Mauritania and a Ride on the Second Largest Train in the World

I’m aware that my posts have now become entirely anachronistic. This post is about Mauritania, my next post will cover Mali, and the post after that very well may cover Guinea. I have much, much more to say about Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, and Mali. To my dear readers I have but one message: so what? Deal with it.

Now, how many of you have even heard of Mauritania? That’s a question I heard a lot. Many Mauritanians are wary of their status as an “ignored country.” Most overland travelers treat the country as a drive-over, without spending nearly the amount of time they would in Senegal to the south and Morocco to the north. Unfortunately, I followed suit. I spent a little over a week in Mauritania. It was, however eventful.

The country is almost entirely desert. The Sahara can be comically inhospitable. Even during the winter, the days can be stunningly hot and dry, and nights below freezing. At times, it was so hot that I half expected some vegetation to succumb to the heat and spontaneously combust into flames. My exposed feet cracked and bled, and despite the heat, my lack of sweat was strange.

The most noticeable change is the silence. It’s as if you’ve entered a vaccuum. Coming from loud, boisterous West African cities, where people argue, livestock make any number of abrasive noises, and solitude is literally a marketable asset, the desert feels indescribably foreign. Without wind, the desert literally has no sound.

Looking out on the barren landscape, it looks like there is literally nothing there. There is little vegetation and no visible organisms. The land felt utterly lifeless. It’s depressing, and stunningly beautiful. Though the desert is far from the end of the world, it feels like it. Even though I was connected to piste, thousands of kilometers from the center of Africa, I’ve never experienced such profound isolation before in my life. 


I hitched a ride with a hostel owner and his nomad friends to Oudane, an oasis with important historical implications. There was no room in their car, so I had to ride out the bumpy journey in the trunk. Perhaps it was the proximity of my head to the trunk’s ceiling (the two made contact on multiple occasions), or the surprisingly soothing rhythmic gyrations of the truck, but I found myself lost in thought.

It is such a cliche to see third world travel as a vehicle by which to appreciate my own life: the possessions that I have, the opportunities I’ve been given, the things I’ve taken for granted. Obviously, being subjected to the harsh realities of global poverty is an eye-opening experience. But, embarking on a desert journey with strangers, I’d never felt so lucky to be alive before. Had I not met friends, had I not come prepared, I would have surely died. Though they were essentially strangers, the terrain amplifies the implications of these relationships. They become a matter of life and death. Out of necessity, strangers become friends, and any sign of ill will gets interpreted as the sign of an enemy.

Shaken, once we reached our destination, I turned to my travel partners. As the hostel owner looked up at me, I immediately realized that I had sentimentalized our relationship. Perhaps before, had I not been white, had he not traveled this route hundreds of times before, had I not been so unversed in custom, this may have been more of an insightful encounter. In reality,  He wanted my money, and he wanted me to give him good references. He doesn’t need to rely on me for his well-being. However, as he handed me a bottle of water, I realized that, at the very least, I’d entrusted my life with him. As much as I was a rubbernecker, able to experience this environment behind the protective chaff of a tourist, he was still the one thing standing between me and certain death. And for that, I was immensely grateful.

Still, one could argue that kindness is culturally embedded. Tourists in this region have elevated locals’ generosity and hospitality to almost mythic proportions. As with much of West Africa, sharing is often more of an expectation than an unusually charitable gesture.  I’ve heard long-term travelers joke that one only needs to pass an eating African and exclaim “bon appetite” to receive an invitation and a free meal. My experience on Mauritania’s Iron Ore Train was no different.

I’ve done very few things “just for the story.” Some travelers deliberately place themselves in dangerous or uncomfortable situations for bragging rights. For traveling in such a notorious region, I don’t think I’ve done that. I can’t hide it though, riding the Iron Ore Train, one of the longest trains in the world, sounded like a great story. Though there is a small passenger cart where paying customers can ride out the 14 hour journey, most people decide to enter the iron ore carts for free. This is the most epically harsh method, and I figured as long as I was doing something for a good story, I might as well go all out.

As I clumsily jumped into the cart, I was met with a mountain of iron ore. Imagine attempting to balance on a large pile of rocks as the floor steadily moves beneath you. You get the idea. A man had already set up a little corner with some necessary supplies. He had clearly done this before. He had his teapot and tea glasses (essential ingredients  anywhere you go in Muslim West Africa), blanket, dinner supplies, and charcoal. Since no one else had decided to bring any necessary supplies, he provided us with tea, dinner which we voraciously ate with our hands (pasta with vegetables and chicken, talk about a hardcore culinary accomplishment ) and blankets. He was also a stoic and intelligent conversationalist. He quickly challenged others’ tired claims that an American visa would “solve all their problems” and was an informed rhetorician when it came to global politics. In short, this guy was a total badass.

As the night progressed, our cart became populated with a series of colorful characters. There was the soft spoken moor who had recently finished a stint in an insane asylum (I didn’t press it), the sex-obsessed 23 year old from Nouakchott who was attempting to move to Morocco, and the older, kif-smoking shepherd with his sheep who spoke no french. Just to clarify, the shepherd also spoke no french.

Was the trip difficult? Kind of. It was insanely dusty, I only experienced about 3 hours of daylight, and the night was brutally cold. But as we all snuggled under blankets beneath a radiantly starred sky, I realized that this was one of my favorite experiences in West Africa. Could this have happened anywhere else in the world? I don’t know.

To compensate for my long absence, I’ve made you all a video! It begins as I ride from Atar to Choum in a truck bed, and ends with a taxi ride to Nouadhibou. The shepherd managed to fit his sheep in the trunk, an accomplishment in any part of the world.

At 3:45 you can see Ben Amira, the second largest monolith in the world behind Ayer’s Rock in Australia. Needless to say, it looked considerably more gigantic in person. I’ve also tried to include everyone onboard, though I am reasonably wary of filming people, even with their consent. Badass is featured at 3:12.

Soon to come: a long overdue Festival au Desert recap, as well as my brief sejour at a music festival in Oudane. The Mauritanian president was there, though he had to cut his time short due to an epic dust storm that enveloped everything in… well… dust.

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3 thoughts on “Mauritania and a Ride on the Second Largest Train in the World

  1. Kent Lewis says:

    I’m learning so much from your descriptions…Just saw a movie located in somewhat similar local….stark, beautiful, waterless and strong customs….Thanks for writing all of this for your readers….Kent Lewis

  2. 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.

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