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 Mauritania Sahara is as much of an adventure as one could possible have, and will certainly leave you full of stories to tell.
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 2 km long.
Quickly below there is a little bit of logistical information about catching the iron ore train. Note that this explanation is for the journey inland. I should also note that you should definitely use local knowledge. Things change with the train, and the locals know.
What Time does the Train Leave?
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. When I caught the train, it rolled in about noon, and was already loading up an hour before leaving. I’d get here really early.
Buying Tickets for the Iron Ore Train?
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. It’s also worth noting that from my experience it looked like seating might be a mess. As soon as the train showed up, everyone sprinted to try to board the passenger car. I’m not sure if that means there’s limited seats or seperate classes, but it’s worth asking. There is limited space.
If you plan on stowing away in one of the ore cars, it is free and you don’t need a ticket. It’s likely that a police officer will come by, but that’s just to check that you have a fiche.
How to Board the Iron Ore Train if You’re Stowing Away?
One of my mottos of travel is, “follow the locals”.
That’s exactly what I did.
I saw a group of about 4 people racing towards a car and I followed them. They helped me into the car and we travelled together. I think you could ride in any carriage you’d like, but for me it was nice to have others with me that knew what they were doing and where we were going.
I would say that you’ll likely want to board a car close to the passenger car. Remember, this train is 2 km long. When you get to Choum if you’ll want to be close to where the passenger car drops people off.
What Documents Do you Need?
Obviously, you’ll want your passport. But, you’ll also definitely want to bring along at least two fiches (info on the fiche here). There are a couple times along the journey were security or the police might do a stop and an inspection. Having a fiche will ensure that it’s a smooth journey.
How Dirty is the Iron Ore Train?
It’s bad. But, on the way from Nouadhibou to Choum, you are travelling in empty train cars. It makes it a little bit more manageable, to be honest. Not only are you not sitting directly on the coal, but you also have a bit of shelter from the desert winds.
But, even with empty coal cars I was absolutely filthy by the end of the journey. Be sure to bring a face covering so you’re not breathing in bad air the whole journey.
Toilets if you Stow Away?
About 3 hours into my journey I started to think, “what happens if I need the toilet?”
Luckily, there are about 2 or 3 times along the journey that the train just stops randomly. When it does, all the stowaways jump out to relieve themselves. Remember, the train is 2 km long you can hear it starting to move about 5 minutes before you start really rolling again. You have time for the toilet. But, definitely don’t over-hydrate.
How Long is The Train Journey
The train takes about 14-16 hours to Choum. I believe it was about 340km and there are stops on the way to Choum. I arrived in Choum at 4am. There are the occasional roadside markers telling you how far you’ve gotten. So, you’re not totally blind.
Arrival in Choum, Mauritania
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?
Places to Stay in Nouadhibou and Choum?
When I was there, the accommodation situation in Nouadhibou was pretty rough. In fact, I got bedbugs from the place I stayed.
There just isn’t really anything in the budget range that’s a pleasant experience. However, there are some nice places to stay. Hotel Delphin-Nouadhibou is likely the top hotel in town, and Hotel Tasiast is likely the nicest.
In Atar, there are no hotels, really. However, there are a couple guesthouses. I stayed with a dutch immigrant on his strange property. You basically just need to rock up and find somewhere – and you will.