It’s not only probably the longest train in the World...
it’s not only probably the wildest train ride in the World...
but it’s almost definitely one of the most epic things you could ever do anywhere in the World
and it won't even cost you a cent.
3.30pm any day of the week at Nouadhibou Station in the Sahara desert, Mauritania there’s a hive of activity. For most locals, it’s another day of commuting and transporting supplies but for a few, it’s much more. We dared to be one of the few.
We won’t lie, until about an hour beforehand we were still unsure whether we would jump upon this infamous, yet largely unknown train, but as we waited amidst the chaos and the sandstorms, the thought of stowing away in a train carriage is something you could only dream of in most countries - Naturally, it was far too irresistible.
Yes – we’d read the Government warnings that advised us not to travel and we had heard all the hype about the Western Saharan border region with extremist groups etc, but we’d also read about a train, the Iron Ore train and the more dangerous it sounded, the more seductive the it became.
Through the winds and sands in the distance it arrives. A seemingly endless number of sun-baked old wagons waltz by in the searing heat of the Sahara. As the train eventually comes to a halt you’re almost pulled into the carriages by it’s character and charm. In our case, we were actually pushed in by a local Police officer, either way we made it in.
Clamber aboard, dump your backpack and look around. If you're like us, it'll be hard to wipe the smile of your face. Within a few minutes we were amongst the locals and after the initial looks of surprise, the nervous laughter and the awkward exchanges (we don't speak French) it was clear the locals were pumped to have a couple of fresh faces onboard. It more than stretched us trying to hold conversations amidst the excitement but failing that, as always you can count on football to communicate.
As always, we were incredibly unprepared for the next 12 hours, we had both just lost our head scarves, had only a litre of water each and a couple of bags of nuts. By the end of the trip we’d had a loaf of bread each, a range of snacks, fruits, 5 cups of Mauritanian tea and a local had even offered his jacket to us as the sun set. Yes – of course we shared our nuts.
The locals were only too happy to share their culture and even rolled out the red carpet for us – literally. If you haven't figured it out yet, this simply isn’t your average train ride. Each carriage isn’t just another carriage, they might only measure about 10m x 3m each but the cultural exchange you’ll experience in that space transcends thousands of kilometres.
So who else is actually on the wagon?
18 Mauritanians. Mining company employees up one end organising the fire, tea and food exchanges and the young lads at the end of the carriage quick to dance, play Western tunes on their mobile phones and pose for photos. You’ll get a bit of everything on this train and it’s something special to see 16 men on a open carriage on a moving train assemble as one when it's time for prayer.
What else can you expect over the 12 hour journey?
The winds and the sandstorms are relentless and the taste of Iron Ore is something you’ll have to get used to. It’s incredibly hot in the day and incredibly cold late into the night but you can expect to see the Sahara at her best and its hard imagine clearer skies and as many stars elsewhere. You probably won't sleep either, but you can find space amongst the crowd and bags to huddle in for warmth. You’ll also get the added bonus of seeing the Ben Amira rock, which is the world’s 2nd largest rock after Uluru in Australia, which despite the surrounding darkness still casts an impressive shadow on an otherwise desolate plain.
What else can we tell you?
The conditions are pretty rough and it’s definitely not for the faint hearted. You can of course get a ticket on board the one and only passenger carriage but that would set you back about 5 Euro. We’re sure it would still be a great experience, but the feeling of stowing away in Iron-Ore wagon without paying a cent for us was far more appealing.
The train runs from the Saharan Iron-Ore mines of Zouerat to the port city of Nouadhibou and links communities from the Sahara to the sea. Once on board, you’ll soon realise that the train is a lifeline for the remote communities as along the way dozens of locals will make the trip to the tracks to greet those onboard, from groups of women to young kids, there is a sense of excitement as the train rolls by.
3.30am you’ll make it to Choum, a decrepit station some 400km later where you would think your journey ends, but it's just the beginning of another. It's a strange feeling - one where despite getting off probably the world’s longest train in the middle of nowhere, you realise you have just been somewhere you had never imagined and experienced something you will never forget.
That said, we hadn’t anticipated an hour later we’d be sitting on top of a Toyota Landcruiser packed with luggage and supplies with 6 others pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle. Luckily for us, Michael Schumacher had recently come out of retirement and was driving, with precision at top speed across the dusty, corrigated tracks, narrowly avoiding wildlife, trees and everything else guided only by the 20m of visibility provided by the headlights.
So how does a Landcruiser loaded with 8 people and a few tonnes of cargo hold up in the conditions? Maybe we were just lucky, but we received a lesson in Mauritanian roadside mechanics as one of the tyres blew out at top speed.
What lasting advice do we have?
Do it! There’s nothing else like it. Take some food to share, plenty of water, be ready for anything and just go with it. Everything else is provided and if you can't speak French like us, know that everybody supports either Barcelona or Madrid so choose wisely.
We need to mention as well that the region is still considered to be highly dangerous, so be sure to speak with locals in the area and other backpackers for the latest information. We did and we went.