I travelled to an iron ore mine deep in the Sahara Desert on one of the world’s most extreme railways. Here’s what I saw…

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‘Travelling under the starry sky across the Sahara Desert is hard to forget.

‘The feeling of your life depending solely on the train as you are hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest village.

‘The silence of the desert when the train stops and the deafening rumble of it when it starts moving. Eating a hot meal cooked by the shepherds on the train. Seeing hundreds of sheep and goats atop the carriages loaded with iron ore.’

These are just some of the memorable moments Mykolas Juodele recalls of his experience freight-train hopping in the Sahara Desert on one of the most extreme railway journeys in the world.

Where? Mauritania, West Africa. Why? To document a journey of a lifetime.

Mykolas Juodele went freight-train hopping in the Sahara Desert on one of the most extreme railways in the world - the Mauritania Railway, pictured, which transports iron ore across the Sahara Desert

Mykolas Juodele went freight-train hopping in the Sahara Desert on one of the most extreme railways in the world – the Mauritania Railway, pictured, which transports iron ore across the Sahara Desert 

The Mauritania Railway has been transporting iron ore across the Sahara Desert since 1963. The train runs on a single 437-mile (704km) track that links Nouadhibou city’s port with the mines of Zouerat.

Mykolas, who has also travelled to the world’s largest city inaccessible by road, was inspired to ride the train after his first visit to Mauritania in 2013, which left him ‘fascinated to travel deeper’ into the country.

He said: ‘I went back to Mauritania specifically to photograph the iron ore train as I felt it was an extremely unique phenomenon, daunting and beautiful. The train is so long that standing on top of the last carriage, you cannot see the locomotives pulling it.’

In March 2016, the photojournalist returned for a month with the objective to ride the railway back and forth several times and document the journey in pictures.

Each one-way trip takes between 16 and 20 hours – during which time you are ‘basically riding in a cloud of dust’ – and it ‘could be longer if there are technical issues’, he said.

Mykolas recalled 'the feeling of your life depending solely on the train as you are hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest village'

Mykolas recalled ‘the feeling of your life depending solely on the train as you are hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest village’

'The train is so long that standing on top of the last carriage, you cannot see the locomotives pulling it,' said Mykolas. Pictured: A group of men who ride the train several times per month

‘The train is so long that standing on top of the last carriage, you cannot see the locomotives pulling it,’ said Mykolas. Pictured: A group of men who ride the train several times per month

The train runs on a single 437-mile (704km) track that links Nouadhibou city's port with the mines of Zouerat

 The train runs on a single 437-mile (704km) track that links Nouadhibou city’s port with the mines of Zouerat

Mykolas was inspired to ride the train after his first visit to Mauritania in 2013, which left him 'fascinated to travel deeper' into the country. His above photograph captures a Mauritanian man fixing his headscarf onboard the train

Mykolas was inspired to ride the train after his first visit to Mauritania in 2013, which left him ‘fascinated to travel deeper’ into the country. His above photograph captures a Mauritanian man fixing his headscarf onboard the train

Mykolas, pictured, first boarded the train in Nouadhibou

Mykolas, pictured, first boarded the train in Nouadhibou 

Mykolas boarded the railway at the ‘tiny’ train station in Nouadhibou, situated on the outskirts of the coastal city.

The train has no schedule but ‘usually arrives some time in the afternoon’.

Passengers arrive at the station from 1pm and can sometimes wait until 5pm to board.

‘It shows up and all the workers start loading their cargo in the empty carriages,’ he added.

His fellow passengers were local shepherds – and their sheep and goats – and workers who transport their goods from Nouadhibou to sell in the mines of Zouerat.

‘Usually people would transport food products like rice, vegetables, dates, cans of beans, tuna, and bottles of fizzy drinks,’ Mykolas observed.

‘They would buy them in the port city for cheaper and sell it for a bit more money in Zouerat – the city near the iron ore mines.’

There are several towns near the mines that are home to several thousand residents who rely on the railway as their ‘only means of transport’, with ‘no roads’ connecting them to the rest of the country.

Mykolas boarded the railway at the 'tiny' train station in Nouadhibou, above, situated on the outskirts of the coastal city

Mykolas boarded the railway at the ‘tiny’ train station in Nouadhibou, above, situated on the outskirts of the coastal city

Mauritanian traders load boxes with juice, bananas and couscous onto a cargo carriage in Nouadhibou

Mauritanian traders load boxes with juice, bananas and couscous onto a cargo carriage in Nouadhibou

Some use the train to travel between the mines and the port city, while others transport personal goods inside the empty carriages, according to Mykolas

Some use the train to travel between the mines and the port city, while others transport personal goods inside the empty carriages, according to Mykolas

Mykolas travelled on the train alongside local shepherds, like those pictured here

Mykolas travelled on the train alongside local shepherds, like those pictured here

Some use the train to travel between the mines and the port city, while others transport personal goods inside the empty carriages, according to Mykolas.

But the main purpose of the train, Mykolas said, is to deliver iron ore from the mines to the port in Nouadhibou, where it is exported by ship to China, the EU and other destinations.

‘Iron ore is one of the most important export materials for Mauritania,’ he added.

‘It makes up around 50 per cent of all Mauritania’s exports. So basically, that train alone is responsible for half of the country’s exports.’

While onboard, passengers set themselves up to make the journey ‘as comfortable as possible’, said Mykolas, who witnessed people cooking food, eating and trying to sleep by laying on the metal floor of the carriage.

‘Once inside the carriage, the locals make two piles of sand in opposite corners of the carriage – one will serve as a toilet, another as a fireplace,’ he continued. 

There are several towns near the mines that are home to several thousand residents who rely on the railway as their 'only means of transport'. Pictured: A shepherd and his goats on a pile of iron ore on the train

There are several towns near the mines that are home to several thousand residents who rely on the railway as their ‘only means of transport’. Pictured: A shepherd and his goats on a pile of iron ore on the train

Pictured: A shepherd sitting in front of the train at the end of the line in Zouerat

Pictured: A shepherd sitting in front of the train at the end of the line in Zouerat

Mykolas was impressed by the resilience of his fellow train passengers. some ride the train for work and 'endure' the journey several times per month

Mykolas was impressed by the resilience of his fellow train passengers. some ride the train for work and ‘endure’ the journey several times per month

‘Most people travel in groups and are well equipped with pots and pans and always make tea and cook food while travelling.’

The train sometimes stops in the middle of the desert for two hours and ‘you never know why or when it will start moving’ again, Mykolas found.

He said: ‘Then people jump down and go for a walk in the desert, not going too far away from the train. Sheep have been known to jump off the train in a bid to escape.’

The locals make two piles of sand in opposite corners of the carriage, said Mykolas, adding: 'One will serve as a toilet, another as a fireplace'

The locals make two piles of sand in opposite corners of the carriage, said Mykolas, adding: ‘One will serve as a toilet, another as a fireplace’

'Most people travel in groups and are well equipped with pots and pans and always make tea and cook food while traveling,' Mykolas said

‘Most people travel in groups and are well equipped with pots and pans and always make tea and cook food while traveling,’ Mykolas said 

On its journey from Nouadhibou to Zouerat, the train stops first at the village of Inal, followed by the town of Choum and the town of Fderik, usually for just several minutes at a time, Mykolas explained.

He said: ‘Sometimes more stops are made near some tiny desert settlements.

‘But the biggest village en route to the mines has only 2,500 inhabitants.’ 

On the journey to Zouerat, the train stops first at the village of Inal, followed by the town of Choum and the town of Fderik. This picture shows the train arriving at Choum

On the journey to Zouerat, the train stops first at the village of Inal, followed by the town of Choum and the town of Fderik. This picture shows the train arriving at Choum

Mykolas said passengers would try to sleep by laying on the metal floor of the carriage

Mykolas said passengers would try to sleep by laying on the metal floor of the carriage

‘Other places are just a few scattered shacks in the middle of the desert.’

Most of the journey features ‘monotonous but mesmerising desert landscapes’ and the train runs overnight, setting off from Nouadhibou shortly before sunset and continuing in the darkness.

‘The nights are the toughest part of the journey,’ the photographer added.

‘You just have to wait it out and then everyone rises up with the sun and makes tea, possibly cooks another meal and usually before noon the train arrives at Zouerat.’

The nights are 'the toughest part of the journey', according to Mykolas. Pictured: Goats travelling atop piles of iron ore on the return journey back to Nouadhibou

The nights are ‘the toughest part of the journey’, according to Mykolas. Pictured: Goats travelling atop piles of iron ore on the return journey back to Nouadhibou

Most of the journey features 'monotonous but mesmerising desert landscapes'

Most of the journey features ‘monotonous but mesmerising desert landscapes’ 

'Iron ore is one of the most important export materials for Mauritania,' Mykolas said. In this photo, he captured two young locals selling cold drinks from the side of the railway

 ‘Iron ore is one of the most important export materials for Mauritania,’ Mykolas said. In this photo, he captured two young locals selling cold drinks from the side of the railway

The train can stop in the desert, as pictured above, for several hours without explanation

The train can stop in the desert, as pictured above, for several hours without explanation

There, he said, workers unload their cargo on the trucks and take some rest before the train is loaded with iron ore and prepared for the return journey.

When asked about the most challenging part of the trip, Mykolas said it was ‘suffering the sand and iron ore dust that relentlessly irritates your eyes’.

He added: ‘Sleeping was nearly impossible because of the noise and jolting of the carriages, so physically it is quite an unpleasant ride – especially on the way to the mines when the train is empty and it goes faster, causing more dust and shaking.’

At certain parts of the journey, people would jump down from the train and go for a walk in the desert, Mykolas recalled. Pictured: The train arriving in Zouerat

At certain parts of the journey, people would jump down from the train and go for a walk in the desert, Mykolas recalled. Pictured: The train arriving in Zouerat

Reflecting on his experience, Mykolas said he learned ‘not to judge a book by its cover’ and has left with a changed perception of Mauritania.

At first glance, the country and the train seemed ‘rough and hostile’, he said, adding that in reality, he met ‘the kindest people’ with not a single unpleasant encounter to report.

‘Mauritania has a negative reputation because of a few kidnappings of foreigners that took place more than a decade ago,’ he said.

Pictured: A goat being thrown from one of the carriages as the train pulls into Nouadhibou station

Pictured: A goat being thrown from one of the carriages as the train pulls into Nouadhibou station

As the train makes short stops, some sheep jump off the train and try to escape, said Mykolas

As the train makes short stops, some sheep jump off the train and try to escape, said Mykolas

The main purpose of the train, Mykolas said, is to deliver iron ore from the mines to the port in Nouadhibou, where it is exported by ship to China, the EU and other destinations

The main purpose of the train, Mykolas said, is to deliver iron ore from the mines to the port in Nouadhibou, where it is exported by ship to China, the EU and other destinations 

‘It is also known for corruption, slavery and some terrorist organisations possibly operating inside its vast deserts. So I was prepared for a much rougher experience.’

In reality, however, Mykolas said he found that the country felt ‘quite safe’ and that the people were ‘very accommodating and helpful’.

He added: ‘The workers and commuters I met on the train were incredibly hospitable and treated me like a friend.’

Mykolas was also ‘impressed by the resilience’ of the people riding the train.

Mykolas said the experience is 'something that will stay in my mind forever'. Pictured: Abandoned locomotives near Zouerat

Mykolas said the experience is ‘something that will stay in my mind forever’. Pictured: Abandoned locomotives near Zouerat

‘For some of them it is their work and they endure this journey several times every month. Yet they seemed joyful and full of optimism,’ he continued.

‘I think this is something to do with the adrenalin and pure magic of riding on the back of a cargo train across the desert.

‘The endless desert landscapes, the might of the train, the near-spiritual experience of going to the depths of the Sahara Desert sitting inside a shaky cargo carriage – it was all very inspiring and something that will stay in my mind forever.’



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