Riding The Iron Ore Train, Mauritania: My Sahara Experience!

Man riding on top of the iron ore train in Mauritania poses s the train goes through the Sahara Desert

Riding the iron ore train in Mauritania was one of my top ten travel experiences of the last 13 years.

When two friends told me about doing this many years ago, I put it on my extreme travel bucket list. As the years progressed, it became increasingly likely that it would become a “someday” idea that never happened. 

When one of those friends said he was going back, leading a tour of like-minded individuals – I had to make sure that when this happened, I wouldn’t be back home, crying on my sofa, drowning in a sea of iron ore train FOMO.

So I went to Mauritania and got it done; here is my experience, the logistics of riding the iron ore train, and answers to general questions about this fantastic trip.

What is The Iron Ore Train in Mauritania?

A long train carrying iron ore rides over the desert

The Iron Ore Train in Mauritania is one of the most extreme train journeys in the world. It is a rite of passage for travellers like myself who have a demanding, never-ending adventure bucket list itch that needs scratching before The Grim Reaper has his way.

The 3-kilometre (1.8-mile) long train, known as “The Snake of the Desert,” has the daunting task of transporting 85 tonnes of iron ore (chunks of black sand-like material) through the Sahara Desert on a single track of 704 kilometres (437 miles).

Tourists and locals alike can ride this train if they wish. 

The catch is that you must be willing to wait for an indefinite time to hop on when it stops hurridly, and once you’re on, you have to commit to potentially riding on one of the most uncomfortable and dangerous train rides in the world.

Route Options For Riding the Iconic Iron Ore Train

train tracks Choum
Waiting for the elusive iron ore train to arrive in Choum.

If you are planning to ride the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania, you primarily have two main options for routes, depending on where you choose to board the train and what kind of experience you are looking for:

Option One: Zouerat to Nouadhibou

This is the full journey from the mining centre in the Sahara Desert to the Atlantic coast. It allows you to experience the entire length of the train route.

  • Boarding in Zouerat: The train’s starting point is where the ore is loaded. Here, you’ll see the entire operation and get the whole experience.
  • Experience: This route will give you the most comprehensive experience of the Sahara as the train travels from the deep desert to the coast, crossing dramatic and changing landscapes.
  • Duration: This journey can take 12 to 16 hours, depending on various factors like loading times and train speed.

Option Two: Choum to Nouadhibou

For travellers who may not be able to reach Zouerat, Choum offers an alternative starting point and is easier to reach from Atar, which has more regular transport connections with other cities.

  • Boarding in Choum: The train stops in Choum, which can be a more accessible boarding point for those coming from Atar.
  • Experience: Starting from Choum, it still offers a significant portion of the desert experience and the scenic journey to the coast. Longer does not always mean better, and there are other things to explore in the country—this is the option that I took..
  • Duration: The journey from Choum to Nouadhibou is shorter than from Zouerat but still lengthy, taking around 7 to 12 hours, depending on conditions.

How To Get to Zouerat or Choum from Nouakchott or Atar

Getting to Zouerat or Choum from Nouakchott or Atar in Mauritania involves several options, each challenging due to the country’s vast distances and sometimes unpredictable transportation infrastructure. 

Here’s how you can make the journey:

From Nouakchott to Zouerat or Choum

By Air:

  • To Zouerat: The quickest but most expensive way to travel from Nouakchott to Zouerat is by air. Mauritania Airlines offers flights from Nouakchott to Zouerat. It’s essential to check the flight schedule and book tickets in advance as the frequency can be limited.
  • To Choum: There are no direct flights to Choum; you must fly to Zouerat and find ground transportation.

By Road:

  • To Zouerat or Choum: You can hire a 4WD vehicle to travel overland. This is a long and arduous journey through desert terrain, taking at least a full day of driving from Nouakchott to Zouerat or Choum. It is best to hire an experienced local driver familiar with the routes and desert driving conditions.
  • Public Transport: Buses and shared taxis operate between Nouakchott and Zouerat, but due to the harsh road conditions, the service can be irregular, and the journey is quite lengthy and uncomfortable.

From Atar to Zouerat or Choum

By Road:

  • To Zouerat: The road from Atar to Zouerat is roughly 350 km and can be traversed by 4WD vehicles. The road’s condition can vary, and like the route from Nouakchott, it’s advisable to travel with a driver who knows the area.
  • To Choum: Choum is more accessible from Atar than Zouerat. It’s a shorter distance, and local taxis or a hired 4WD can make the trip. However, ensure the vehicle is suitable for off-road conditions, as parts of the route may be challenging.

What is The Iron Ore Train Schedule?

Iron ore train arriving in Nouadhibou
Iron ore train arriving in Nouadhibou after a bumpy night’s sleep through the Sahara

The good news is that the train chugs through the Sahara daily; the not-so-good news is that there is no fixed schedule for when it sets off and arrives.

So, if you choose to do this journey as a stickler for punctuality, it’s best to leave those expectations at home and embrace the spirit of spontaneity. The train sets off when it is full, and when it arrives, you have to be fully prepared to climb up with all of your gear and the “no way back” confidence needed to climb up, hop on and claim a carriage for around 14-16 hours.

Is The Iron Ore Train Dangerous?

Tourists pose on top of the iron ore train of Mauritania

Hitchhiking and riding the iron ore train in Mauritania is safer than people may think, but that depends on respecting what you’re doing and making better judgements than your excitable self wants.

For example, there is nothing wrong with wanting a visual keepsake for your memories when you travel, and this one is as cool as it gets, especially when the sun is up, with the contrast of the black ore against the long stretches of land and the sheer length of the train.

Just make sure you are careful with your foot placement (it can get windy at times), and seeing that we live in times of idiocracy when it comes to doing silly things for the ‘Gram, choose not to participate, there are plenty of photo opportunities without having to put yourself in any danger.

Once I have explained how to dig into your carriage once you are up, you will be fully prepared and safe with no dramas.

Outside the risk of a fall, you must consider the iron ore that gets everywhere (particularly in your throat and eyes). So, if you have any serious conditions affecting this part of the body, you should either avoid them or approach them cautiously (you will wrap up very well regardless). 

Is Mauritania itself safe to travel?

It is incredibly safe; the country used to have a lot of issues with jihadists, but it has done incredibly well to clean up, and Mauritania has not experienced a terror attack since 2011.

The locals are incredibly welcoming and friendly—some of the best I have experienced. In terms of female travel, this country has conservative Islamic values, so the usual dress code rules apply, and it’s certainly better to travel there with another man or a group of men than to visit alone.

How Much Does it Cost To Ride The Iron Ore Train?

Riding the iron ore train in Mauritania is free of charge. 

No one will check on you and fine you for riding on top of the carriages; it is culturally acceptable to do this activity, and locals often ride the top of the iron ore in open freight cars as a free means of transportation between remote desert communities and the coastal areas. 

The vibe seems to be, “If you can hack it – then go ahead, mate!”

So we did.

Is There a Passenger Car on The Iron Ore Train in Mauritania?

One passenger’s car is on the Mauritanian Iron Ore train, which is usually the last one and costs around 6 euros.

What is The Best Time of Year For Riding The Iron Ore Train?

Sunset views while riding the iron ore train in Mauritania

The best time to ride the iron ore train is from November to February.

This is Mauritania’s late autumn to early spring, with the months being significantly cooler and more bearable on the journey – particularly during the day.

Even though the train may steam through every day, you do not want to be on an open-top carriage in The Sahara Desert during the heart of Mauritania and should avoid riding in June to August at all costs.

My Experience Riding The Mauritanian Iron Ore Train

A couple ride the iron ore train in Mauritania
Tourists on the iron ore train in Mauritania riding through the Sahara Desert

One of the hardest things about having a goal to visit every country in the world is that information online is often scarce for obscure and fun activities off the beaten path. 

However, the greatest weapon is being best mates with someone who has already done it and is leading the trip!

Johnny once again put on a fantastic trip, impressively sorting out our trip’s bumpy 4X4 transport to Choum from Nouakchott via Atar (this is where we got our gear that I will be listing later on).

We got to Choum around sunset and laid our mattresses on the ground to gather our bearings before the inevitable pandemonium and maybe even a cheeky power nap. It was hard to rest as we were anticipating the train at any moment, and the local kids hovered over us, asking for food.

A few hours later, as we kept our gear by the tracks and drank sugary black tea with the locals, we heard the train was even more delayed than usual. I didn’t manage to drift off, keeping vigilant for the arrival of the “Snake of The Sahara.”

Maybe five hours or so after that… it was happening. Our large group hurried onto the ginormous train, climbing the ladders and throwing ourselves and our gear up. (Pro tip: whoever you share a carriage with, choose one to throw the gear up once one has climbed up and the other to collect everything).

Be FAST. Don’t worry about where the gear goes; you will have plenty of time to sort that out later.

A man poses while riding on the iron ore train in Mauritania
Tourists on the iron ore in Mauritania

Once inside the carriage, we started digging in like it was the Battle of the Somme!

First, we started making our makeshift toilet and then a space to lie our mattresses down. There were three of us in our carriage, and the two of them, Johnny and Charlie, the greatest sleepers I know… took their super strong sleeping pills before me without letting me know!

I’m an awful sleeper, so I felt betrayed that they had already gotten a head start on me and instantly popped my pill as we sat and chatted/screamed to each other under the beauty of the clear sky of the Sahara.

We went to our sleeping areas as it was dark, and I started to doze off. I stared at the stars in the sky, and the noise didn’t bother me.

Waking up was WILD. Coming alive to the reality of waking up on top of a gigantic train in the vast Sahara Desert, stretching for miles, in the baking sun. Drowsy as I was, I was excited to get videos and photos. 

Take a look for yourself. We had a terrific time, and the experience doesn’t feel real until the sun comes up and you feel its intensity. After the poses, I sat and took in the moment; I was finally doing it – I was riding the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania.

Getting off the train hours later was every bit as overwhelming and intense as getting on, and I could not wait to have a shower as I clambered off, most of us laughing at the state of each other’s faces as we had our reunion on the tracks of Nouadhibou. 

Packing List for Riding The Iron Ore Train

A view from on top of the iron ore train in Mauritania
Tourists in the Sahara Desert of Mauritania hitchhike on top of the famous iron ore train

The packing list for the iron ore train of Mauritania is one not to take lightly. The mattress and blankets are the trickiest parts as they’re so cumbersome. If you don’t have the privilege of knowing someone in the know while doing this, you will have to get a shared 10-hour minibus to a market in Atar from Nouakchott to purchase these.

Here are the essentials:

  • Blanket: The Sahara Desert gets cold during the night, and the train makes it windier
  • Mattress: To sleep on, providing protection from the iron ore as you sleep.
  • Warm Sleeping Bag: One that folds easily into smaller volume is ideal.
  • Ski Goggles: These are essential as they are the best protection from the iron ore getting in your eyes and you can get them surprisingly cheap enough.
  • BUFF Headwear: I don’t go anywhere without one, and it’s handy for covering your mouth from iron ore. I took two: one for the mouth and one for my hairless noggin.
  • Inflatable Pillow: You’ll be thankful when you have it!
  • A cheap daypack: For all of your extras and food etc. It will get dirty – you can either throw it or donate it.
  • A trowel. I didn’t take one, but I wish I did! I dug into my sleeping hole with a kid’s beach bucket thst I bought at the market. If you took a trowel or a kid’s beach spade, you would save so much time and energy, trust me!
  • Bottles of water. Self explanatory.

Can You Sleep on The Iron Ore Train?

Sleeping on the iron ore train in Mauritania

You can sleep on the iron ore train if you prepare accordingly. Like me, take some sleep supplements (that you are used to and don’t make you too drowsy) with you, and once your gear and your travelling partners are on… get digging and make, well, kind of a grave (as creepy as that sounds!)

Once that hole is large enough to lie flat, put your bag firmly on it so nothing blows away. Take in the moment in your own time once that is done, and if you’re lucky, you may have a sweet adrenaline crash that will force you into a slumber. 

Can You Eat on The Iron Ore Train?

You can eat on the train, just be respectful if you do and don’t leave any rubbish in the ore or the Desert.

I opted out of eating the whole time as I have only just gotten over the worst side of a bad bruxism (teeth grinding) issue, and I was worried that eating with the iron ore would get into my mouth and trigger me to grinding my teeth.

That’s just me. I’m a neurotic person regarding teeth, but I represent a tiny minority of people riding the iron ore train in Mauritania, so you probably don’t have to worry about that!

Is There a Toilet on The Train?

Once your ‘bedroom’ for the night is taken care of, sort out a designated area of your carriage that is a no-go area (unless you want to do your business) and make it known to anyone with you.

I had many a wee during the night, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing a number two there unless it was an emergency—I’ll leave that in your hands if you decide to give it a go.

Would I Do It Again & Was It Worth It?

Man poses with dirty face in hotel room
This was after three showers! iron ore lingers…I am still finding it in my suitcase now!

Was riding the iron ore train worth the hype, and would I do it again?

I will be back in Mauritania at the end of this year. I can’t believe I will run another bloody ultramarathon in The Sahara Desert again! Once I survive that, I think I’ll hobble onto a new bucket list item in the region of West Africa.

It was 100% worth it, and it still feels surreal that I got to do it. I’m very grateful for experiencing this.

Riding the iron ore train through the Mauritanian Desert was every bit as filthy, stressful, fun, and romantic as I thought it would be, but I’m pretty sure this will be the only time for me… famous last words and all that.

Anthony Middleton

A former loser who took a risk. I now live in Chiang Mai, Thailand after visiting over 100 countries. Stay tuned for the next challenge against that clock!
Ultra runner walking in desert

Hi, I'm Anthony!

In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

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