Riding the World's Longest Iron Ore Train crossing the Sahara Desert of Mauritania is maybe one of the most adventurous thing you could do in your entire life.
The Mauritania Railway is the national railway of Mauritania. Construction of the line began in 1960, with it opening in 1963.
It consists of a single, 704-kilometer (437 mi) railway line linking the iron mining center of Zouérat with the port of Nouadhibou.
The state agency Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière (National Mining and Industrial Company, SNIM) controls the railway line.
21 HOURS RIDING THE WORLD'S LONGEST CARGO TRAIN CROSSING THE SAHARA DESERT
DEPARTURE POINT / Zouérat mine site
EQUIPMENT / hiking boots, dust mask, eye mask, turban, gloves
DISTANCE / 704 km total
SPEED / 35 km/h circa
TIME / 18-22 hours one way
OVERALL TIME / 2 days
ARRIVAL POINT / Nouadhibou refinery site
On the 6th of February Fedora and I, while exploring Mauritania in West Africa, decided to take a ride on the longest, heaviest and slowest cargo train in the world, the Iron Ore Train.
After about 5 hours and a half sitting on a minibus from Atar, we departed at 8 am and arrived around 2 pm in Zouérat, the largest town in northern Mauritania and the capital of Tiris Zemmour region.
The town developed from its importance to iron ore mining. It is surrounded by the hematite mines of Fderîck, Tazadit and Rouessa.
Most of town's population are employed directly and indirectly in the mining industry. Amenities include a medical clinic, social club, pool, cinema, school and shop.
Mining at the mountain was first recorded from the Kediet ej Jill in the 11th century, but it was not until 1952 that iron ore deposits were first commercially extracted on an industrial scale. Beginning in 1958, the first concessions on iron ore extraction were given to Miferma, Société des mines de fer de Mauritanie. At the time it was majority-controlled by European-based mining interests, however, in 1974 Miferma was nationalized by the Mauritanian government.
In 1981 a new iron ore deposit was discovered at Guelb el Rhein, 35 km (22 mi) north of Zouérat. Almost a decade later, another was found in 1990 at Guelb Mhadaouat about 65 km (40 mi) from Zouérat. Other companies exploring for iron ore in the region include Xstrata and Arcelor Mittal. The reserves at the SNIM's Tazadit mine are estimated to be 200 million tonnes of hematite.
Our local contact came to pick us up at the bus station. He drove around the town to grab some food and liters of water for the so long-awaited adventure. We also bought and equipped ourselves with some extra plastic bags to cover our baggage.
So we finally left to go to the hopping point; from Zouérat town it takes about 10-15 minutes to get there. We basically drove back a couple of kilometers to the loading site, where wagons get assembled together and filled of iron ore.
Unfortunately, we arrived too late for the first train of the day and we had to take the one that apparently would depart at 5 pm. There is no schedule or timetables as this isn't a passenger train, so you need to ask around, if you find people, or just wait.
A line of wagons was already there without the locomotive attached.
After making sure that was our possible train, we started loading our stuff and waited till was the time to depart.
Temperature in Zouérat was of about 33° we decided to kill the time taking some photos and eating something before leaving. In the meantime, the part of the train we picked was getting linked to other sections of cars.
Hematite is colored black to steel or silver-gray, brown to reddish-brown, or red. It is mined as the main ore of iron. Varieties include kidney ore, martite (pseudomorphs after magnetite), iron rose and specularite (specular hematite).
While these forms vary, they all have a rust-red streak. Hematite is harder than pure iron, but much more brittle.
This mineral gives the landscape a martian land resemblance.
Trains on the railway are up to 2.5/3 kilometers (1.6 mi) in length, making them among the longest and heaviest in the world. They consist of 3 or 4 diesel-electric EMD locomotives, 200 to 210 cars each carrying up to 84 tons of iron ore, and 2-3 service cars sometimes. The total traffic averages 16.6 million tons per year.
We have been told there are about 3-4 rides a day, but as it's a cargo train there are no stations or exact time schedules.
Passenger cars are sometimes attached to freight trains, but more often passengers simply ride atop the ore hopper cars freely. Passengers include locals, merchants, and rarely some tourists. Conditions are incredibly harsh with daytime temperatures exceeding 40°C and death from falls being common.
Then finally arrived the time to jump on board of "our" car and start the ride.
As we left around 5 pm we had two hours of sun left before sunset and many hours of daylight during the morning the day after.
First thing we did as soon as the train departed was to create and flatten an area of the car to lay out our sleeping bags for the night and have a designated ready and sheltered area. We obviously picked the shorter side facing the front of the train to protect ourselves as much as we could from the wind, dust and cold temperatures.
In the first few kilometers of the ride we were surrounded by rocky mountains, trees and oasis, fading very soon to arid desert landscape.
At this point the sun had almost completely set and about 12 hours of darkness awaited us.
The last glow of light before the night.
Once the sun set, the temperature took about 2-3 hours to reach a stable minimum of about 5°-6° degrees Celsius (41°-43° F). Temperature excursions are a characteristic of the desert areas of the world.
After a quick energetic fast dinner with some eggs, bread, energy bars and of course water we wore other layers of warm clothing, equipped with a front torch and crawled into the sleeping bags.
The night was cold, but not so bad if well covered. Our shelter worked out very well.
We slept well enough despite everything. I doubt though we got deep sleep but still we managed to rest the whole night.
As a mattress a heap of iron ore and dust and as a ceiling a sky studded with a thousand stars so full and clear that it seemed to fall on us, and then a giant chandelier, a reflector I can well say, the moon. The moon was so big and bright that I should have brought a blindfold, but I had to do as I could. Definitely the most beautiful night sky I've ever admired.
The train stopped about five times in the whole journey.
One of these was during the night at 3 am; we stopped exactly here, in a village in the middle of the Sahara Desert.
On the morning of the 7th we woke up around 6.30 at the first glimmers of the sunrise, obviously on the moving train, still in a cold temperature, patiently waiting for the sun to warm us up.
The sunrise in the desert is maybe one of the most fascinating thing ever, specially if riding the longest cargo train in the world.
As soon as the sun came up we had a quick breakfast, and we re-hydrated.
Then one of other 3 merchant guys on the train, wrapped in his beautiful turban, came to us and started explain how the mechanical parts of the train and of the railway work.
He told us He rides the train from Zouérat to Nouadhibou and from Nouadhibou to Zouérat almost 3 times a week since 13 years, transporting goods and materials. A very hard life.
Despite the huge language barrier, and a little french spoken by us and a hard dialect of him we managed to have a nice conversation.
He spotted our sleeping bags, He told us He never saw one of those in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, where you can usually find everything, so we decided to give them to him that surely would have benefited and use it more than us.
The train then stopped again and we jumped off to take a nice selfie together.
We were then immersed into the morning of the day, about five hours ahead to admire the harsh desert landscape and what it was going to reveal us.
During the morning ride we saw a lot of different landscapes: tufts of bushes, spreaded vegetation, white and yellow dunes, red soils and much more.
We also spotted remote villages, abandoned villages, nomads camps, tends, the old railway, old abandoned train cars in the desert, people appearing from nowhere in the vastness of the silent desert, workers on the railway kilometers away from roads and cities.
The desolation of some places we encountered has left us completely amazed, for better and for worse.
The sun, getting higher up in the sky, was hitting us very hard at mid morning, reaching temperatures around 40° Celsius (104° F).
Our equipment and protections resulted being effective and perfect for the mission.
This was our colour vision from the mask lenses.
I could not miss the opportunity to dangle from the train.
Around 12.40 am we started seeing forms of civilization again and moving vehicles on paved roads. The railway begins to run along the border with Western Sahara on the right and with the road that leads from Noudhibou to Nouakchott covered by wind turbines on the left.
Slowly we began to glimpse the first buildings and houses of the northern suburbs of Noudhibou from which we entered with the train. All the developed area was on the left and desert on the right.
After 21 hours riding the train, of which about 10 hours under the baking sun, we were waiting for the train to stop shortly. In the meanwhile the guys on board were unloading some baskets from the train, for some other people to come and collect.
Unfortunately for us, the train did not make the intermediate stop near the city, but took us straight into the company site, from where the loaded boats depart exporting iron.
We basically entered a private property, we knew it but we couldn't do otherwise.
The air suddenly turned red, became thick with fine dust, sand and exhaust fumes from the machinery, it felt like being in a Mad Max scene.
When the train finally stopped, the air returned to being almost breathable and we kept the mask on and unloaded our bags.
We felt we ended up in the middle of nowhere. We were. The refinery is very south to Noudhibou, surrounded by the desert. It was very hot.
A security guard saw us and, under 35° Celsius (95° F) with a duvet jacket, came to give us a warm welcome, asking us how we ended up there and kindly escorted us to the refinery exit, accompanied by his colleague by car.
After about an hour, we sat down in a restaurant. I went to the bathroom to check my face. The conditions were this:
This is and will remain one of the greatest adventures I had and will ever have. And although it was an experience that many will consider extreme, I recognize that for me it was a fairly simple thing to deal with, from every point of view.
If people will ask me: "Would you do it again?"
I would answer: "Without hesitation!"
At the end: what 21 hours riding the World's Longest Iron Ore Train in the Sahara Desert are in a overall lifetime?"
Photo credits: Giulio Aprin – Fedora Ginanni