Lonely Planet Writer

Photographer captures life on the legendary iron ore freight train of Mauritania

Lithuanian photographer Mykolas Juodele recently set off on the journey of a lifetime. Having made his way to the West African country of Mauritania, he ‘freight train hopped’ across its haunting, desert landscape. As you can see, his pictures tell an incredible story.

The freight train makes its way through Mauritania
Passengers ride the freight train through Mauritania. Image by: Mykolos Juodele

“I travelled to the Sahara desert to ride the legendary Mauritanian iron ore train”, says Mykolas. “Stretched out along the Western Sahara border, it connects the port of Nouadhibou with the mining town of Zouerat. It’s Mauritania’s economic artery and a relic of her colonial past. At a length of over 2.5 km, it’s also said to be one of the longest trains in the world. This train was the only reason why I ended up in Mauritania in the spring of 2013, and why I went back again in 2016; this time equipped with a bigger camera, and a fascination just as wide as before.”

“As there are no road connections between the two cities”, he continues, “people, their goods and cattle are allowed to travel for free inside the train’s cargo carriages. For a group of Mauritanian men, transporting food products and sheep is their full-time job. They travel between the mines and the port several times a week, enduring a tough 16-hour long journey through sandstorms, extremely hot days and freezing cold nights.”

Sheep on the freight train in Mauritania
It’s not an uncommon sight to see livestock transported on the freight train. Image by: Mykolos Juodele

Mykolas recalls the tension and excitement of waiting to board the train in Nouadhibou. “The sand blows straight at me, hurting my bare legs and shoulders as I walk along the rail track. It doesn’t take long until a group of young Mauritanians invite me to ride along with them. Some of them speak English, and I couldn’t have asked for better co-passengers.”

“The ground beneath my feet vibrates as three 190-ton locomotives pulling a serpentine chain of 220 wagons chug past the station. My travel companions, playful and relaxed just a moment ago, are now frantically loading the cargo into one of the empty cars. I come to their aid as they race against time to load a van-full of vegetable cases and crates of fizzy drinks on the train.”

Vegetables and fruit: just some of the many items carried on the freight train
Cases of vegetables and fruit are loaded onto the freight train. Image by: Mykolos Juodele

“I’m sharing a car with group of kids barely into their 20s. Said, who looks like he’s walked out of a Hollywood poster, is the boss. We travel whenever he gives us an order. ‘We’re going back to Nouadhibou on Thursday and then back again to Zouerat on Saturday,’ says another guy wrapped in a blue scarf. ‘We are freelancers, just like you,’ says another, pointing towards my camera. They understand that I’m here for pictures, and they don’t mind. I am invited for yet another cup of strong Mauritanian tea. The sun sets early and soon we’re riding under the starry sky.”

Passengers ride the train through Mauritania
The freight train as it passes through the arid waste lands of Mauritania. Image by: Mykolos Juodele

“The train slows down while passing through the town of Inal. One of the boys jump out of the wagon to fill the bucket with more sand for the fireplace, and then runs after the train and jumps back on. My travel companions share their meal with me – rice and mutton. Soon after, we all crawl into our sleeping bags and do our best to fall asleep on the hard metal floor with the train wheels bumping and squealing just underneath.”