Riding the Iron Ore train from Nouadhibou to Choum, Mauritania was one of the top travel experiences I have ever had. The journey from the coast into the heart of the Mauritanian Sahara is as much of an adventure as one could possible have, and will certainly leave you full of stories to tell. However, I am not going to go into details about the journey since it was already featured in the latest issue of Vagabundo Magazine. But, I will let you know a little bit about what to expect and what to bring with you on the trip as well as share some photos from the Mauritanian iron ore train, which I have been told may actually be the longest train in the world at over 2km long.
Time: Ask in town when the iron ore train is leaving. It generally leaves at 2pm from the train station outside of Nouadhibou, but can change. It can be late, but is usually surprisingly punctual going this direction.
Tickets: If you are going to go in the passenger car you need to buy a ticket inside the station. You might want to buy a day or two in advance as they sometimes sell out. If you plan on stowing away, it is free and you don’t need a ticket.
Documents: You will want at least two Fiches for Mauritania
Departure: When the train arrives just jump into the back of one of the cars. You have to climb in, but there is a ladder on one side. Try to pick a car near the passenger car because this is where you’ll want to be when you get out in Choum.
The Iron Ore: From Nouadhibou to Choum the train is empty. The only iron ore that remains is the dust which is bad but not nearly as horrible as you might think.
Distance: The train takes about 14-16 hours to Choum. I believe it was about 340km and there are markers on the way to Choum. I arrived in Choum at 4am.
Arrival: When you get off in Choum there will be at least one truck to Atar. My suggestion is to pay a little extra for a seat inside the truck if you can as the ride in the back of the truck (as I did) was one of the most uncomfortable rides I’ve ever taken.
What you need to Bring
Headscarf: You will want a headscarf for sure. The iron ore isn’t too bad, but the dust from the desert will beat you silly without one. The stuff sticks to hair almost magnetically.
Snacks: The locals will bring tea and bread into the car with them. At a certain hour they will eat as a group. Of course, they will invite you as well. If you don’t bring anything they will still share, but you’ll feel like a jerk joining them. I brought cashews, raisins, and a little bit of fruit all of which were all hits.
Water: Don’t think that 1 litre is enough. I packed just 1 litre on the iron ore train and I was parched by the time I got to Choum. The locals will make you tea and they might even use some of your water if they need it. Bring 2Ls per person if you can. There are a couple places along the way that people try to sell water, but it’s not a guarantee.
Sunscreen: You’re really only in the sun for the first couple hours, but in the Sahara it will burn you quickly if you’re not careful.
Light: It’s dark on the train. In fact, aside from the moon and stars it is black. Bring a light of some sort.
Jacket: If you’re riding in the Summer you’ll likely not need it for the warmth, but in the Winter you definitely will. Regardless, you’ll at least want something that’s waterproof to keep the dusk and iron ore off your skin (well, as much as you can).
Mat: I didn’t have a sleeping mat and I got by fine. However, if you have a mat that you don’t mind getting a bit dirty you’ll be in heaven. Laying in the back of that iron ore train under the stars was incredible, and if it were a bit more comfortable I might never have wanted to leave.
Fiche: As I mentioned, you’ll want to carry a couple copies of your Mauritania Fiche. I printed 20 in Nouadhibou, and by the time I got to Nouakchott 10 days later I went through them all plus 5 more.
Don’t be Scared: Everyone likes a scary story, this is not one. Although it sounds really crazy, and is, it’s not really dangerous at all.
Trust the Locals: I don’t think I’ve ever met more hospitable people in the world than in Mauritania. They are always looking to help out visitors and are glad to point them in the right direction.
Drink it in: Take some time to lay back, take a look up at those amazing stars and reflect on where you are in the world. Riding the iron ore train in Mauritania is one of the world’s great adventures. And you likely have it all to yourself! How amazing is that?