There’s a train in Northern Mauritania. It’s the longest train in the world. Not like, the length of the journey, but length of the train itself; it’s over 2km of cars! And it’s travelling back and forth to bring iron ore from the mines to the port.
Now this in itself is kinda cool, I guess. But the real reason people like me end up on this train is because you can ride for free… if you ride in the iron wagons.
When I told my dad what I was doing, he thought I was a little nuts. When I called him at 3 in the morning (8PM for him) when I was getting on this train, he thought I was definitely nuts.
There’s a few ways you can do this train thing. If you’re travelling overland from Maroc, many people hop into the empty cars in Nouadhibou in the afternoon, and hop off about 12 hours later in Choum; then take regular road transit to the capital in the south. But there is a big empty vs. full debate, so others say it’s best to do the reverse, so you actually ride on top of the iron ore.
Originally this was my plan; Choum to NDB, in the full cars. But then I realized that the train kept going to the actual mining town of Zouerat, and that that was only about 5 hours from Choum. So I decided to make it one long day by getting in the empty cars in Choum, spending the morning in Zouerat, and then returning again once the cars were full; that way, I was getting the taste of both experiences, without making a full 12 hour commitment.
So, I caught a ride from atar to Choum, in the back of a 4×4 (alongside 3 dudes and a goat, naturally).
Then I somehow landed myself in the home of Barkar, a fellow passenger, with his wife and daughter. They fed me, dressed me, and the wife had her girlfriends over for a Choum-style spa day (henna, hair braiding, face masks, etc.)
I slept there until 2am, when we went to catch the train. I donned every warm piece of clothing I own, wrapped myself completely in all the scarves I have, and topped it all off with a melefa, the traditional saharawi women’s dress (this I bought specifically for the ride, and have since repurposed as a sleeping sheet).
The ride to Zouerat wasn’t as cold as I expected, and was quite pleasant, relative to the dusty return trip. There was wind, and sand, but nothing that didn’t brush off. In the morning when the sun rose, it was beautiful, and actually quite cute to see all the heads poking up out of the other cars. I also had the moon illuminating the mountains all night as well, which was really cool. Just me in the desert in a cart full of nothing.
When we arrived, I met a few other travellers who turned up in Zouerat – they missed the stop in Choum, where they had intended to get out! We wandered the town (nothing special) and went to wait for the next train back. We may or may not have walked through a minefield to get there (not shown here). Eek.
The train was late, as things often are in these parts, but we finally boarded around 3. We had all had the impression that the iron ore was in chunks, which isn’t supposed to be comfortable to sit on, but would probably be less dusty than finely ground particles we were presented with. The boys, therefore, found some other, non-iron cart to sit in, but me, Little Miss Stubborn, I had to do the real deal.
So I picked a car and settled in. At first I thought that it wouldn’t be so bad; I touched some of the iron and didn’t notice any resides. So I made myself a little nest in the corner and thought I was set. It was actually pretty comfortable, and the sun was out so I was happy. The guys in front of me were real pros; they knew what was coming. Instantly they set to work to flattening completely one of the four heaps, laid down a tarp, and even set up a kitchen! They were making tea in no time. Meanwhile I was realizing how long these five hours (which turned into 7 by the time we finished loading all of the carts at the next stop) were really gonna be.
I had been thinking in the first trip how nice it would be to sit on the iron, so I could actually see the landscape without having to stand up. Little did I know that I would eventually cover my face entirely with 3 different layers in an effort to deter the iron from getting so effectively into my eyes, nose, and mouth.
Eventually I was coughed back up in Choum, tired, sore, and black. I’ve washed my clothes 3 times since and they’re still not all clean.
So, you know. It’s one of those things, I’m glad I can say I did, but I’m not exactly itching to do it again.