Ride on top of the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania
What can beat riding on the top of the train in the middle of desert dunes in the hot sun and cold stary night? Mauritania Railway is one of a kind bucket list experience. During a trip to West Africa with my friend Bostjan, our goal was to travel from Morocco to Senegal and back. The plan changed and we ended up in Mali instead of Senegal. On our return to Mauritania, Bostjan suggested this special experience, to ride the famous Iron Ore Train. He had read about this amazing experience, so he set about the preparations for our journey.
This railway was built back in 1963 to connect the port to the iron mines which were 700 kilometers east into the desert. In the second half of the ’70s, it was closed due to a dispute with Western Sahara and then reopened in the ’80s. Trains on this track are among the longest and heaviest in the world with 200 cars, a single train can be up to 3 kilometers in length, weighing 16.000 tons with its cargo that are pulled by 4 diesel locomotives.
The heavily laden train took a few minutes to stop completely. We mimicked other passengers and started to run towards the train and chose a cart that was not occupied yet and climbed onto the top. A few minutes later the train was back in motion with lots of noise. It was time to dig in. Nights in the desert are cold, so we put on the warmest clothes we had, spread the bivouac sack, trying to get in the best position, and lay down. We needed some time to settle in before we were not sliding around anymore, all while experiencing the excitement that we were actually making this iconic train journey. After checking our surroundings, the other passengers on carts, and watching the stars we calmed down and fell asleep. We were already 10 days into our intense travel itinerary, so we needed the rest.
The next day we woke up before sunrise and sat, smoking a cigarette while waiting for the sun to rise above carts. That was probably a highlight of this ride, to see the sun climb up over the horizon as we could feel the rays of light getting warmer and warmer. The train came to a stop even though we hadn’t arrived at port yet. We looked around and after a few minutes, saw passengers from other carts jumping off the train. In a panic, we quickly packed our stuff and followed them. We ran in the sand toward another train and climbed into a cart with goods, people, and chickens that took us to Nouadhibou.
We arrived safely after 15 hours, but tired, dirty, hungry, and thirsty. We took some time to recuperate before moving back north towards Morocco. In my tired state, it didn’t strike me how much I had enjoyed the adventure. It wasn’t until I returned back home that I had time to reflect that I realised it would be difficult to match the experience of riding on the Ore Train.
Tips for riding the Ore Train in Mauritania
Arriving at one of the stations where you can board this train can be a bit tricky. There are organized tours available for this experience, but they often have inflated prices, sometimes as much as 1500 € for things that will cost you 10 times less. If you want the security of an organised tour, then you could opt for this, however, part of the adventure, experience and achievement is through organising it yourself.
The best way to do this is to check travel forums for information. You should be able to find some locals that would gladly help you for a fraction of the cost that the big tour agencies charge. You can board The Ore Train at various mines in the desert, either after one-third of the track in Choum or at the opposite end, at the coast in Nouadhibou. Although starting in Nouadhibou maybe seem the obvious access point from Western Sahara, however, I would not recommend it because you will be inside an empty cart, you will be less comfortable and you will see nothing. Starting from the mine would mean extra effort and no gain, so the logical choice is to get on at Choum, on the way to the sea.
On a safety note, be careful on the train because people have fallen and died on these rides. Climb up or down only when the train is at a full stop and don’t lean over the sides of the cart.
Things to Pack
There are a few things you shouldn’t forget to pack when you ride The Ore Train, most importantly is a Bivouac sack that will protect you from dust and ore in the desert. Take clothes that will keep you warm in the cold desert night. I suggest a combination of an anorak and fleece, which are lightweight and protect you from wind and cold. You might also want a hat if you feel the cold easily.
It’s also really important to take a sufficient amount of water, enough for the whole journey. Other handy items are headlamps and goggles.
So it is dangerous, dusty, a bit uncomfortable, noise, either partly freezing or partly hellish hot. Why should anyone want to experience this? A short answer would be because is EPIC, it can’t be done anywhere else inthe world and you will remember it for the rest of your life. It’s certianly worthy of adding to your bucket list experiences.
About the Author
Džangir is a travel writer based in Ljubljana, Slovenia who has travelled the world extensively, with over 70 countries visited. He’s the owner of Dr Jam Travels.
‘I try to experience different things. Most of the time it is fast low budget backpacking, but from time to time I go for luxury.’
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