Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

“Runaway train never going back. Wrong way on a one way track” – Soul Asylum.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Having watched many Michael Palin documentaries down the years, I always envied his journeys. He did them in mostly pre-internet days. Back thence, visas were tough and we needed to be embassy-loyal. Booking accommodation could, at best, be organised by fax meaning that ice cold beer in lands afar would have been sweet. Especially given the ridiculous process to get there.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Here in July 2022, I ended up in Mauritania, getting a visa on arrival at Noukachott International Airport after a sentimental brace of backpacking The Sefton Hotel in The Isle Of Man and Gran Canaria. I remembered back to Michael Palin’s Sahara Desert adventures. Palin visited places like Timbuktu in Chad, Western Sahara and he rode the memorable iron ore train. I had already copied many of Michael Palin’s journeys, including the famous getting an alcohol permit in Gujarat episode!

Michael Palin getting his alcohol permit in Gujarat

Jonny Blair getting his alcohol permit in Gujarat

“When your turn comes round” – Neil Finn.

When my turn to finally backpack the streets (or deserts) of Mauritania came round, it was by total fluke. This trip was unplanned. It was completely wacaday and spontaneous.

Voila – you are now in Mauritania!

How to get a Mauritania Visa On Arrival At Noukachott International Airport

How to get a Mauritania Visa On Arrival At Noukachott International Airport

It all happened because of Wizzair. I was seven hours early for my flight, which they later blocked me from boarding and I was stranded in Liverpool England. Now it’s not a bad place to be stranded, indeed my brother Daniel lives in Merseyside and I met him for dinner.

Dinner with Daniel in Liverpool without knowing I was on route to Mauritania

But it was £400 to get an alternative flight to Poland on the spot that day, or after a quick online flight search, it was £420 to get 4 days in Mauritania, two days backpacking both Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria and stopovers in…wait for it, Liverpool, Edinburgh, Kraków, Casablanca (twice) and Marseille. This was proof that logic doesn’t work in travel. So I booked Mauritania. For £20 extra I got a new country to visit, two incredible new islands and randomised returns to Kraków, Edinburgh and Marseille! I could also work online in between times and finish my latest book, Aftershot.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

I’d be in Marseille for the first time since 2007, Edinburgh for the first time since 2015 and Kraków for the first time since the March 2020 lockdown. Now I knew I was going to Mauritania (even though another flight was later cancelled), I set about planning to ride the famous Iron Ore train.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Booking The Iron Ore Train in Mauritania

Let’s state the fact here. The train itself is FREE. You don’t pay for it. You grab your bags and you hop on. You climb up on top of one of the wagons carrying iron ore. There is no ticket, no website, none of that.

So you can’t book a ticket and you don’t book a ticket. Just get yourself to where the train is and jump on! It’s still a mission, as I was to discover.

The Iron Ore Train is free. There is no ticket.

Route of the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania

The train starts in Zouyerat, or M’Haoudat in the Sahara Desert and ends up in Nouadhibou, by the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way it has a few stops. The train starts in Mauritania but veers into Western Sahara at one point, where there is a double line at Choum (to allow for overtaking). This is the usual route…

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Frequency of the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania

I was here on tour with Time 4 Mauritania and I had a few guides / drivers there – Hademine, Mustafa, Mohammed and Sidamar. Sidamar’s friends also drove me and his wife cooked for me. My driver to Choum was Mustafa. I was told by Mustapha and Mohammed that the train is USUALLY three times per day, in BOTH directions. He cites this as gospel and swears by it. Obviously there can be exceptions, but it’s usually 3 per day. But there’s a catch…

“Last train to somewhere, come take a ride” – Scott Gordon.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

However, two of those trains are not classed as the “passenger train” which means that they don’t usually stop in Choum. There are some reasons and exceptions why the non-passenger train could actually stop at Choum.
1.To refuel (unlikely).
2.To solve a technical issue.
3.Emergency situation (fire/derailing etc.)
4.If the train from Nouadhibou to Zouyerat is coming the other way at the same time.

I was told that option four is the most likely reason for an unexpected stop in Choum of the non-passenger train.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

What this all means is that in a period of 48 hours in Choum, you should be able to get a choice of 2 iron ore passenger trains to jump on. But in a period of 47 hours you might only see one passenger train. I bore this all in mind and researched a little.

However, please note that a LOT of the information about the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania on the internet is fake news loyal. It’s excremental bullpoo. These things I read online are excremental cowpoo…

1.All the trains from Zouyerat to Nouadhibou stop in Choum. 💩(they don’t)
2.There is a lot of water in amongst the iron ore.💩(there is not)
3.You need to bring buckets to get rid of water from the iron ore.💩 (It is the driest train I have ever been on).
4.You need to wrap up warm because it’s very cold.💩 (it’s roasting)

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

What’s the difference between the Passenger train and the non-passenger train?

There are a few differences. Firstly the passenger train ALWAYS stops in Choum. This is because it is for people as well as iron ore. It takes people on the route from Zouyerat to Nouadhibou and vice versa. The passenger train actually has one carriage for passengers! Though I never saw it, or entered into it – I was ushered on quickly when the train arrived and stopped in Choum and off quickly when it arrived in Nouadihbou. These passengers are locals. I didn’t see any other foreign tourists during my time in Mauritania apart from at the airport in Nouakchott.

A camel gets a ride from Atar to Choum

Mustafa my driver

It’s only a further two hours drive from Choum to Zouyerat. If I knew that the train was 10 hours late, I could have still had half an hour exploring Choum, then got my driver to take me to Zouyerat. I could have visited the train graveyard in Zouyerat and had dinner then and been able to get a guaranteed place on the train. But as Mohammed explained, that could be tricky. I slept at Mohammed’s place in Choum due to the delay as he assured me the next train would be the passenger train. Two trains had passed by before our eyes and they were not the passenger train so they didn’t stop. It was interesting that Choum doesn’t really have a hotel. But Mohammed’s place was basically that and the small village has a few shops and restaurants so I went to them. However I picked up most of my supplies in Atar, the bigger settlement before we came to Choum. Here are a few photos not related to the train ride, but the trip here and Choum.

Mustafa my driver in Choum

The hotel/resting place with Mohammed in Choum

The hotel/resting place with Mohammed in Choum

Mauritania away

Local money – Ouguiya

Shopping in Atar

There are three trains per day from Zouyerat to Nouadhibou and ONLY ONE of them stops in Choum. I spent hours in Choum worrying that the train wouldn’t stop here. Mohammed my guide assured me it would, and he was of course right! Zouyerat to Nouadhibou is the safe bet and guaranteed that you will do the trip. Plus you get to do the whole trip. I had about 12 hours in Choum, here’s what happened.

The first train zoomed past and didn’t stop!

13.00 – 18.00 – Sightseeing in Choum, relaxing – I went to the shop and bought some more supplies. Mohammed gave me a quick village tour.

Backpacking in Choum, Mauritania

One of the shops in Choum

Touring Choum

18.20 – the first train comes past and we are ready in case it stops. Sadly it doesn’t stop.
19.00 – remarkably another train comes past and also doesn’t stop! Mohammed later told me that this second train was unusual and was probably an overspill of extra iron ore carriages that didn’t make it onto the first train. This second train was not the 2 kilometre one – it only had about 10 carriages.

The iron ore train doesn’t stop! It flies past me in Choum!

The iron ore train doesn’t stop! It flies past me in Choum!

19.10 – we are back at the “hotel” and Mohammed is checking updates from the office in Zouyerat. Unbelievably Mohammed has Wi-Fi here that I could use for a limited time. I could also charge my phone and camera here! Mohammed estimates the train will arrive after midnight, so I have 5 hours to sleep now. It has got dark. I have 2 cans of 0.0% Bavaria “beer”, a Melon Milk and I munch on walnuts and pringles.

Flying the Northern Ireland flag in Choum

Melon Milk in Choum

Non-alcoholic night pub in Choum, Mauritania

Evening until 01.00 a.m. – After my two ice cold beers in my custom built pub in Choum, I drift to sleep. I’m awoken by Mohammed and him and I run for the train, which has pulled into Choum. At the time I had a broken ribcage and collarbone (shoulder bone) so he helped me carry my stuff and board, thankfully! I am grateful to him for that, as it was a rush!

Just on board the train in Choum!

What to bring on the Iron Ore Train

You need to prepare for the iron ore train and I recommend using Time 4 Mauritania and to hire/rent the equipment from them. This is because you won’t need most of it after that – you only need it for the night train. Please take all your luggage on board, as you are going miles away and there is no way to get it after that. It did not get cold, and I did not get too hungry but I was thirsty, so be sure to have at least 1-2 litres of water and some other drinks too. Remember, you could get stranded in the desert for days… Here is what I took onboard.

  • my normal backpack
  • a bag with my supplies – water, nuts, snacks, bread, 0.0% beer, cola
  • goggles
  • white cloth to cover my head, face and neck
  • gloves
  • old trousers
  • old sweater
  • sleeping bag
  • mat (to put on the iron ore)
  • a sack (to put ALL the bags into)

My supplies

The famous Bavaria 0.0 % beer

Some of my supplies

I just realised that at no point did I take a photo of the equipment/stuff I used altogether in one photo, which is unusual for me. Especially since I had about 12 hours here in Choum! But the above and below photos show some of my stuff.

Some of my stuff here

Sleeping bag, mat, sweater, trousers, goggles

Sleeping bag, mat, sweater, trousers, goggles

Boarding the Iron Ore Train at Choum

“Here am I going nowhere on a train. Here am I growing older in the rain” – Noel Gallagher.

It’s a rapid departure out of Choum and in pure darkness. Mohammed came on board with me and then hopped back off and we said goodbye. As my arm was broken, he also helped me put my cloth around my head, face and neck. There’s no time to waste – the train leaves sharply and we’re off!

Ready to leave Choum!

Leaving Choum in darkness

On board and leaving Choum

There was a rare treat for me shortly after leaving Choum in that, another iron ore train (an empty one) was coming the other way, so we stopped briefly to let it past. This happened twice on my journey – once in darkness and once in daylight. Believe it or not, I managed to film BOTH those instances, so if you check the videos below they are on there!

My bed for the night between Choum and Nouadihbou

Darkness on board

I had my phone fully charged to provide me with a light. Most people bring a torch though. I went cheapskate backpacker loyal by organising this late notice so my phone was to be my light. I fired my backpack and food supply bag onto the iron ore rocks. Then I used the mat to make my bed, before whacking my sleeping bag on it. I grab my first Bavaria 0.0% beer while it is still cold.

“Even innocence has caught the midnight train” – Jon Bon Jovi.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

For the first 4 hours or so it is full darkness. It gets dusty and dirty so travel blogging isn’t really an option. Everytime I take my phone out, it’s for a quick photo and back in my pocket. I stare at the stars and the moon and dream of a girl I should have been here with. She won’t know I was doing that and she will never be with me, but I have lovely dreams of her. I get about 3 hours sleep in the dark.

“Waiting for God to stop this and up to your neck in darkness. Everyone around you was corrupted” – Robbie Williams.

The moon

My view for the first 4-5 hours

My view for the first 4-5 hours

My view for the first 4-5 hours

Once the sun comes up, I sit up and even have a walk around on the rocks. The views are incredible, it’s as amazing as they say. To the right is Western Sahara – we are right on the border and I think of my time backpacking there five years earlier when I visited El Aiaun.

The location of Western Sahara

Snack Ouzoudi Cafe – arrival into El Aaiun, Western Sahara

Backpacking in Western Sahara – football stadium in El Ayoun

The rest of the time onboard is simply a time to think about life and enjoy the views. I took quite a few photos too. It wasn’t too dusty or dirty after about 7 a.m. I got one of my books out for a photo, Backpacking Centurion Volume 3.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Sunrise was amazing, I just stared at it non-stop for a while. I sipped water and ate cheesy Pringles. There were no other people anywhere. Just a few camels in the desert. The ten carriages in front of me were all full of iron ore but no people. The ten carriages behind me were all full of iron ore but no people.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Another thing to note is the smell of iron ore. It’s distinctive and it won’t leave you. You know this smells like metal and despite 5-6 showers the next 4 days, I could still smell that iron ore scent later on. Around 12.00 I realised I had been on the train almost 12 hours and I had no idea what time we would arrive in Nouadihbou. It varies from 12 – 19 hours I was told. Due to that, I decided to crack open my last Bavaria 0.0% around mid-day as I’m on the final stretch. I was wearing a watch and my phone also had the time so I knew the time was right, however a few times, my phone showed the wrong time because Western Sahara is one hour behind Mauritania. That’s why I trusted my watch more – it’s analogue. At one point another train passes us the opposite way. At another village stop, I wave to locals.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Arrival in Nouadhibou

“Train stops I don’t know what destination. It’s a one way ticket to a mad man situation” – Sugababes.

I’m surprised when we stop at Nouadhibou and my driver arrives. I didn’t expect to arrive here so soon. I expected the last stop, Nouadhibou to have a sighting of the coast, to be by the Atlantic Ocean but here on arrival, is still desert plain. I don’t even see any signs of a city! But this is the last stop for me and I must alight. It was actually around 15.00 so the journey was only about 14 hours rather than the 19 that could happen – perhaps from Zouyerat it was 19 hours.

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

Backpacking in Mauritania: Riding The Iron Ore Train From Choum to Nouadhibou

But here I am. Welcome to Nouadhibou! I am met here by Sidamar, which I had pre-arranged through Time4Mauritania! I didn’t feel or look too dirty probably because it was a calm night, normal hot weather and I wore my protective clothing almost the whole time!

Arrival in Nouadihbou

Arrival in Nouadihbou

Arrival in Nouadihbou – not looking too dirty thanks to the cloth!

Arrival in Nouadihbou – not looking too dirty thanks to the cloth!

Arrival in Nouadihbou – not looking too dirty thanks to the cloth!

We are driven to Sidamar’s flat (again – not a hotel but his actual home!) and here I can shower and feel fresh again. I also had breakfast and lunch here (both more like a lunch and dinner due to the timing). The fish was delicious. It was all prepared by Sidamar’s wife. I could also charge my phone here.

Sidamar’s flat in Nouadhibou

Sidamar’s flat in Nouadhibou

Delicious breakfast at Sidamar’s flat in Nouadhibou

Delicious lunch at Sidamar’s flat in Nouadhibou

Delicious lunch at Sidamar’s flat in Nouadhibou

Sidamar preparing tea for us in his flat in Nouadhibou

Sidamar and I chilling out

Whilst in Mauritania, I also had stops in Akjoujit, Atar, Bon Lanuar and I visited the national football stadium in Nouakchott. What an adventure!! Thanks to Time 4 Mauritania for their organisation, at late notice!

Here are the details for booking any trips or tours in Mauritania, including organising the Iron Ore train for you –

Time4Mauritania Tours/Services

https://www.facebook.com/T4Mtours/

Phone number: + 222 48175553
WhatsApp number: + 222 48175553
Email[email protected]

Here are some videos I made in Choum, on the Iron Ore Train and in Nouadihbou:

 

 

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