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The Iron Ore Train in Mauritania: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly

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What is the Iron Train in Mauritania?

The Iron Ore Train in Mauritania; a train that can be 2.5-3 kilometres long carrying tons of iron ore (in the forms of powder or chunks) across the Sahara desert. The train that has -rightly so- claimed the title “The Snake of the Desert” has its journey started at Zouerat mines, a Mauritanian town in the middle of Sahara, and ended after 700+ kilometres and approximately 22 hours later at Nouadhibou, the second biggest city of Mauritania, laying on its Northwest coast.

No beginnings, no endings

What’s the hype about?

The train carries, besides iron, some locals too looking to sell their stuff (usually fish catching) at Zouerat; occasionally there is also a.. normal passengers’ carriage costing (as I was told) of around 15€, however, the majority of the locals just prefer hitchhiking the train “illegally”. Some travellers a few years back discovered that one could hitchhike the train as locals do for “the experience”.

A passengers’ carriage that was parked at Choum

And while for a traveller who intentionally does this ride it can be a cool (yet extreme) experience let’s not forget that for the locals, who might have no other option, the ride is not funny or enjoyable at all; it can even be dangerous for their health as they constantly breathe the ore dust while being “trapped” in the empty wagons on their way up (the tourists usually hop on the train towards Nouadhibou to ensure the wagons are full so they can stand onto the iron and “enjoy” the journey instead of being trapped down the empty wagons).

Empty vs full wagons, I think the difference is more than obvious!

Why you shouldn’t ride the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania?

Let’s start controversially. Are you feeling unsure if you should do it or not? Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t:
– If your main desire/ drive is to have cool photos for Instagram/ social media (yes you will have cool photos eventually, but is this really the point?). If you are willing to risk your and others’ safety for those said photos (real story, I won’t go into details now) please, please Photoshop them instead*.

*Having cool photos for your social media is not bad per se. But Mauritania is one of the least visited countries in the world; some people literally LIVE out of the few tourists visiting them mainly for the Iron ore train. Do you really want to risk your life for some cool photos and additionally to ruin a country’s extremely small tourism industry (whose reputation is already stepping on eggshells as it has been labeled as “unsafe” so many times already)?

Extremely beautiful (and safe) shot by the co-traveller and Mauritanian flatmate Sara Wilson

-If you cannot handle the unexpected think twice, or even thrice. We were waiting for 18 hours just for a train to stop for a while to give us the chance to ride it– there is no setup schedule (although the train is supposed to leave Zouerat every day at 11 AM), no proper “station” at Choum ( the village when we caught the train) and no information whatsoever. You don’t know the exact time the train will pass, if it will stop and where exactly, if you will have enough time to hop on or not.

how to ride the iron train
Waiting at the Choum station

Every time a train passed by without stopping my heart was plummeting; some co-travellers, after 12 hours of waiting unsuccessfully, were already thinking of going back. Although I never considered abandoning my plan it was disheartening enough to even have to think about it after so many hours of travelling and waiting, after so much effort to reach Mauritanian Sahara.

things to do Mauritania
Killing some time at Choum station (photo by Sara Wilson)

We thought we were well prepared as we had taken details from one of the first western travellers who did this a few years ago (and since then he had re-done the ride at least 5 times, quite experienced I would say) and we even had rented some jeeps to take us there from Chinguetti so we could wait inside these and not on the sand for all those hours. And, finally, the train arrived at around 6 AM (18 hours after the original “scheduled” time) while we were sleeping randomly and we had to rush to get ready within seconds and jump in the dark onto that metallic giant.

Some managed to sleep inside the passengers’ wagon which happened to be here and open (photo by Sara Wilson)

You might need to wait a lot, you might have to pee surrounded by others while standing on a moving train, and you might be thirsty, hungry, and extremely dirty (I cannot stress this enough, I had iron dust in my ears and scalp for weeks after). You might be exhausted and not able to sleep for days, you might have damaged stuff afterward, irritated eyes, mouth, and lungs (the iron taste was following me even 4 days later when I kissed my boyfriend), dead cell phone but no one to call either anyway (the signal there is extremely poor if existing at all).

Not the best photo I could have posted- lack of sleep, dry skin, frustration, and filth!

You might face extreme weather conditions, from wintery cold to Sahara sun- since you don’t know when exactly you will manage to catch the train you need to be prepared for any possible weather condition. You might have to catch the train in the middle of the night (as we did) when it’s extremely dark. The train can stop for 2’, 5’ or 20 minutes and no one knows in advance how much time you will have to jump in. You might have to climb up from a broken “ladder” and you might find iron chunks or powder to accompany you for the next 12-15 hours or so ( chunks are harder, powder is softer but gets EVERYWHERE).
If none of these have put you off by now, if you are more excited than ever before, please keep reading!

Counting the kilometres until Noudhibou

Why did I do it and why you should do it too then?

I did it in order to test my limits. I did it for the experience. To push even further my (already…extended!) travel boundaries. For feeling this extraordinary pulse that only travelling (and occasionally love) can make me feel; SO alive. For checking once more my f*cking yet useful privilege (which, despite the relatively poor “Western” country I am coming from, is still prevalent).

Who doesn’t wish to watch a Sahara sunset from a rough train?

For meeting equally crazy yet adventurous women who love travelling off the beaten track as it is so tricky to meet them in the daily, “ordinary” life. For the powerfulness. To appreciate more my mind and body and the things I never expected they could handle (no, this is actually a lie; I have always been trusting them both but a reminder is always welcome so I won’t take them for granted. Being grateful for what we have now does not hurt, right?). For the cool story hunting- and hurting; I have to admit that it wasn’t a painless experience on many levels.

mauritania railways
Since I mentioned “pain”… my iron, glittery pillow for tonight

I did it to get to see the Sahara desert at its finest; no people, no civilisation around. For the tiny villages (actually some sandy houses or tents) and the locals who were greeting the crazy women (us!). To experience the sunset and sunrise, the sand dunes, the drastic difference from the extremely cold to the extremely hot weather, for the quietness and, oxymoronically, the train sound which covers everything else. For the things I didn’t know were coming and the uncontrollable excitement.

I did it for the moment that I saw the train stopping amidst the night unexpectedly, causing real chaos around me, and my instant internal thought while I was still sleepy “Can you really do it”? That was something bigger than me, even though I had prepared myself weeks in advance; it was bigger than me at least for the very few moments that felt like an eternity. Yes, you can Valentini; yes I could do it, yes I did it.

Couldn’t be happier (and dirtier!)

Stuff to have with you
Let’s talk about the boring stuff now. Preparation is really vital and can minimise some of the experience stress. Here is my must-have list of things to bring with you if you intend to ride the Iron Ore train in Mauritania.
– Googles -I had ski googles, extremely hot during the day but they saved my eyes)
– Masks -I was wearing one fabric and one medical one and I had to change the medical one 2-3 times as it was getting very dirty.
– Double underwear and/ or a sanitary pad to protect yourself as much as possible from the iron ore. For me, as it was the last day of my period, I had to wear both and that was actually the cleanest part of my body at the end of the journey!

Some settlements parallel to the Mauritania railway

– Snacks and water. As you have no idea how long it will take you need to be covered. Personally speaking, I ate just a fruit, some chips, and a cereal bar a lovely co-traveller offered me as my adrenaline kept me too busy to get hungry. I also avoided drinking lots of water as I didn’t want to pee in a moving train wagon with 6 other people while having to remove all those clothes layers. I do not recommend you do so though because you risk getting dehydrated in the middle of the desert under the 40C sun- I have practiced a lot this… surviving-with-minimal-water “skill” (camel style!) that’s why I did it there too.

Even eating something can be a challenge here, metallic flavour anyone?

– Head torch. Life saver in case you are lucky enough to be on the train during the night (which is very likely!)
– Lots of layers. The temperature can vary so so much. I was wearing thermal leggings and cargo pants, a thermal top, t t-shirt, a pullover, and a winter coat on top plus gloves, snood and of course, the masks and I was still feeling cold. Luckily I had 2 pre-owned blankets with me (bought from a local store in Atar). Obviously, after 8-9 AM we started removing layers as it was getting too warm despite the air that was.. slapping us.
– Power bank. Although your phone would be probably used just for photos. Be extra careful with your electronic devices, as I said the iron and the sand get everywhere! My favourite pink camera still suffers from that journey and I don’t think it will ever recover!
– Some people bring portable urine bags. I was given them by a cute lady who had just completed the same ride (and used them) but as I said above I didn’t need them at the end.
– Your medicine/ painkillers.
– Plastic covers for your bag/ stuff. They will still get extremely dirty but plastic covers/ bags will definitely help.
– Sunscreen (100%!) and something to cover/ tie your hair. My very long hair was braided and it was the best decision I could have taken for it- still the stiffness was real for weeks after!
– Patience. Since you may reach your limits, you will need it.

Face fully covered under the midday Sahara sun and new hair colour!

What to leave at home

– Valuables. It’s highly likely they will get damaged.
– Foods/ drinks that can easily get rotten. The last thing you would want on the train is diarrhea, right?
– Lots of/ heavy stuff. Don’t forget you will need to carry them up and squeeze them next to you on an uneven surface for hours to come.
-Grumpy mood. It will be challenging and there will be moments when you will question your decision to do something so crazy. If you are alone fine, if you are with others (that you met there or not) they have their own issue to deal with throughout this journey, don’t ruin their moments.
– Bad attitude/ entitlement. Locals and the train do not owe you anything. It’s not guaranteed you will make it, there are no tickets or promises and there is no safety either- you do everything at your own risk and yes it is potentially dangerous.
– Your white saviour complex. The kids (and their teeth) do not need your candies. Ask the local school/orphanage if/ what they need and plan accordingly should you really want to help. Don’t center yourself; your help shouldn’t be intended to make you feel better as a privileged person but to make a positive impact on the locals’ lives. Therefore, it’s fine if you don’t have photos of other people’s kids to post on your social media without their permission.  

What is it like on the Iron Ore train once up?

It is filthy, dusty, windy, and either too cold or too hot. It is difficult and dangerous to stand up because of the uneven surfaces and the rough environment the railway runs over but not impossible (you won’t pee yourself but make slow movements!).
Once I hopped on (one of the most dangerous things I have purposefully done in my life!) I spent most of the time looking around, taking photos, and absorbing as much as I could. Despite the 18-hour wait, we were lucky enough to experience night, sunrise, and day onto the train- the midday Saharan sun was unbearable though- as I said do not forget your sunscreen! My adrenaline levels kept me from sleeping (and the 2 hours of sleep I managed to have was one of the most uncomfortable ones ever- and, believe me, I have slept in very bizarre places!)

A sunrise-to-be above Sahara

The train is free of charge (in case you haven’t realised it by now) and after departing from Choum it keeps going parallel to the Western Sahara boarders. It may stop in other villages/ settlements along the way but it is not recommended to hop off- as I already wrote, you have no idea for how long it will stop. This is the time for cool photos as you can stand up and be safe! When the train is about to start you hear a deafening noise (probably from the brakes?) and then the longest train in the world has a giant…hiccup to make it start- make sure you are not standing up at that moment!

Western Sahara and some camels…

Arriving at Nouadhibou after so many hours it can be a relief but also a bittersweet moment. Sahara meets the ocean and you desperately need a shower but you don’t want to just hop off and return back to an ordinary life.

Riding towards the end of the journey

Would I do it again? Frankly, I don’t know. I would rather keep that magical feeling and memory I have earned from the Iron Ore train and Mauritania, as, sometimes, when you try to mimic or repeat an experience you don’t get the same vibe back and you end up disappointed. I simply don’t want to risk ruining that nostalgic and powerful feeling. However, I might change my mind as I really deem it to be one of the top 5 (or 3?) travelling experiences I have ever had and Mauritania was the 4th African country I have visited.
What do you think about it? Would you take the plunge and hop on the Mauritania Iron Ore Train?

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