Crossing the Sahara

A journey on Mauritania’s infamous iron ore train

When I was young I would pore over National Geographic magazines and dream of adventures like the one I would eventually be on: train hopping through the Sahara Desert on one of the world’s longest trains.

I dreamed of the oceans, of the sand, the loud clattering noises of the train, the cold, the wind, the scorching sun. The unknown smells and sounds of the desert, and all the discomfort that goes with it.

That visceral experience was exactly what we got as we slithered night and day through the vast uninhabited desert, sleeping on top of Mauritania’s infamous iron ore train. Our unconventional 700km journey took us right through the Sahara to reach the coast, where we were hoping to find a place of forgotten shipwrecks and unknown surf.

I had always been enthralled by the idea of train hopping and have had a particular fascination with the Sahara Desert. As I began researching this unique country, I became even more intrigued. Not many people travel in this part of the world and even fewer have even heard of Mauritania — quite astounding considering that its territory is twice the size of France and takes up a large portion of north western Africa.

Our journey began in the capital of Nouakchott, from where I travelled north with a surfer to hop on the Mauritania Railway. We planned to ride the 2.5km long train from a small town called Choum, located south of the iron mine in Zouerat, toward the port of Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast. My aim was to try and capture the spirit of adventure and exploration as we passed through this incredible desolate landscape.

For me, adventure is not about the destination, but about the challenges, hardship and inevitable beauty in the process of getting there.

From Nouakchott we worked our way through the interior, on what can barely be described as roads. On one particular day, the weather conditions took a turn for the worse and a desert sandstorm began to form on the horizon. I had stopped to take some photographs and before we knew it, the wind picked up considerably and it started to rain.

Within minutes, the sky darkened and the winds increased to what we guessed was around 150km/hr. The stinging and blowing of the sand acted as sandpaper and was so intense that I felt like my exposed skin was starting to come off.

We quickly found ourselves pinned to the side of our truck, as we tried to find some shelter and reprieve. When the wind died down and we were finally able to climb back inside the truck there were pieces of shattered glass everywhere. Our back window had completely imploded and the interior was soaked. Our guide, who had been waiting for us in the back seat, had cuts all over his body from the glass. As the storm settled, we resumed our journey north through the desert, anxious to find the next unexpected turn of events.

When we finally reached Choum, we were told that the train usually passed through sometime in the late afternoon. As we settled in to wait in the dirt by the tracks, a few families showed up with their goats and boxes of various goods. The kids ran around while the parents made dinner and tea on small fires. As the light of the day descended and the sun dipped below the horizon, we resolved to try to get some sleep. When the train finally arrived, it was six hours late and long after midnight. We grabbed our gear and waited for the train to slow but it didn’t actually stop. We ran alongside cars carrying iron ore, and illuminated the ground ahead with our headlamps.

We had no idea how much time we had to get on, so we quickly picked a car and climbed up one of the ladders, throwing our gear and ourselves into it as fast as possible. With no warning the train picked up speed again.

We tried to get a sense of our surroundings but ended up creating a makeshift bed to try and get some sleep on the heaped mounds of jagged iron ore that filled our car. During the night, the desert temperatures dropped dramatically and I put on all the clothes I had to try and get a little sleep. Any kind of rest was difficult not only because the train was incredibly loud, but because its huge length meant that whenever it increased or decreased speed, the cars hammered together violently.

Dawn brought with it the realization that the dust from the iron ore had seeped into all of our clothing, staining everything a rusty red hue. The abrasive dust got everywhere, so we wore ski goggles to protect our eyes and wrapped scarves around our heads to prevent us from breathing it in.

As the sun brought warmth, we looked out across the vast Sahara Desert, taking in the endless sand and arid plains. Relentless winds had endlessly recast the undulating dunes of the interior and left a stark beauty.

The Mauritania Railway serves not only as the sole connection between remote locations and the country’s only major shipping port, Nouadhibou, but as free transport for locals seeking to travel from isolated communities to the coast. The hours passed slowly and the temperatures rose inexorably to become a blistering, sweltering heat. In some ways, there was little to see along the way except a few very small homes and dead camels wasting away beside the tracks.

Eventually we reached the coast and pulled into Nouadhibou station, where we headed out in search of unknown surf and a huge cemetery of lost shipwrecks. There were land mines peppering the landscape here, so access to the coast was a delicate task. In recent years, many of the shipwrecks had been dismantled and sold for their metal, but there were still some fascinating rusting ship skeletons to be found.

From the shipwreck graveyards, my curiosity led me to spend time with the Imraguen fishermen in Banc d’Arguin National Park, which is a world heritage site because of its natural resources and fisheries. The Imraguen people have maintained their age-old lifestyles, based almost exclusively on harvesting the migratory fish populations using traditional sailboats.

The Imraguen fishermen still used traditional techniques that are unchanged since they were first recorded by 15th century Portuguese explorers.

One thing that shocked me was that the fishermen couldn’t swim. The night I arrived in their village, locals told me that one of the fishermen had fallen from his boat and was believed to have drowned. The next day we helped the community look for his body but it was never found. It seemed incredible to me that these people live their whole lives by the sea and spend every day fishing, did not know how to swim, almost as though cultural superstition prevented them from wanting to learn.

As my journey came to an end I reflected on our experiences. I realized that this adventure had been one of those rare times in life when the expectations of your dreams and reality converged, and your adventures played out even better than you imagined.

This article originally appeared on Maptia and is republished here with permission.