Riding the longest train in the world: the Iron Snake in Mauritania


Somewhere in Mauritania

When this guy in the taxi mentioned it few days earlier, I could hardly believe it. It sounded like a story from another age, a story from the Far West – but here and now – in the largest hot-desert in the world. The first and only Mauritanian railway built in the middle of the last century, is still running daily from the ocean deep into the desert.

Mauritanian people use it regularly to commute or transport goods as the rides are free, for many small villages along the tracks the train is the only way in and out of the desert.

When at its full length, three locomotives pull two hundred carts full of iron ore from the remote region of Zouerat, in the middle of the Sahara, to the industrial port of Nouadhibou, close to the border with West Sahara. Yes, this is actually a freight train, but nobody is stopping people to jump on it.

Hooked, few days later I was on a minivan directed to the dusty village of Choum, the only sure midway stop of the train. Upon arrival I found shelter in a large room where other people were already waiting. The train would arrive between 3pm and 9pm stopping only few minutes. Hours were spent between drinking sweet mint tea and the occasional prayers.

 

Drink tea and pray

The Departure

Around 6 pm, loud horns disrupted the sleepy quietness of Choum, it was here. I quickly grabbed my backpack, and rushed out of the shed.

The longest train in the world would stop for only few minutes – no time to waste.

Excited, I jumped on the first cart just behind the two imposing locomotives, still not believing that the pile of minerals laying there would be my bed, dining table and toilet for the next night. Shortly after, the hissing sound of the Diesel engines increased and we started slowly to move. The movement of the carts, a pleasant lulling at first, became a nervous vibration with sudden harsh movements and random metal sounds as we reached cruise speed.

So began my fourteen hours journey through the desert, towards the Atlantic Coast.

I started to observe the three men in the cart behind me arranging an enormous amount of luggage, mainly cardboard boxes full of food. Shortly after, one of the men lit a little stove by rising it into the wind. They created a kitchen to prepare tea and food for the night, surely they were more used to this kind of trip. Like me, they were wearing turbans to protect face and eyes from the sand, their gaze was always directed towards the horizon.

Unfortunately communication, already difficult because I didn’t know a word of Hassaniya or Berber, was almost impossible due to the noise and the wind. As I offered them some mini cakes I had with me, one package slipped out of my hand and fell between out two carts, a good reminder for us to stay alert during the ride. The landscape around us was vast and harsh, dunes and rocky hills alternated themselves on the horizon, that the setting sun was starting to tint in yellow. Occasional camels and rare nomadic settlements were the only sings of life for hundreds of kilometers.

Despite the unusual situation I felt relatively calm and safe, besides a touch of adrenaline that I had when standing on the pile of minerals or leaning on the side of the train to take pictures, maybe the fact that my father is a now retired train driver helped.

My survival outfit

 

The Night

Knowing that it was going to be a long night, I ate the only two sandwiches I had. They gave me energy and warmth and tried to constantly drink a bit of water. I designated the front right corner of the cart as toilet, as it was the most protected from the wind.

At nightfall the temperature dropped considerably and layer after layer I started to wear basically everything I had in my backpack. Despite the train didn’t go very fast, the wind managed to cool me down even under several layers of clothing. Only stuffing myself in the sleeping bag helped at the end.

Riding the Iron ore train in Mauritania has been strenuous and rewarding at the same time.

Surrounded only by sand and vibrating steel, Struggling to perceive more than hammering sounds and cold wind, thick black dust collecting on my face, a sense of peace and acceptance diffused in me, the journey becoming a sort of meditation under the starry sky.

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Julian

  • ƒ/4
  • 188 mm
  • 3200
  • 1/59.999999999999
  • Canon EOS 6D
Gazing deeply into the desert
  • ƒ/4
  • 40 mm
  • 100
  • 1/750.00000000002
  • Canon EOS 6D

The train slowly rolling into Choum, not precise timetable is given.

Storytelling to kill time.

  • ƒ/1.4
  • 50 mm
  • 100
  • 1/4000
  • Canon EOS 6D

Firing the stove for the mandatory tea, the night will be freezing cold!

  • ƒ/2.8
  • 50 mm
  • 3200
  • 20 s
  • Canon EOS 6D

Occasional stops in the middle of nowhere are excellent opportunities for some star photography.

  • ƒ/4
  • 50 mm
  • 100
  • 1/90.000000000001
  • Canon EOS 6D

Sunrise and first prayer of the day.

  • ƒ/4
  • 40 mm
  • 100
  • 1/1000
  • Canon EOS 6D

Quick selfie before the carts start to move.

  • ƒ/4
  • 40 mm
  • 800
  • 1/59.999999999999
  • Canon EOS 6D

The Iron Snake