November 2018: My friend and I were on a cross country multi-country North Africa trip and our goal was to see new countries that neither one of us had been to. Our busy schedule only allowed for three days in Mauritania, and I wanted to make the best out of our time. So, I decided we would try and hitch hike on top of an iron ore train across the Sahara Desert. The journey is one of world’s best train journeys and it is amazing that in this day of age, it is still possible.

Aside from the train, Mauritania is a fascinating country. It is where the Moors originated from, an Islamic Berber civilization that went on to rule northwest Africa and Spain and Portugal during medieval times. The majority of Mauritania it is inaccessible desert largely consisting of sand dunes that are still crossed by camel caravans of wandering nomads.  Ancient villages, now crumbling and fading away beneath the desert sands were once flourishing wealthy trading outposts connecting sub-Sahara Africa to the Roman Empire.

What is the Iron Ore Train 

The iron ore train transports approx. 22,000 tons of iron ore mined in one of the world’s largest iron ore mines in the Sahara Desert town of Zouerat daily to the coastal town of Nouadhibou. The train is one of the longest in the world and can stretch over a mile. Three to four diesel locomotive cars drive the train of up to two hundred freight cars. At the very end of the train is one passenger car typically used by workers of the mine. Every day the train travels back and forth along the border of the Polisario held part of Western Sahara between the mine to the coast to unload its iron ore and return to pick up more. In addition to transporting iron ore, the train is used as local transport by Mauritanian people. In a land where there are few roads and forms of public transportation, the train is one of the only options for local people to get around and they commonly hitchhike across the Sahara Desert by jumping aboard the cars and sitting on top of the heaps of iron ore. Rides are free and the company turns a blind eye to hitchhiker’s that jump aboard during the train’s brief stops in select desert towns along its path. The one condition of traveling on the train is that you are on your own and responsible for your own safety. Riding across the Sahara Desert sitting on top of one of the iron ore cars staring out over the empty desert is one of most exhilarating adventures still available in the modern world.

Route that I took on the train from Choum to Nouadhibou.

We flew to Mauritania arriving to the capitol of Nouakchott late in the evening on a flight from Egypt via Istanbul, Turkey. It was the weekend and the open spaces of the city along the streets were bust with locals gathering to barbecue and enjoy time with friends and family. We checked in to a family run small inn. A driver I pre-arranged met us at the hotel and I set off with him to the market to buy water, food, and local clothing for our adventure on the train. First, we had to find a money changer on the street, and I exchanged about 500 USD for handfuls of inflated local currency. 

To ride the train, these items are extremely helpful: 

  • Goggles-to keep the iron ore dust out of your eyes
  • Mask or cloth over your face to keep from inhaling the dust. The local Berber turban is effective at this.
  • Lots of water because there is no telling how long you will be on the train once you get on.
  • Snacks 
  • Clothes that will get very dirty. The traditionally boubou robe is what we wore. 
  • Warm jacket under the boubou-the desert nights is freezing
  • A pad to sit and sleep on. The rock is hard and un-comfortable.
  • Multiple passport and visa copies to show the police at the end of your journey to speed up the process when you are groggy and out of it. Without copies, the police will need to take your passport to make copies, and this could take time.

Drive to Choum

The best place to start the journey on the train is Choum enroute to Nouadihibou because Choum is more accessible, the train typically stops here and the train cars are full of iron ore, which allows passengers to sit on the mounds to peer out over desert. If coming from the opposite direction, the train cars are empty and you have to sit at the bottom of the car. 

The easiest way to get to Choum from Nouakchott is to hire your own vehicle and driver. Public transportation is sporadic. The train was scheduled to depart in the afternoon, although it could arrive early and typically arrives late, so we set off at 5am to allow us plenty of time to figure things out in Choum.  The drive would take approx. 8-10 hours. The route was mostly empty desert, but we did pass some interesting Berber villages with friendly people. There weren’t many options for good food. We stopped at an open air restaurant and ate some goat. As we ate, a freshly goat slaughtered carcass hung on the wall collecting flies. Nearby the carcass was a pile of goat excrement and entrails that sat stewing in the hot air. It was hard to work up much of an appetite.

Locals in Sahara Villages-Mauritania

Village of Choum

Village life in Choum

Marketplace

We arrived to Choum on schedule with a few hours to spare before the train was scheduled to arrive. There were a few other travelers waiting in town to jump on top of the train. Our driver asked around town for an update on the train and we were told that it would be more or less on time. I have heard many horror stories of the train arriving 8 or more hours late so this was good news. As we waited around, we explored the sleepy village of Choum and drank tea with the locals. Occasionally a random herd of goats along with their shepherd would walk through town. Aside from this there were few vehicles in town. my friend and I were the only foreigners in town, and everyone seemed eager to assist us with catching the train. One of the locals spoke English and we offered to join us on the train to help us in case we found ourselves in a bind. My travel companion tipped him generously for his time.

We waited a-way the time inside a local house drinking tea and playing peak-a-boo with the kids. Then finally someone rushed in to tell us to hurry that the train was coming.

Local in Choum we stayed with drinking tea

Village kid who kept smiling at me

Riding the Train

Local in Choum waiting for the train

We jumped in the car and rushed to the tracks where the train would hopefully stop. Evidently it doesn’t always stop. A few other locals waited to jump on the train too. The sun was setting behind us lighting up the desert with an incredible hue of colors. Then long before we could see the train, we heard it rumbling along the tracks and the horn blasting as it approached from far away.

Arrival of Train

As the locomotives screeched passed us, the one of the drivers waved at me. it took about 30 minutes for the train to stop once it started braking. We were told we had less than 5 minutes to board before it set off again. We said goodbye to our driver, and we quickly climbed the narrow metal ladder up the side of one of the train cars that was only 5 or 6 back from the locomotives. We chose a car without anyone else in it for safety reasons. A few cars down from us had a few travelers in it with a goat. We made sure to not forget our large jugs of water. We jumped from the wall of the car to the top of a mound of iron ore and dug into a spot that would be where we would spend the next 12-14 hours overnight. 

Boarding the Train

Me Wearing the local Berber dress on the train

Aboard the train

Richard and I aboard the train

Local Guy who joined us on the train

Riding the Train

Just as we sat down, the locomotive blasted its horn and the train’s engines starting churning and chugging forward. The carts banged into each other as the train accelerated and we were soon off. The village people ran after the train waving to us. We waved back and set off into the remote Sahara Desert. 

The wind was freezing as we picked up in speed and the temperature dropped with the sun. The googles were extremely helpful in protecting our eyes from the dust of the iron ore and the wind. Our face scarf also kept the dust out of our faces but not the thick smoke from the locomotive engines. Every once in a while, the wind would kick the smoke back into our faces leaving us to gag. We designated the bottom of iron ore pile as the latrine area. It was too dangerous to urinate over the side of the train and too windy. I heard one story of a man who fell over the side of the train and was found days later dead in the desert. 

Sleeping on the train

Riding the train was like a dream. There was a full moon that illuminated the desert. We passed few villages and for the most part nothing, but empty desert stared back at us. The train wasn’t smooth, and the vibrations were rough. I stayed awake as long as possible to take in as much of the surreal experience as possible. I constantly fell asleep and had the most bizarre dreams imaginable. In one dream I arrived at work on the train. It was impossible to sleep for long because the train would violently shake from time to time or there would be intermittent sounds of loud metallic screeching. The iron ore pile below me would shift and I would have re-dig a comfortable pile with a pillow. A few times we stopped in remote villages and a few other locals would jump on. On one occasion, a passing train with a blasting horn and blinding lights jarred us awake. Even though the experience was not comfortable, we loved it. Every young boy has a childhood fantasy of hitchhiking across the country on a train like a hobo and we were doing it across the Sahara Desert. 

My dirty face once we arrived in Nouakchott

After 12 hours on the train, we finally arrived in the coastal town of Nouakchott. When we boarded the train as the sun was setting and now as we disembarked as the sun began to rise. We jumped off the train covered in iron ore dust and sore.  Our back packs were also dirty. The moment we jumped off the train police approached us to see our papers and passports. We gave them copies of our documents and caught one of the taxis that was waiting for train hitchhikers. We went immediately to a cheap hotel to shower up and catch a few hours of rest. In town we had a very unremarkable lunch, but any food was amazing after the train ride. Then we had to drive a few hours to the border of Western Sahara before the border closed at 4pm. We made it with only one hour to spare. 

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