An exhilarating train journey across the Sahara



Staff member
An exhilarating train journey across the Sahara - BBC

Since 1963, Mauritania’s 2km-long Train du Desert has carried iron ore and brave passengers 704km across the Sahara Desert.

Wrapping my Touareg scarf around my face to shield my eyes from the sand and dirt, I climbed the ladder, hoisted myself onto the lip of the freight wagon and surveyed the scene. An endless line of wagons stretched out to the horizon, rocking and swaying. To either side, a landscape of boundless sandy plains and low dunes was sliding past, pin-sharp in the limpid light of the Sahara. Figures sat atop the wagons ahead, facing into the wind, yelling to each other in Arabic above the deafening noise.

One might imagine travelling through the Sahara by train to be a zen-like voyage. In some ways it is – but it is also an unforgiving and ceaseless assault on the body and senses. The booming and grinding; the constant tremors rippling through the body; the grit swirling through your hair in the hot breeze; the desert sun pricking your eyelids.

Opened in 1963, Mauritania’s Train du Desert operates a daily service from the port at Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast to the iron ore mines in Zouerat in the country’s north-west. The full journey, which runs along the border of the disputed territory of Western Sahara, takes around 20 hours and covers a total distance of 704km. More than 2km long, the train is made up of three or four diesel locomotives, one passenger carriage and between 200 and 210 freight cars. When loaded on the westward journey to Nouadhibou, each car can carry up to 84 tons of iron ore.