I’ve had a lot of great travel experiences but there are few things that have lived up to the hype as much as riding on top of a train, filled with iron ore as it chugs it way through the starry Saharan night. Mauritania is full of authentic, once in a lifetime travel experiences, this though, has got to be the highlight for the truly adventurous traveller.
The train makes a daily departure to pick up iron ore from a mine in the interior of Mauritian. It fills its 2km of cars (one of the longest on earth) with the iron and then heads back to the coastal city of Nouadhibou.
It is a popular mode of transport with locals because it stops in the town of Choum where you can easily get a ride to Atar. The train can be taken going in either direction but only one direction carries the iron ore. Although the train does have one cabin car, it is said to be pretty beat up. Riding on top of the iron is something you won’t do every day and it’s free. So in my mind, there is only one option.
We set out from Atar to get the train from Choum. That ride is about 2 hours and is only done by 4×4, typically a Toyota Hillux. You can ride in either the cab of the truck or in the box of the truck. There will always we cargo in the box, the question is how much. We had seen trucks with fridges stacked on top of each other and people riding on top of the fridges. We struggled with the decision, we didn’t really want to have a death ride but also didn’t want to miss out if the box was going to be more thrilling. We landed on paying the extra for the cab and not risking riding on top of a fridge for two hours. It certainly paid off. Even though there wasn’t that much in the box the road was… well, there was no road actually. Just bumpy, dusty sand trails.
We arrived in Choum incredibly early. The train leaves around 6 pm and we arrived just after noon. We grabbed a loaf of bread and a slab of goat that was hanging in the street for lunch and sat down by the railway to wait it out.
We laid in the sun on the blankets we had bought just for this ride. We knew it was going to get cold since we had made the mistake of going out into the desert a few night earlier without a blanket. As the hours passed locals came by to ask us questions and children used us to entertain themselves.
At around 5:30 someone came by and told us we were not in the wrong spot. We began to panic and ran further down the track. Here we saw around 8 locals waiting for the train,
Johnny and I started to put all our gear on, 4 or 5 shirts each, 2 pairs of socks, shorts over our pants, scarves, hats. We looked pretty stupid. Just as the sun was setting we could see the headlight of the train in the distance. I started to get butterflies. Were we in the right spot? Was it going to stop? Was someone going to tell us we couldn’t actually ride on the top?
The engine of the train passed us and then dozens and dozens of carts went by. It must have taken nearly 10 minutes until the train finally stopped. When it did, it was go time. We rushed to a car, there was a group of men already climbing into it. They kindly told us to beat it . We grabbed our ridiculously heavy and awkward backpacks that we had put into 50kg rice bags to shield them from dust and dashed to a car 20 meters ahead. I could hear the train creaking as Johnny scaled up first and I passed him the luggage. I climbed up and we made our way to the front of the car. As we did the train began to creep forward. I actually timed the whole thing and the train was only stopped for 8 minutes.
We began to dig ourselves out a bed for the night. The ore was cold and heavy but similar to sand when lying on it. The sun had completely set as we began rolling across the desert. We could only make out silhouettes of mountains in the background and the shadow of a few men in the cars behind us. The feeling of being on top of that train as it cruised through the desert night, with no one else around was really surreal. A sense of solitude, excitement and accomplishment I’m not sure I’ve ever had.
As the night went on and we picked up more speed the ride began to get unbelievably dusty and loud. The train constantly jerked and jolted. As we laid on the ore wrapped up in our blankets we could hear the whiplash of the cars coming for kilometres down to our car and with a huge thud our car would jump. It made it somewhat difficult to sleep. That and the temperature, it was probably around 12- 15 degrees.
We woke up with the sun at 7 am in time to get some photos on the train which showed us how filthy we had become during the night. An hour later, for a total of 14 hours and a distance of 675 km, we arrived at the station just outside of Nouadhibou with massive black smiles on our faces.
How to get the train going from Choum to Nouadhibou.
You’ll likely need to arrange the 4×4 to chum a day in advance, since seats can fill up quickly. They may go more than once a day but its best to check a day prior what time they will be leaving. Remember to have or make a few photocopies of your passport (aka fiches). You may be stopped on the way to Choum or on arrival in Nouadihibou.
The ride from Atar to Choum cost approx $5 USD to ride in the box of the truck or $10 to ride in the cab. Riding in the back will be an adventure for sure. Have a scarf for the dust and be ready to hang on the entire time.
The train is scheduled to leave Choum at 6pm every day. This of course isn’t always the case with the train sometimes being hours late. There is no way of knowing if the train will be late, you just have to be ready when it arrives.
When the train does come you have only a few minutes to run to a car and get your things on. We waited by the small “station” at the east end of the town. You can’t go in the station, there is only a building there.
You will need a few things for this journey.
Plastic bags to stop everything from getting filthy. We tried to buy plastic bags in Atar but was told they are illegal in Mauritania. We opted for rice bags, which sort of helped.
Water. A litre will probably get your through the night, since its cold and you sleep a bit, coming from the other direction you may want more. I would suggest eating before you get on the train. The ride is so filthy you won’t want to eat much on it.
A head scarf. You need something to cover your mouth and nose and probably your eyes for the journey. Sunglasses are a good idea.
Warm clothes that you don’t really want to wear again. We bought used blankets for the ride. It was a good call. It added some padding on the iron and kept us relatively warm. The killer is the night wind.
You’ll also want a flashlight, it’s very dark on the train with the constant cloud of black dust hovering over you.
Although this journey is a little frantic and immensely filthy it is completely safe and easy. Mauritanians are extremely friendly people and will be willing to help you at any point in the journey. If you are looking for an adventure this is one you will never forget!