The Iron train

Mauritania, 2019


Mauritania, Northwest Africa’s large desert country, has only one train line. Built by the French after discovering significant iron ore deposits in the middle of the Sahara, it stretches across 700 kilometers from the mining town of Zouerate to the port of Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast. The trains consist of over 200 carriages, totaling roughly 2.5 kilometers in length. They are among the longest and heaviest in the world. While their main purpose is to carry the iron ore from the mine to the harbour for export, numerous Mauritanians use them to travel across the country in order to trade goods or visit relatives. People who carry a great deal of luggage or who can’t afford a ticket in the only passenger car have no choice but to ride atop the ore hopper cars. The journey is free yet the travel conditions are dreadful. In the desert, the daily temperature range can be extreme. The worst, however, is not the heat or the cold but the dust. Countless particles of iron spread in the air, making it difficult to breathe or see. Inspired by the courage of these men, I made the roundtrip from Nouadhibou to Choum (about 1000km over nearly 24 hours altogether), in the hope of experiencing and documenting one hell of a ride across the desert.



The train near the port of Nouadhibou where up to 40.000 tons of iron ore are delivered daily. © Yann Lenzen



A young man waits patiently for the train at the station in Nouadhibou. Delays are common, today the train arrived 8 hours after the official time. © Yann Lenzen



Omar sits near the tracks waiting for the train. He travels regularly to sell goods in Zouerate, the mining town at the end of the line. © Yann Lenzen



Hassan in an empty carriage getting ready for the long journey ahead. Crossing the Sahara desert to Zouerate takes about 15 hours and up to 20 the other way when fully loaded. © Yann Lenzen



Passengers awaken after a rough night. Whenever accelerating or braking, the train violently lurches forward. © Yann Lenzen



Several passing tracks allow empty trains and full ones to pass each other on the otherwise single track. © Yann Lenzen



With daily supplies in basic products and staple foods, the train line has fostered the development of settlements in one of the most inhospitable regions of the planet. © Yann Lenzen



An employee of the SNIM (Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière), the company operating the railway link between Zouerate and Nouadhibou. © Yann Lenzen



Short stop in Choum, a small town 460 kilometers away from Nouadhibou, where some passengers get off before the train resumes its journey towards Zouerate. © Yann Lenzen





Back in Choum after a few days in the desert. Sama and his son Reda wait for the train to Nouadhibou. They live in Choum but move to the coast during the hottest months of the year. Women travel in the passenger carriage while men carry the luggage on an ore hopper car. © Yann Lenzen



The train enters the station at dusk and the family hastens to choose a good carriage. It only stops for a few minutes and won’t wait for latecomers. © Yann Lenzen



People travelling on the train carry all sorts of goods: live animals such as goats or chickens, dates, furniture, etc. © Yann Lenzen







On the way to Nouadhibou, each carriage is loaded with up to 85 tons of iron ore. People dig to level the surface and set up camp for the night. © Yann Lenzen



Sama has lit a small charcoal fire in one corner of the carriage to make tea and dinner. © Yann Lenzen



Wearing a turban is essential but doesn’t prevent all the dust from getting into the face. © Yann Lenzen











The train enters Nouadhibou station, the journey is drawing to an end. © Yann Lenzen





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