Short Story
Mauritania /

Magic & Madness: 26 hours on a Saharan freight train

In the nether regions of the Sahara, Mauritanians brave scorching temperatures by day, freezing cold winds and sandstorms at night, as they make their way across the country on a freight train.

It’s inevitable that we all reach a time in our lives where we say, ‘It’s now time to ride a freight train across the Sahara’. It hits each of us at a different time. Some reach their thirties and feel an intense calling to sit on a carriage full of rocks. For others, it’s much later, sometimes when it’s too late. Whatever the reason, few could argue with the idea that sitting in a pile of iron ore in 50-degree heat – without shelter, meals, toilets and hope – is living the dream. Forget owning a home and having a family. This is living, he says as he coughs up another mouthful of dirt, wincing, eyes stinging. Crying. ‘Yep, goddam it. This (cough) is… living’. It’s only when you’re on the cusp of death that you’re truly alive. Or something.

In all seriousness, riding this freight train had been on my To Do list for 5 years. Not only was I drawn to the logistical challenge of pulling this feat off, I also wanted to see what sort of story the trauma of it all would unlock. As I would soon discover, riding a freight train in the peak of the Saharan summer is the correct way to experience trauma. But I had faith that it would lead to something; what it was (and where it was), I wasn’t quite sure.

At 2.5km long, the iron-ore train in Mauritania is one of the longest trains in the world. It covers over 700 km on its journey across the Sahara from the coastal town of Nouadhibou to the northeast of the country in Zouérat. Here, you’ll find a lot of desert, a lot of wilderness and a gargantuan open-pit hematite mine that doubles as the engine for Mauritania’s economy. Transporting the iron ore buried deep within its Sahara sands is the reason these trains were built in 1963.

But the interesting bit about the iron-ore train is not the iron, or the ore, it’s the Mauritanians who use this iron-ore train to get from A to B; or in this case, A to the middle of nowhere, which is probably Z (maybe that’s why they called it Zouérat?). Unlike me, they make this treacherous journey out of necessity, rather than deep seated mental health issues. They do it because in the nether regions of the Sahara, not only is there is a complete lack of public transport, there are not even any roads. If you were to attempt to get to these parts by car, you would certainly get a pretty decent story out of it, but you would not live to tell the story. Some don’t live to tell the story of the iron-ore train too, but that’s another story.

This story begins on the Atlantic coast in Mauritania’s second city, Nouadhibou. The city’s major shipping port is the nation’s gateway to the world and it’s here that 22,000 tons of ore are unloaded from trains each day to be shipped to Western Europe, China, and Japan. The train station lies about 10k north of the city centre and the timetable is quite vague. Passengers are told to arrive at 3pm, however that doesn’t mean the train will necessarily arrive at 3pm. It just means that the 10-hour window for its arrival begins at 3pm. I arrived at 2pm, just in case. Little did I know that in the next 3 days, I would spend approximately 25 hours waiting for trains in the middle of nowhere. While I always came prepared with enough snacks and water, I kept running out of patience.

The empty carriages on the first leg of the journey create opportunities for locals to courier items from one part of the country to the other.

At around midnight, the floodlights of the train appeared on the horizon and everyone assembled into their positions. The train consists of three diesel locomotives, one passenger cart and over 200 cargo carriages. When the train departs the port at Nouadhibou, the carriages are empty, meaning the first leg of the journey is ridden in large, empty carts. This creates opportunities for locals to courier items from one part of the country to the other; camels, building supplies, family members—anything a remote town needs. For people living in remote parts of the country, this train is their only link to civilisation.

The train was stationary at Nouadhibou for around half an hour before departing; more than enough time for people to hoist their mattresses, mobile kitchens and loved ones onto the train. And more than enough time for me to be comfortably indecisive about which carriage I would choose (I changed carriages 3 times before we departed). I ended up settling down with a nice family after being invited over to their carriage for dinner. They gave me the obligatory home tour. The living room consisted of a rug carefully placed over the carriage floor. The kitchen had a mobile cooking stove and teapot. A bucket served as a cupboard holding an impressive assortment of crockery and silverware. The middle of the carriage was fitted with a row of boxed goods functioning as a divider to retain warmth. ‘I like what you’ve done with the place, much cosier than my carriage’, I said. Within half an hour, dinner was served. The son had his arm around me for the initial part of the trip. I love how they just embraced me like they were expecting me.

Half an hour after the train had departed, dinner was served.

While the train rolled along at a reasonable speed, it was difficult to gain any momentum due to the number of head-on collisions with oncoming trains. At least that’s what it felt like. The first time I experienced it I feared the worst: a collision, derailment and bodies flung across the sand like plastic bottles (which I might add, are everywhere). It turns out the thud was just the train slowing down. The driver is 2.5 kilometres away, so there’s a time difference between when he decides to break and each carriage beginning to slow. For a few minutes you essentially have the rear carriages travelling at a different speed to the front carriages. In order to synchronise, each carriage hurtles into the next until the train reluctantly stops. When the chain reaction reaches your carriage you better hold on because you’ll jolt like a crash test dummy. This is when you really begin to feel how insignificant you are. There are no attendants to warn of turbulence; no safety measures to ensure you survive. You’re on a freight train.

As much as I loved family life, in the morning I felt like I needed a change and informed the family of my plans to move out at the next stop. ‘Let’s stay in touch’, I said, as I climbed into the next carriage. I enjoyed my new home. There was ample space, plenty of shade and my own en suite toilet (well, not quite, but I had the luxury of privacy). However, sometimes it takes time to discover the flaws in a new living space. It was around mid-morning that I noticed the shade from the carriage walls would soon be gone and I’d be cooking in this carriage like a slab of raw meat. The train was heading east; the sun was heading west – a collision was inevitable. ‘I wonder if my former flatmates will take me back?’ I pondered, as I watched them constructing a tarp. I decided that changing carriages for a fifth time would officially make me a ‘high maintenance’ traveller, so I decided to grit my teeth and bare it. By midday it was 47 degrees and the sun was almost directly above me. For the precious final moments of shade, I looked like a gecko stuck to the carriage wall until I eventually dropped and lay dead on the floor. There was nowhere left to hide, I was exposed – physically, mentally & emotionally.

The final five hours of the journey were the hardest, largely due to my arch nemesis – the sun – taunting me. By now the train had crossed 400km of the Sahara into a stretch I like to call ‘The Tolerance Threshold’. It’s when your body starts to figure out that you’re acting like an absolute clown and refusing to eat, sleep and maintain a sensible core temperature. It’s when your mind and body start to disconnect and go their separate ways. The final five hours of the journey were the hardest, largely due to my arch nemesis - the sun - taunting me.I’d now been on the train for 12 hours. It was 22 hours since I’d arrived at the station in Nouadhibou. It’s 50 degrees. The sun was perched above me like a vulture. I really didn’t know what the sun’s problem was, and why it had specifically targeted me. But I do know that it remained focussed on me the entire time, smirking in a really passive aggressive way. I refused to take the bait. ‘This is fun’, I said. ‘Yes. This is really, really fun’. I said it loud enough for the sun to hear, but not so loud that it sounded like I had something to prove. I turned away from the sun with my arms folded, much like a cat turns away when playing mind games. I looked back to see if the sun was still looking at me. It was. It hadn’t moved. Not even the slightest flinch. ‘Shit, I’m in too deep’. That’s when I cracked. ‘What sort of fucking idiot rides a Saharan freight train in June… for ‘fun’?’. I pulled out my phone and took a selfie. I held the phone up to the sky, ‘This fucking idiot’. The sun smirked. Once you lose face with the sun, you’ll never get it back. I was finished. I knew I would never disembark from this train.

Fast forward a few hours, we arrived at Choum at the hottest part of the day, 51 degrees to be exact. ‘Piece of cake’, I said to myself. ‘I really don’t know what all the fuss is about’. Choum is where almost everyone disembarks to continue their journey elsewhere before the train continues on to Zouérat. There was a 90-minute wait for a van in Choum followed by a 4-hour drive to Atar, the town at which I would rest. Atar is lovely place in the absolute peak of summer. When I finally lay my body down to rest on the bed, it felt like the sheets had been left in the oven. ‘It’s ok’, I thought, ‘I’ll just turn the air conditioner on. Oh, dear God, it is on’. You needn’t worry about whether showers have hot water, all water is hot. There is no cold water. You could put a tea bag in a cup and stick it under the tap and you’d have a nice, hot cup of tea. For added fun the power regularly goes out… for hours at a time.

Dusk at the train station at Choum. It was 8 hours before the train arrived.

I won’t bore you with details of the return journey, because it was much the same, only 100 times worse. Little did I know that the family-friendly empty cart on leg 1 was the wholesome route. The return leg, when you are all alone in a carriage filled with 84 tons of iron ore, is the devil’s circuit. There are no hospitable families to keep you company. There’s no space. No respite. Every single pore of skin is covered in iron-ore (even with a face mask and goggles). And the sun goes from being passive aggressive to just downright hostile. But it was great. Now let’s never speak of it again.

Throughout the entire 3-day journey, I didn’t write a single paragraph. I didn’t have a single piece of insight and I didn’t believe the shots I was taking were living up to my expectations. I’d travelled half way around the world for this story, but the angle just wasn’t coming to me. Alas, this pressure, albeit entirely self-imposed, darkened my mood as the trip wore on. Midway through the return leg I had a mini breakdown and concluded, ‘This has been a total waste of time’. In those final hours of the journey, when I was completely overwhelmed, I was scathing of myself and my inability to get what I came for. ‘I’m just not good enough’, I lamented. I reviewed my life choices with a sense of scorn and self loathing. Little did I know that I'd already taken an award winning photo. Little did I know that the next day I would wake up with a sense of clarity that would remain with me for years to come. Little did I know that it was all going exactly to plan. After-all, the struggle - the very struggle under which I was sinking - was the very struggle that drew me to this project.

But most of all, I’ll never forget the reality check about how difficult life can be in some parts of the world. The very things we take for granted; shelter, a schedule and toilets, are the very things many Mauritanians have learnt to live without. While I sighed, cursed and lamented, they simply got on with that job. I guess when you live in one of the poorest countries in the world – without a functioning train network or economy – you have no choice. As westerners, we like to tell ourselves that our spirit and generosity in times of crisis is what makes us unique. And while it is truly amazing when people support each other in times of need, it’s by no means unique to any race or ethnicity. From my experience, it’s simply one of the more endearing attributes of our species. It’s universal. Even in the face of abject poverty, trauma and hardship, Mauritanians always looked out for me. Some of the poorest people in the world invited me into their carriages. They fed me. They always ensured I had enough water. They put their arms around me. They looked out for me. And they did it without platitudes and without fanfare.

Each day on my way to lunch, I walk under a bridge with train tracks. And each day, when I hear the screeching sound of trains on those tracks, a dark chill runs through my body as I’m taken right back to the Sahara. It was the single worst experience of my life, but of course, I miss it so much. And I count down the days till I can do something similar again.

Wired Magazine published a story about this piece in April 2020. The story featured a selection of photos and an interview about my experience. Read the published story here.