Riding the Iron Ore Train

Forty-five years ago, a young Togolese man named Mr Désiré Johnson rode the iron ore train across the Mauritanian desert. En route to France, he rode in a bin atop of a pile of iron ore, which had been extracted out of the mines at Zeourat and was on its way to the port at Nouadhibou.

The iron ore train still runs today. Thus it is that in 2012, Mr Johnson’s son comes to Mauritania and seeks out the train.

We take the train in the opposite direction, from Nouadhibou back to Zeourat. Lucky for us, this means that the train is empty of iron ore, except for a smattering of iron ore dust on the floor of the bins. The iron ore train is not a passenger train. We ride in the bins.

Cover your bags in plastic. Wrap your face in a scarf. At first we think that these instructions are a joke (haha Lonely Planet, always so dramatic!), but apparently they are serious. We are warned just as we are about to head out to the train station. We quickly make a stop at the market to look for plastic bags to encase our backpacks. The wind is already whipping the desert sand across our faces as we sit at the station, waiting for the train to arrive. We find ourselves adopting the Mauritanian style – faces shrouded in sunglasses and turban – in order to be able to breathe and see. Apparently our emotions still show through, as a Mauritanian man consoles us: “It is a difficult journey. But don’t worry, Madame, you’ll be fine.”

The train comes clattering into the station, and it is long. 2.3 kilometres long, in fact, one of the longest trains in the world. The bins pass and they pass and they pass. We humans have spread out across the span of the train, such that groups of 4-8 passengers are ready to clamber into each iron ore bin. As soon as the train stops, everybody helps each other toss up the cargo, and we all climb in. The train quickly gets going. This must be the fastest loading in Africa.

We pass endless sand dunes, huge monolithic rocks, lush oases. Innumerable stars and galaxies stretch out into the endless desert sky above. But we can see none of this. We are covered in sunglasses and scarves, and our contact with the outside world is obscured by the sand and the iron ore dust flying around us, whipping any exposed skin and finding its way through every opening in our clothes.

Somehow in the midst of this, our Mauritanian bin-mates manage to make tea. When the sun sets and the Ramadan fast ends, they whip out portable gas burners and uncover small piles of charcoal, which they manage to light amidst the thrashing wind and flying dust. Soon, the air is perfumed with the smell of mint and Chinese green tea, and frothy tea is being shared all around (yes, they also manage to pour the tea back and forth between glasses). We eat some dates and bread with processed cheese. Then we recover our faces, hold our pee, and wait for the ride to end.

Twelve hours later in the pitch dark, we clamber off in the town of Choum, where we board communal 4x4s which will take us to the nearby town of Atar, the jumping-off point for the ancient caravan towns and sand dunes of the Adrar region. We emerge from the iron ore train, gritty with iron ore dust, and feeling that a sort of rite of passage has been completed.