Into the Desert,
From Coast to Mine

Everyday a train snakes through the dunes of the Sahara carrying raw iron ore in large steel freight cars each weighing 84 tons. Running 750km along the border with Western Sahara this caravan through the desert is the only way to get to the coastline.

Dozens of passengers climb aboard the cars sitting in the back braving the relentless wind and iron dust for the 17 hour trip. 

Operating since the early 1960’s, The Mauritania Railway is made up of 200 freight cars travelling 437 miles into the Sahara Desert each day. Linking the iron mining centre of Zouerat with the port of Nouadhibou, carrying raw iron to be processed and shipped from West Africa’s Atlantic coastline.

The railway provides a vital lifeline to communities spread over the interior of Mauritania’s barren landscape – one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Travelling at a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour a one way trip takes around 16 hours.  Passengers who climb on top of the freight cars face a storm of iron ore dust and little rest as the heavy wagons collide and the train slows with a loud industrial clang making sleep nearly impossible. Day time temperatures regularly top 40°c yet drop to below 0°c at night, this journey, hard as it is, is the only option affordable to those who living in such extreme isolation.

(Above) Two men light a fire to make tea while riding in the back of an empty freight car while heading overnight from Noudhibou to Choum and onto Zouerat 750km East into the Sahara Desert. The train is filled up with Iron Ore mined in the Mauritanian Desert. Remote communities in the desert rely heavily on this train as it is the only form of transport to many of these villages which have only been able to survive because of this vital link to the coastal town of Nouadhibou.

(Left) Five men sleep as the sunrises, wrapped in thick, fleece blankets to stop the fine black iron ore dust coating the bottom of the wagon  while trying to keep warm as the temperature drops to 0°c overnight.

(below) Luggage is lifted and strapped onto the roof of a shared taxi to the closest town, Atar, three hours away, and is where many passengers are aiming to get to once off the train. Atar is another transport junction where you can continue further into the desert to Chinguetti and beyond to Mali or Algeria.  

Until 1960 Mauritania was a french occupied territory, Much of the colonial rule is no longer visible esspecially far out in the desert. One of the only signs apart from french as the commonly spoken second language is the game Boule. In the oasis town of Chinguetti many miles from any other town I came across a group of local men playing the french game in a clearing behind a small stone building where two lanes had been carved out of the sand with rocks lining the edges. With a weather plastic hoop as a standing point and tape measures handing from branches stuck into the ground this group played late into the night placing bets on each game with cash moving hands after almost every throw.