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The initial idea was to jump in one of the first wagons but, apparently, I was at the place where the tail of the train would stop.
The problem, however, was that it was a 2.5km long train that stopped in the middle of the desert, in a particularly inhospitable place with no signposts and markers, and walking along it with all my luggage, plus the several liters of water needed for the 20-hour trip across the desert wasn’t a very appealing idea.
Fortunately, a good man offered to take me in his 4×4 to the exact spot where the locomotive would stop, allegedly, a location even more inhospitable than the previous one, where there was nothing but sand and a few rusty wagons along the train tracks.
It was 1pm and, apparently, the train could show up at any time between 11am and 7pm, so I was there waiting, with the uncertainty that the train could arrive at any moment, but I only had to wait for two hours when, all of a sudden, I felt the noise of a locomotive approaching followed by an endless line of wagons.
The locomotive stopped pretty much in front of me.
About 15 wagons away, I was able to make out a Mauritanian loading tens of goats and, a few wagons further along, another man seemed to be loading more than 30 suitcases, as if he decided to move out to his new place riding on the Iron Ore Train. Pretty epic.
With my face wrapped in a sky-blue Mauritanian turban and a pair of ski goggles, I was ready to climb the ladder of the wagon, not without being a little nervous, of course, since I was about to cross more than 700km of the Sahara riding on top of a wagon filled with toxic dust, completely alone.
For more information about the country, don’t forget to check my travel guide to Mauritania
Crossing the Mauritanian Sahara on a cargo train full of iron ore
What is the Iron Ore Train of Mauritania?
Operating since 1963, the Iron Ore Train – Train du Desert in Mauritania – is a train that connects the iron ore mines in the town of Zouérat, located deep into the Sahara, with the port of Nouadibou, located on the Atlantic coast.
The aim of the train is to transport thousands of tonnes of iron ore, distributed in more than 200 wagons, making it become the longest and heaviest train in the world, at 2.5km long, although it can be up to 3km, depending on the loading.
Exporting this mineral has become one of the basic pillars of the impoverished Mauritanian economy, and the train journey is an essential part of the process.
The total journey is 704km across the most offbeat desert landscapes, only disturbed by the occasional Bedouin who for convenience, decided to settle next to the train tracks and it also goes through the disputed or unrecognized territory of Western Sahara.
On the other hand, traveling to Nouadibou by train also saves more than 500km from the journey by road, which inevitably passes through Nouakchott, the reason why there are many Mauritanians who like to undertake such a trip, either in the passenger wagon, or riding on top of the iron ore.
And that was the main reason why I wanted to travel to Mauritania:
To cross 700km of the Sahara sitting on top of an iron ore pile.
It’s a strange adventure, kind of masochist, but it has become one of my best experiences ever, and the ultimate adventure that all intrepid travelers should experience once in their life.
Because this is what it is about, a one-lifetime-experience, that’s it.
This adventure is as spectacular as arduous because, while everything you experience and see during daylight is a real blessing to your eyeballs, the night becomes tough and exhausting.
Nevertheless, I guarantee you that, despite a 20-hour journey in which I barely slept, ate, and ended up covered in dark, toxic dust, I got off the train with a huge smile from ear to ear.
My experience riding the Mauritanian Iron Ore Train
When I returned from Mauritania, many were surprised not by the train journey itself but how I even discovered the existence of such a tourist attraction.
I don’t really remember but I think I saw it in a documentary not so long ago. In any case, riding this train was enough motive for making a trip to Mauritania.
My experience with the train began upon my arrival in Zouérat, in a hotel I booked into named Tiris, whose owner spoke impeccable Spanish.
My daughters have been living in Barcelona for many years now, and I go there quite often – he said.
We chatted about the purpose of my visit, and he never managed to assimilate why the hell I wanted to ride the train with all the dust, when I supposedly could pay the 15€ cost of getting into the passenger wagon, a significant amount many Mauritanians can’t.
In any case, that man helped me a lot. In fact, he was friends with the Railway Company director who, by the way, also spoke fluent Spanish, and it was he who took me in his car to the actual station, located 20km from Zouérat, not without first filling our bellies in a restaurant whose owner had lived in the Canary Islands for more than 20 years.
Once at the station, all I could see was the passenger carriage and a few locomotives.
The wagon seemed to be already packed, something I never understood, since we still had several hours for the train to depart and the air inside there was extremely suffocating. Everybody was telling me to hurry to get in.
No, thanks, I want to ride on top of the wagons.
Some engineers invited me into one of the locomotives, where they gave me a small tour around the tiny compartment, while they also prepared some Mauritanian tea, which we all drank together later. It was they who informed me that, if I wanted to ride on the first wagons, I had to go more than 2km further, but they were actually kind enough to take me there.
From that point, I was all by myself, alone in the middle of nowhere, until the Train du Desert finally came, 200 wagons pulled by an EMD electric-diesel locomotive with an Arabic acronym that said SNIM (Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière) written on its side.
As I said in the introduction, I was feeling frankly nervous at that precise moment, especially because I had no company for making such a journey, but I didn’t think it twice when I dropped all my luggage on the wagon and decided to climb up the metal ladder.
Slowly, the train began to accelerate until it reached an average speed of 35km/h and, from there, I have nothing to tell but wonderful things.
From the top of the iron ore, being able to overlook the vastness of the Sahara beyond the horizon, while greeting the occasional Bedouin and witnessing a breathtaking sunset, was an unbeatable experience, and I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
At night, however, it’s a different story. You see nothing besides the starry night and well, I am not going to lie, but from that moment it can get tough, but not as bad as you may think, and, by the end of the day, the whole experience makes up for it.
Tips for riding the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania (FAQ)
What is the official train itinerary?
The itinerary is Zouérat – Choum – Nouadibou
Zouérat – Zouérat is the starting point, a mining town located in the northeast of Mauritania, around 700km from the coast, where the iron mines are.
After traveling around Mauritania and visiting places such as Terjit, Chinguetti or Atar, Zouérat feels like a surprisingly modern town – according to Mauritanian standards – and, despite being so remote, it is home to the most relevant and important industry for Mauritania’s economy.
Choum – A tiny settlement located between Atar y Zouérat, and where the train does a quick 10-minute stop.
Nouadibou – Mauritania’s second city – and economic capital – is the train’s final destination, where the iron ore is unloaded and made ready to be shipped to different parts of the world.
Can you ride the train in the opposite direction, from Nouadibou to Zouérat?
Yes, you can, but I don’t recommend it for two reasons:
- First, because when the train goes back to Zouérat, the wagons are empty, without the iron ore, so it will never be as fun.
- And second, because one of the good things about arriving in Nouadibou is that it is a city with all modern comforts, filled with all types of hotel where you can get a good shower after the long, dirty ride, besides having plenty of food options. On the other hand, even finding hot water can be a challenge in both Choum and Zouérat.
Where should you start from, Choum or Zouérat?
Most travelers catch the train in Choum, for the simple reason that it’s closer to Nouadibou, hence they cut the journey a few hours short.
However, I definitely recommend starting your journey in Zouérat, and my reasons are as follows:
- It’s way more epic and, as you have already traveled all the way to Mauritania and you’ll probably never ride the Iron Ore Train again, you should do it in its entirety, otherwise you may regret it.
- Apparently, 1 out of 20 times, the train doesn’t stop in Choum but it goes straight to Nouadibou. I don’t know the actual reasons, but this is Mauritania and you don’t always need to find the logic.
- The ride from Choum to Nouadibou takes 12 hours and, depending on the time the train departs from Zouérat, you may ride the whole journey in complete dark. For example, in my case, the train departed Zouérat at 3pm, arriving in Choum at 7:15pm, when it was already dark. We arrived in Nouadibou at 7:30am, shortly after sunrise, so if you had taken the train in Choum on that day, you would have only gotten 10 minutes of sunlight.
How to get to Zouérat or Choum from Nouakchott or Atar
If you are in Nouakchott, the first thing you must do is take a bus or shared local taxi to Atar, the capital of Adrar and the base for reaching places like Terjit, Chinguetti or Ouadane.
From Atar, you can catch a direct bus to Zouérat (4 hours) which also stops in Choum.
Being such an important industrial center, the security level in Zouérat is stricter than in other parts of the country and remember to have your hotel contact details handy on your arrival. Otherwise the police will waste your time, like they made me waste mine.
Obviously, they will also ask for your fiche (check the security section of my travel guide to Mauritania for further details).
How much does it cost to ride the Iron Ore Train?
Riding the Iron Ore Train on top of the wagons is completely FREE OF CHARGE.
There’s also no control or checking whatsoever. The train arrives and you jump on, that’s it.
However, among the 2.5km of loaded wagons, there is one passenger carriage, which tends to be the last one.
To get in that carriage you have to pay, but no more than 10-15€.
Riding on top of the wagon vs traveling in the passenger carriage
If you don’t feel like taking such a wild journey, there is the option of traveling in the actual passenger wagon, even though some intrepid travelers may tell you it’s not that worth it.
I disagree. While it’s true that traveling with all the dust is, weirdly, an outstanding experience, each traveler has a different worldview with different objectives and life ambitions and, depending on your preferences, not everybody enjoys 20 hours sitting on top of a toxic pile of dusty iron, plus this is an adventure for which you need to be logistically prepared, with proper clothes and gear, and there are few who travel with all this equipment.
Furthermore, in the passenger carriage you are likely to meet curious Mauritanians with whom to interact, share stories, have some tea, etc., but keep in mind that it’s always packed, with barely any place to sit, so don’t expect it to be the most comfortable journey ever.
On the other hand, undecided travelers have the alternative of making the journey from Zouérat to Choum on top of the iron ore, and once in Choum, getting down to the passenger carriage.
At what time and day does the train depart?
The Iron Ore Train departs every single day of the year, with absolutely no exception.
The official departing time from Zouérat is 11am but I was told that it has never departed before 12-12:30pm and, unofficially, they say the train can leave at any time between 12pm and 6pm, or even later. Mine left around 3pm.
What I recommend is going to the railway office (located here) to ask for the approximate departure time from that day in particular. The office is where shared taxis to the station depart from. I recommend going there at 11am.
From Zouérat to Choum takes 4 hours, approximately, so the train can leave at any moment between 3pm and 10pm, but it may be delayed even more.
This is Mauritania, and having an extra load of patience is a must.
Where is the station?
The train departs from Zouérat mines but the actual station is in a small settlement named Fderik, 24km from Zouérat towards Choum.
This is the exact location for both stations, Fderik and Choum.
How long does the journey take?
Assuming things go smoothly and there isn’t any breakdown, the journey takes 18-20 hours from Zouérat.
Where should you go, at the beginning or at the end of the train?
The advantage of riding on one of the first wagons is that you won’t be bothered by the dust coming from the 200 wagons in front of you because of the wind.
Apart from that, I think it doesn’t matter but just don’t go in the middle, since you won’t be able to appreciate the train’s real length.
I think I jumped on the 4th or 5th wagon.
Pro Tip – Choose a wagon with a tall iron pile, so you will have a clearer view of the whole train.
What to do once you reach Nouadibou
The train stops a few kilometers outside of Nouadibou, in the middle of nowhere, where several taxis will be waiting for the passengers.
Nouadibou has a wide offer of accommodation and I stayed at Hotel Esma. It’s a modern hotel costing 50€ a night.
Is it safe to ride the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania?
- Freezing to death
- Falling off the train
- Lung infection
I am joking 😉
As long as you wear warm clothes, enough water, cover up your face and don’t balance on the edge of the wagon unnecessarily, it should not be dangerous, not at all.
Can you do it alone?
I did it all by myself. Honestly, I would have liked to make the journey with another traveler, but it didn’t turn out to be a big deal anyways.
There’s also the possibility of getting on a wagon with Mauritanians but the few locals I saw getting on at Zouérat were more towards the middle, and I wanted to be at the beginning.
What is the best season for riding the Iron Ore Train?
Each season presents its pros and cons:
Winter – During the day, the trip is particularly pleasant but nights are cold. You must wear warm clothes.
Summer – The sun will be harsh but nights will be warmer.
I did it in February and it was great. During the day, from Zouérat to Choum, it was delightful and at night, with a good jacket and sleeping bag, I never felt any cold.
Eating and drinking on the train
It’s complicated, especially because your hands will become dirty as soon as you get in, so I recommend bringing only food that can be eaten without touching, like bananas or a sandwich wrapped in aluminum foil, for example.
I did bring a sandwich and ate it during the 10 minutes that we stopped in Choum. In Zouérat, I had a full meal before getting in.
Sleeping on the train
The iron ore is pretty soft, with a similar texture to sand. At night, I set up my sleeping bag in a corner and managed to feel cozy at some point. I barely slept, but felt comfortable. The iron molds to your body pretty well.
Packing list for riding the Iron Ore Train
Here’s what you need to bring:
- Sanitizer masks to prevent from breathing all the dust. I was wearing 2
- A headscarf to wrap up all your face, both for the sun and dust
- Ski goggles, or any type of glasses that covers your eyes well
- Warm sleeping bag
- Warm clothes
- Plastic bags to wrap up all your stuff. The dust gets everywhere
- Special camera plastics to protect your lens
- Several liters of water, more than you can drink
- Easy-to-eat food
- A torch
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