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One of my heroes growing up was Michael Palin.
The former member of Monty Python became one of the first travel presenters that went to places way off the beaten path with a focus on meeting the people in those countries. In one of his trips, he rode the Iron Ore Train through Mauritania.
Riding the Iron Ore Train was the main reason for my trip to Mauritania but I fell in love with the country and friendly people there.
If you’re wanting to ride the Iron Ore Train through Mauritania or just looking for inspiration, keep reading!
What is the Iron Ore Train
The Mauritania Iron Ore Train is exactly what it says it is. It is a train that carry’s iron ore from the iron mines near Zouerat, in Mauritania’s desert interior, to Nouadhibou on the coast where it is processed and shipped around the world providing much needed foreign revenue to Mauritania.
It is one of the longest trains in the world coming in at nearly 3km long and makes the journey from the desert to the coast every day of the year. Every afternoon between 12 and whenever it feels like it, the train departs Zouerat with thousands of tonnes of iron ore, arriving at the coast early the next morning.
Once it has unloaded its precious cargo, it returns to the desert to repeat the process. In saying that there are actually two (maybe three?) iron ore trains but it only leaves once per day.
Which direction is best?
You can ride the Iron Ore Train in either direction, from the desert to the coast or from the coast to the desert.
If you are doing it purely for transport reasons, like many locals do, it won’t matter which way you go.
However, if you are doing it for the sense of adventure, riding it from the desert in Zouerat or Choum would be preferable. I spoke with a friend who went on it both ways and he said it was definitely better riding with all the iron ore. It means you are above the rim of the wagon and have exhilarating views of the dunes and hills you pass.
It is comfier riding in the opposite direction, one friend strung his hammock up in the empty cart and slept well. But is that the adventure you really want? Getting dirty on top of tonnes of ore is a lot more exciting!
Where to start and how to get there
There are two options to catch the train from the middle of the Sahara. You can either start your journey where the train starts in Zouerat or catch it at its only other confirmed stop in Choum.
Zouerat is the furthest away and hardest to get to. It’s a long bus journey from Atar with only a couple of buses per day. I would recommend getting to Zouerat the day before. There are also a few companies that will take you to Zouerat direct from Nouakchott for a price.
Once you arrive in Zouerat, the station where you get the train is actually outside the town so you will need additional transport to get you to where you get on the train.
However, you will be rewarded with the chance to ride the train in its entirety and have plenty of hours of sunlight to enjoy the ride and the views of the Sahara.
Riding the Iron Ore Train from Choum
It’s also possible to ride from Choum, a small town close to the border of Western Sahara where the train makes a 10 minute stop. Choum is only a 2-3 hour ride away from Atar and there is more frequent transport.
I actually got a lift from the owner of my guesthouse in Atar as he was going there anyway. Similar to travelling in the rest of Mauritania, you will need your fiche which is basically a photocopy of your passports main page. Handing this small piece of paper over at checkpoints saves you getting out and writing down all your details. Even from Atar to Choum, I handed over at least three fiches at the various checkpoints in just a few hours.
From the centre of Choum, you can find the tracks easily. If you take public transport, the transport company’s office is close to the train tracks.
There really isn’t much to Choum. And when you see the tracks, get on there and you’re in the perfect spot to get off in Nouadhibou. It is just so much easier than Zouerat.
However, at Choum, the train arrives, and I quote, “sometimes 5pm, sometimes, 6pm, sometimes 7pm, sometimes 8pm or later”.
I was extremely lucky and the train arrived at 5.30pm. I also rode the train in June which meant sunset was just after 8.30pm so I had many hours of enjoying the views before the sun dipped below the horizon. But if it were to come a bit later, or if you decide to travel in the cooler months, there will be a lot more darkness to endure.
Practical tips on how to ride the Iron Ore Train
Riding the Mauritania Iron Ore Train isn’t something you can decide to do in the morning. It takes a bit of preparation.
Firstly you will need to get to one of the small towns from where the train departs. The two options of Choum or Zouerat are a long way from anywhere.
You can get to Zouerat directly from Nouakchott via bus or taking a bus or shared transport from Atar.
Secondly, you will need some supplies for the journey. This is a 16+ hour journey through the desert where you will need water, food and protection.
The minimum you’ll need is a boubou, the Mauritania style turban that is modified to cover your face to protect your nose and mouth from the iron ore dust. These can be brought in almost any small town in Mauritania although I got mine in Atar.
I would also highly recommend ski goggles to cover and protect your eyes. I’ve heard of some travellers taking swimming goggles or SCUBA diving masks but I’m not sure how they got on. The ski goggles worked well for me even though I wear contact lenses (more on that below).
Believe it or not, even though the temperature reached 40 degrees during the day, it can get cold during the night in the desert. I discovered this when camping out in the desert a few days prior to boarding the train. I rode the train in June and still needed a thick jumper, a second may have been beneficial. If riding in winter, I would probably recommend a thick coat. It will also be comfier to sleep on.
Note: I wear contact lenses and I haven’t seen any posts on riding the train with lenses in so this is my two cents. Locals don’t wear any eye protection and others just wear sunglasses. For me I couldn’t think of anything worse and I wanted to protect my eyes as much as possible which I why I bought the ski goggles.
I wear daily contact lenses and put a fresh set in whilst waiting at Choum, I knew it would be the last time I could be clean for a while. I also put some eye drops in to keep my eyes as moist as possible for the trip.
Once I got on the train, I only removed the ski goggles a couple of times when there was little to no wind to protect my eyes. 99% of the time I had my goggles on. I chose to sleep in my contact lenses through the night. For me, sleeping in them was the lesser of two evils. There was no way I was going to take them out as my hands were black with dust and the last thing I wanted was to touch my eyes. It was so dusty and dirty that I didn’t even want to attempt to put eye drops in whilst riding the train.
As soon as I got to the accommodation in Nouadhibou, I managed to get my hands clean and take them out.
I don’t think wearing glasses is the best option as you’ll still need some eye protection in the form of goggles. If any glasses wearers have a solution, that doesn’t involve a custom prescription goggle or mask, feel free to let me know!
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How it feels to ride on the Iron Ore Train
After scrabbling up the ladder to climb on the train in Choum, I saw that there were already plenty of local passengers sitting on the ore spread out along the trains length.
Me and my two friends I had met had inadvertently got onto a wagon just behind one that was filled with plastic crates. Thinking one may fall off and hit us (as well as vanity to get good photos), we decided to climb back down and get on one 100m or so further along. Three carriages in front of us were some locals that had already come from Zouerat.
We made a corner for all our bags, everything wrapped in plastic if possible to avoid the dust. I had a small day bag out with my essentials: a well charged camera, bottles of water and jacket for when it got cold.
Soon after, the train slowly pulled away.
No announcements, just a screech of the wheels and slow forward movement. That’s when it sinks in that you are about to do something seriously adventurous. Sitting on top of a train for 460km through the Sahara.
Once the kids have stopped chasing the train and the camels become fewer and further in between, you realise just how isolated you are. There is nothing but sand all around for as far as the eye can see.
Occasionally you will see camels and a sole bedouin close to the tracks. My mind wanders as to how he lives somewhere like this.
The train is noisy with the creaking of the wheels, the shunting of the wagons and the whip of the wind. Sometimes the sand blows into your face and sometimes it’s the iron ore dust. The wind kept changing direction but it didn’t matter, I looked the other way and was equally as amazed with the view.
Just before sunset, and after a few hours, the train trundles past Ben Amira, the second largest monolith in the world. I think seeing it at that hour in that light made it more special.
Shortly after, it was nearly dark so it was time to get the sheets and blankets out and settle down for the night. I curled up in a corner with the sheets I had bought in Atar. The constant wind whipping the sheets didn’t make it comfortable so I fully wrapped myself in a cocoon which made it bearable. The iron ore was fine to sit on, almost comfy in some positions.
After many hours and trying to get to sleep on it, I decided it wasn’t comfy. Think of it like an economy passenger seat: during the day for a short while looking out the window is fine, trying to sleep at night makes it a lot more uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the train didn’t have business class.
I emerged from my cocoon to see the millions of stars above me in the empty sky. I saw stars whisk past me on the outside of the train as well.
Although they weren’t stars.
They were sparks.
Was the train on fire?
Were the wheels sparking? All this races through a confused and tired mind wondering how I would be stuck in the middle of the desert when the train finally catches fire.
After a few seconds, I could see the source of the flying sparks.
A few carriages in front, the locals were making tea. The flame on their small stove was reacting with the iron ore dust being blown around creating the sparks. My school chemistry reminded me of when I dropped iron filings on the bunsen burner and saw something similar.
Once my heart rate had slowed, I returned to my cocoon. Many hours later, I woke again, dazed some more. The train wasn’t moving. It was still dark but I heard voices. I got up to see the tea making friends unloading their cargo from the train. After checking the maps on my phone I realised that the train had arrived in Nouhadibou.
I had made it.Unfortunately, it was 5am and the sun hadn’t risen yet. For one of the only times I had read about, the train had arrived early! Missing a Saharan sunrise was the only downer on the entire experience.
Riding on a train through the Saharan isn’t something that happens every day and it was one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever done.
If you liked this, check out my adventure in Papua New Guinea!
When you get to the other end.
When you arrive in Nouadhibou you can check on your maps on your phone however you will notice the other local passengers getting off as well. It actually stops at the train station and stops for quite a while so you don’t have to rush off as much as you do when you get on at Choum.
The other option of getting from Zouerat to Nouadhibou is an 18 hour journey through the desert, but, after seeing many of the roads and checkpoints in Mauritania, I would take that timing with a hefty pinch of salt.
There will be plenty of local taxis driving up and down the length of the train collecting passengers that will offer to take you into town. If possible, try to book accommodation before getting on the train. This insures you have a bed and more importantly a guaranteed shower. I didn’t have a reservation but I had taken notes of a few hotel names and fortunately the first one I arrived at had a room waiting for me.
I stayed at Hotel Besma which had comfy beds and a good shower. It is a little out of the centre of town so I had to get taxi’s in later in the day.
It took me three showers to feel properly clean: the first one got most of the dirt off, the second one I scrubbed a lot harder to get the final bits of iron off from places you to forgot about the first time, such as inside your ears and other nooks and crannies. It was only after the third one and lots of soap that I felt clean.
Go and get a good meal and maybe find the one Chinese restaurant that sells beer to celebrate riding the train. You’ve deserved it.
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.