Introduction of the Mauritanian Iron Ore Train
The Mauritanian Iron Ore Train is one of the most unique and incredible train journeys one can take. The train is up to 3km (1.8 miles) in length, travels on a single track of 704 kilometres (437 miles), with 200 – 300 freight carriages, weighing up to a total of 84 tons and making it the longest and heaviest train in the world.
The sole purpose of the train is to export iron ore from the mining town of Zouerate to the Port of Nouadhibou via Choum in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania located in Northwest Africa. What caught our attention here at YPT are that the owners of the railway – the state agency Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière, SNIM or in English National Mining and Industrial Company allows locals and tourists to board the train and use it as a mean of transportation between inland of the country and the coastline.
What we’ve discovered is ultimately the experience of a lifetime by blasting through the Sahara under the pristine desert sky, gazing upon the stars and being rocked by the sheer power of the locomotive.
Expectations on riding the longest train in the world
Whilst we’re thrilled that SNIM do allow passengers to board their iron ore freight trains, there are things you must know before jumping aboard. First off, do not expect any levels of comfort you would find on other passenger trains around the world. We will go into more details further into this article.
This train has no ticket, no conductor, no dining cart, or any sort of announcements. The train is not bound to any timetable and may leave earlier or later than the usual departure time locals may inform you. That’s why it is incredibly important to have a local guide who will be able to arrange your trip and receive the latest updates on the departure to ensure you don’t miss the train.
This also means the arrival time is not fixed to a certain time and a single trip can take from 11 to 15 hours. The train has a few unscheduled stops along the way, and it’s up to you to guess the length of the time the train will be stopped if you are without a guide. To be absolutely sure, we recommend not disembarking the train during its unscheduled stops. You do not want to be left stranded in the middle of the Saharan Desert.
One way to prepare yourself early for this epic journey whilst you’re still at home is to download an offline map that works on your smartphone with GPS. Mauritania is not famous for having solid internet connection, and heading further inland away from the coastline will put you at slimmer chance of finding a stable cellular network. Most importantly your offline map app will track your location and prevent you from passing the town of Choum (this is where we get off if we’re heading inland) and ending up in Polisario-controlled Western Sahara, and technically illegally leaving Mauritania. The distance between Choum and the Port of Nouadhibou is 460km (285 miles)
Picking a direction. Iron ore or no iron ore?
The train can be taken in both directions towards or away from the Atlantic Ocean. If your tour is arranged to depart from Choum, the train will depart around 6:00pm. From the small mining town to the Nouadhibou coast, you will be riding with ore packed in your freight car. This experience is the real Mauritanian experience.
There are three types of Iron Ore that are delivered to the coastline by train. Type 1 are rocks that are half the size of your fist. Type 2 is much smaller rocks, about the size of a watch. Type 3 is crushed Iron Ore which is basically dust. I prefer type 2 and type 1, but you won’t get a choice once the train arrives.
Other tours can be arranged departing from Nouadhibou to Choum as the freight cars are empty of iron ore giving the advantage of slightly more comfort by not only giving you an area to walk around, but also shielding you from the harsh sun and the constant sand blowing in your face.
You’re still able to enjoy the view from gazing at the sky directly above or using the ladders built inside the carriage to prop yourself up for a better view. It is not uncommon for travellers to bring and pitch a tent within the freight car for extra comfort. It’s possible to fit up to 10 travellers in a single empty freight car.
There is actually a passenger wagon
There is actually a passenger wagon attached to the end of the mineral train, however for those who aren’t game enough to ride the open mineral ore freight car don’t get too excited yet. Whilst the passenger wagon is designed for actual passengers with multiple berths of 6 bunks, remember there’s no conductor. So nobody maintains the carriage. It’s very dirty, old, worn out, and overcrowded. Don’t forget we mentioned earlier there’s no train tickets so it operates on a first come first serve basis. The only advantage is that the passenger wagon has a washroom but it only encourages for a new English word of ‘absolute filth’ to be created and used for this scenario.
In our opinion, taking this option greatly decreases the enjoyment levels of the journey and makes for an even less comfortable ride than than an empty freight car that already provides a guaranteed view of the desert, with both sunset and moonset (yep, it exists and it is incredible here in the Sahara).
You won’t sleep much on the Iron Ore Train
Whether your riding in the open freight car or the passenger wagon, you won’t sleep much. The ride is incredibly bumpy and noisy. You’ll experience what we here at YPT have nicknamed the “sonic boom”. This is the tremors and loud noises caused when the freight cars slam into each other. You can expect your entire body to shake with the very loud noise caused by this, at any given time. It certainly gets the adrenaline pumping and we feel that it only adds more to this unique experience. We prepare immediate accommodation on arrival in the town of Choum or Nouadhibou for those weary travellers.
The Iron Ore Train gets cold – really cold
You may think that the desert is always hot, but the truth is that when the sun goes down, the temperature sinks dramatically. Throwing in the wind-chill factor and it can get freezing past midnight. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to bring warm clothes and blankets with you for the journey. One other advantage of riding in the empty freight car is that you’ll be able to move around to warm yourself up. For those who hate nothing more than being cold you may even bring thermals, a thermos of hot water or borrow some leftover coal to brew Saharan tea on the spot.
What to pack for your Mauritanian Mineral Train journey
We discourage packing or hauling large luggage around Africa so allow us to assist you with what are the essentials to pack to better prepare you for your Saharan train journey. However, it is possible to arrange a separate car to drop your large belongings off at your destination.
Before boarding the train our groups will stop by local markets to stock up on plenty of water, snacks such as fruits, sandwiches or anything prepacked from the local sellers. If you’re going to ride an empty wagon it’ll be wise to pack empty bottles to assist with going for number 1s during your train journey and best to hold in any number 2s until you reach your destination.
However, if you’re boarding a wagon full of iron ore you can pick a corner you all agree to use and you won’t have to worry about going to the toilet as the rocks and Iron Ore dust will cover it along the journey.
On our tours we include blankets and a straw mat to make the journey more conformable. Packing books, a pack of cards and some games would help break up the journey. We found a pack of chalk fairly entertaining to play games and draw on the inside of the carriage walls.
Prepare a fully charged portable power bank to ensure sure your smartphone doesn’t run out of power.
The train ride will get you very dusty, especially if you ride it when it’s loaded up with iron ore as most of the dust is created from the ore. You may want to bring trash bags to wrap your bags so that they don’t get covered in dust if that sort of thing bothers you. You could also wear old clothes you don’t mind throwing away once the journey finishes. To protect your eyes, nose and mouth from the dust, do what the locals do: wrap a scarf around your head and wear ski goggles or sun glasses.
With these few tips in mind, you are set to enjoy an experience of a lifetime riding the mineral train of Mauritania. The scenery is incredible, the adventure will get your blood pumping and a sure way to bond tighter friendships in your group.
Choum Tunnel – Mauritania Railway Embarrassment
Whilst you’re in Choum you’ll notice mountains to the east and where the railway track take a sharp left turn up north to Zouerate. This is the sharp 90 degree corner where Western Sahara borders Mauritania. During the construction of the railway in the 1960s, the French did not want their railway to enter Western Sahara which at the time was Spanish territory located just west of the mountains.
So to avoid leaving the French territory they decided to create a 2 kilometre long tunnel through the thick granite mountain. This was incredibly expensive and many locals died during the construction.
Why was this an embarrassment? Only a few years after the railway was completed, during the 1970s Spain left Western Sahara. Mauritania was briefly in control of the territory of where the railroad could have and should have been built to avoid unnecessary life and cost.
A 5km railway line was built through the Western Sahara territory, east of Choum, in spite of the tunnel existing solely to prevent that exact occurrence. The upkeep of the tunnel was adding further unnecessary expenses so in 1991 the tunnel was totally abandoned.
The 5km of track inside Western Sahara is the only railway running within the unrecognised country, and making it the smallest railway network in the world among countries that have any railway within them whatsoever.