Mauritania is one of the least visited countries in the North of Africa.
After its independence from France in 1960, European tourism developed slowly in Mauritania, partly due to the Western Sahara War of 1975-1991 in which Mauritania was briefly involved.
With a population of just over four million, nearly three quarters of the country is desert or semi-desert. But it is the vast landscape of untouched sandy desert that makes Mauritania an attractive destination.
With the turn of the millennium, security threats and kidnappings have caused tourism in Mauritania to suffer. After a hiatus, the improved security situation in recent years saw France lift a ban which prevented its citizens from travelling to the region.
France’s Le Point Voyages charter flights to the Mauritanian town of Atar resumed in 2018, with hopes of reviving desert tourism in the Adrar region. French tourists were able to once again experience Mauritania’s Sahara desert.
Indeed the Mauritanian Sahara has many hidden treasures. The four ancient towns of Ouadane, Chinguetti, Tichitt and Oualata which date back to the 11th and 12th centuries offer a window into the nomadic culture of the populations of Western Sahara, and the history of trade in the desert.
The historic towns, which were founded to serve caravans along the trans-Saharan trade route that flourished between the 11th and 19th centuries, are designated UNESCO world heritage sites.
But Mauritania is also home to one of the longest and heaviest trains in the world.
The Mauritania Railway, nicknamed the Backbone of the Sahara, is a single track rail connecting the mining town of Zouerat to the port town of Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast.
Operating since 1963, a daily service carries nearly 17,000 tons of iron ore across the Sahara desert. Made up of 200 carriages and three to four diesel locomotives, the iron ore train can reach up to three kilometres in length and covers a total distance of 700km on its route.
The train also carries passengers in a designated carriage to and from distant communities deep in the Sahara, but locals commonly choose to forgo the overcrowded passenger car and instead hop on the back of the train free of charge. For many Mauritanians living in the desert, this is the only means of travel to the coast.
The train can also carry road vehicles, for which passengers need to make arrangements and are able to ride inside their own vehicles aboard the train.
Passengers typically hop on the freight cars at the town of Choum, the train’s first stop after departing from the mining town of Zouerat. After the train unloads its cargo at Nouadhibou, many journey back to Choum in the empty, open-topped metal carriages.
Noisy, dirty and dangerous, the 14-hour treacherous journey across the searing desert has been known to attract tourists looking for an adventure.
Despite the incredibly harsh conditions and risks to personal safety, travellers have been known to hitchhike on the train and cross the Sahara atop a bed of iron ore, wearing goggles or wrapping their faces in order to shield themselves from the incredible amounts of dust.
With frequent, unexpected violet jolts, the open-air carriages slamming into each other, no emergency brakes or safety measures of any kind, no toilets or access to water or food unless pre-packed, scorching heat during the day and bitter cold at night, the ride on Mauritania’s iron ore train—depending on how you look at it—would be either the best or worst journey of your life.