train kicks up even more dust. Even with ski goggles that were designed for snowboarding, I still found that iron would find its way into my eyes.
On our journey, we thought we would leave around 6pm and arrive around 7am. However, we ended up catching the train at 12am and riding it until almost 3pm in the day. The train made multiple stops in the middle of the night that were basically in the middle of nowhere. At times we thought that maybe the train had broken down, but then we realized they had to pull off on sidetracks to let trains coming in the other direction pass. This could take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, and it happened multiple times,
The whole journey was absolutely insane. But there was one thing that we never could have prepared for: IT RAINED.
The Sahara desert gets MAYBE 3 days of rain a year, and we happened to be out in the open on the train on one of the days it decided to do so. We woke up around 5am to rain on our backs and a chilly evening. While it wasn’t a hard rain, the droplets were large and cold. We were shocked by what was happening. No one complained because it was just so incredible to witness. As much as we prepared for this insane journey, no one expected that. The rain did provide some much-needed cloud cover in the day though which helped protect us from the sun, and it didn’t last long enough to make us soaked.
When we finally arrived in Nouadhibou after riding the iron ore train through Mauritania it felt like we had conquered a mountain. Our entire group was COVERED in iron ore. Our skin was tinted orange and black from the dust. Our faces looked like we had stuck our faces in a chimney. But we were conquerors, we were adventures, and we had an amazing story to tell.
What made this adventure so amazing was that it is something that so few people have done or will do. To be in the heart of the Sahara, with amazing people as crazy as you are, riding an iron ore train through a country that most people have never heard of, is a true adventure.
Thanks to Johnny Ward of Onestep4ward for organizing this insane adventure, and to my husband who said “um you have fun with that, but it sounds like an awful time.”
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