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Mauritania: Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train

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Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train | Mauritania | Africa

[Visited: October 2013]

The fastest way to get from the Adrar region to Nouadhibou is, in theory, taking the iron ore train. Constructed to transport iron ore from the mines near Zouérat in the north-east to the port of Nouadhibou in the west, one of the three daily trains has a few passenger carriages. When I arrived in Atar, I asked around for the train; as I planned to leave the day of the religious Tabaski, the Feast of the Sacrifice. Everyone assured me the train would run anyway, and getting to Choum, a few hours north of Atar, would be easy even on that day. The morning of my departure, drivers of several cars assured me they would leave in the afternoon, and guaranteed a connection with the train. But then, in the middle of the afternoon, they suddenly backed off: they did not have enough passengers, and they were no longer willing to take me only to Choum. Moreover, my guide in the Adrar desert, who had turned into a hospitable Mauritanian, called someone in Choum who had even worse news: according to him, the train would not even stop in Choum, and might not even stop there the next day. Considering my options, I decided to pay extra and head all the way to Zouérat, further north: it would guarantee that I could join the train from its very start. My guide called relatives in the mining city, and assured me they would help me out. The drive to Zouérat was another adventure: quickly after Azougui, the road turned into a sandy track, which forked off into more and more parallel tracks. I never understood how the driver was able to decide for the tracks. We stopped at sunset, and the lucky guy in front of the 4WD pickup truck led the other passengers in prayer in the middle of the desert under the moonlight. We saw the second train pass. When we arrived in Zouérat, I was surprised at how modern and lively it appeared. The driver told me to take a seat at a booth of a sim-card seller, and believe it or not, after a few minutes, a taxi stopped, and a tall Mauritanian dressed in a blue boubou asked me to get in.

Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): Looking ahead from a window at the rear of the longest train in the world

We drove for a couple of minutes, and I realized that I did not know the guy, and had to assume he was the relative of my guide in Atar. Sure enough, we reached an apartment, where two other guys were waiting, all relatives. We talked, and it turned out they all worked for the SNIM, the mining company of Mauritania, in charge of the iron ore, of research, as well as the famous train. They even had food and drinks for me, despite the late hour. I ended up sleeping on the floor with them, in the first air-conditioned room I had been in since a couple of weeks. The next day, I was curious what would happen. Two of the guys took me out for a walk through the mining town, I used some Internet on a cruelly slow connection, and the two guys were both on their phones regularly. When we went into a house, where we had more tea, and I suddenly started feeling a little wobbly, just when a big bowl was brought into the room. When the lid was taken off, I saw a bed of rice on which part of a camel leg was lying, with some hairs still on it. I did not feel like eating at all, but I knew the guys had organized it for me, and indeed, they encouraged me to eat a lot in preparation for my long train trip. We were supposed to leave in half an hour, and I tried to eat as slowly as possible, forcing the rice and camel meat down. I was saved, unexpectedly, by a phone call: we had to leave right away; the train was about to leave - one hour early. To my surprise, someone was outside with a car, and after I picked up my bag, we drove straight to the train. There is no station: cars drive on the tracks, and there is no platform, so you have to climb into the train. The entire delegation of four men and a woman accompanied me into the train, and took me to the first class compartment. Putting my bag on a big bed, they proudly said: this is yours until Nouadhibou. I asked where I had to buy the ticket, but they said the bed had been reserved, and no payment was necessary. They embraced me, and left the train, while I was reeling with surprise, and feeling unable to thank them appropriately.

Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): Beds in the first class compartment of the iron ore train

There were still people coming on the train, which started to move within minutes; it was finally attached at the rear of the train. In preparing this trip, my idea had been to ride the train in one of the many carriages with iron ore. Now, however, I had been put into a first class bed, I had almost no water, and I was leaving before midday - I realized that riding the train during the entire afternoon under the relentless sun and without proper protection and water would actually be dangerous. Then, the bed looked too good to be true. I enjoyed hanging out of the porthole-like window, seeing the great landscape glide by. When the sun was hanging lower in the sky, I climbed the stairs up to the cabin with windows on all sides, hoping for a great view ahead. Unfortunately, the windows were so dirty, they had lost all transparency, and there was nothing to see. We did stop in Choum, one hour early, and I got off, and had an idea of the length of the train. Ahead of the few passenger carriages, I could see carriage after carriage of the iron ore cargo, and no matter how far I looked, I could not even see the locomotives. This is supposedly the longest train in the world, with 150 to 250 carriages, and up to two and a half kilometres long. The Mauritanians on the train of course prepared tea regularly, which I drank thankfully. Despite the violent lurks of the train, I slept surprisingly well, and when we stopped just before sunrise, I looked at my watch: it jumped to 7am. People around me were getting their stuff together: to my big surprise, we had arrived precisely on time. Outside: no platforms, and only a small building which was the railway station of Nouadhibou - but it was closed. I walked ahead, determined to count the number of carriages and see the locomotives, but when I had reached carriage number 34, and with still much, much more train ahead of me, it started to move; slowly at first, then, faster and faster, until it disappeared from sight into the desert. I would never see the front of the train.

Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): The iron ore train at the small village of Choum, just before sunset
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): Passengers getting on the train in Zouérat
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): The rear of the iron ore train with first class carriage
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): The iron ore train arrives in Nouadhibou in the early morning
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): View from the top of the first class carriage
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): The cargo train with a seemingly endless amount of carriages with iron ore
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): Sand dunes in the distance, and lone tree in the foreground, seen from the train
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): View from the train: tabular mountain with sand dunes at its feet
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): The small building acting as the (closed) railway station at Nouadhibou
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): Mining area right next to the tracks of the train
Picture of Zouérat Nouadhibou iron ore train (Mauritania): Inside the first class compartment, with a communal area to socialize with passengers

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