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, the train carries 84 tons of 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

Nouadhibou’s sandy streets and spralling breeze block houses spring up on a peninsuala on Mauritania’s coastline where fishing is the staple source of income for the majority of the people who choose to live here. This is also where the trains iron ore is unloaded from the wagons and processed. 

An empty iron ore freight train from stops to pick up passengers who hitch a ride in empty cars in Nouadhibou on its way to a mine in Zouerat. Nouadhibou, Mauritania
Two men light a fire to make tea in the back of an empty freight car on a 750km journey into the Sahara Desert. Nouadhibou, Mauritania

(Above) 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 5°c overnight.

(Right) Luggage is lowered down from an empty freight car in Choum, the only stop on the 20 hour 750km long journey, where most passengers climb down from the freight cars. From Choum a shared taxi to the closest town, Atar, takes three hours and is where many passengers are aiming to get to once off the train. Taxi drivers wait as the train stops and help unload luggage before strapping it to the outside of their car or bus.  Because of the remotness of the towns and the length of time it takes to get to them many of the passengers  take the train as few times as possible so when they do make the journey a huge amount of luggage ussually accompanies them .

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. Remote communities 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.
A broken down car is repaired on the outskirts of the oasis town of Chinguetti 75km East of Atar. This is one of the last towns before only nomads roam the desert. This small town has survived because of a natural spring creating an oasis on the outskirts of town where crops are grown and dates can be harvested. Where the water has not reached the sand from the desert create dunes in-between houses and on the streets only getting larger and more desolate the further from the spring you go.

(Above) Muhammed walks between fields fueled by a natural spring which has been the life source for Chinguetti where, out of the dunes crops are grown and dates can be harvested. He cools off from the 35C heat in a small concrete pool filled by a natural spring outside of town. After a swim he drains the pool and irogates his small plot of land carving channels to palms to direct the water between them. The pool is filled and emptied everyday and is his life line to self sufficiancy. Chinguetti is one of the last towns before the Sahara desert takes over and nomadic tribes roam.

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. 

'Into The Desert' page spread from All About Photo Magazine