The Sahara Express

Desert railway in Mauritania: 10.11. – 19.11.2018

Desert railway in Mauritania

Between 1961 and 1963, the mining company “Société Anonyme des Mines de Fer de la Mauritanie” built a 652km long standard gauge line from the Atlantic port of Nouadhibou to the iron ore mines in Zouérate. From the beginning, the railway held a record:- the longest regular trains in the world, with its loaded trains of up to 2.5km (1.6 miles), hauled by up to four, and occasionally five, diesel locomotives. The line runs close to the border with Western Sahara, through sparsely or non-populated desert areas. You can travel by train, but that’s a very dusty adventure !

There are a number of photographic opportunities. The length of the trains, up to 17,000 metric tons, is an amazing sight. The railway operation has its own flair. It’s unique and definitely worth a visit.

Desert railway in Mauritania

Travelling to Mauritania just for the Sahara-Express? Isn’t there more to see? Oh yes, a lot more. Mauritania has more to offer than most of us may imagine. Mauritania is far from the beaten track and there is no mass tourism. You’ll experience authenticity and meet open minded people who still see tourism as an opportunity for their country. You’ll not suffer from the daily dance performance alongside the battle for the cold buffet each evening.

Mauritania offers endless, almost untouched sand dunes in the Western Sahara, green oases with singing birds instead of crowds of tourists, the natural wonders of Guelb Richat and the Kediet Ijill, at 915 mt above sea level the highest mountain in the country. It’s right next to the ore mining area of the Société Nationale Industrielle et Minière. Our local guide will provide everything in order that we can enjoy the scenery and the life of Mauritania and make sure we get amazing pictures, as well as an insight into the local rural life. On our cultural travels, a chef will travel with us and offer us some traditional food.

Wüsteneisenbahn in Mauretanien

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Itinerary

Itinerary Sand Dunes and Fishermen

Date

Itinerary

05.11.

Flight from Casablanca to Nouadhibou, Hotel in Nouadhibou.

06.11.

Using hired 4WD cars, we’ll travel to Ben Amira and Ben Aicha. On the way we have the chance to see an ore train. Close to the monoliths of Ben Amira and Ben Aicha, we’ll build our tent camp. Here we have the possibility to take pictures of both the monoliths, the desert landscape, the amazing sculpture garden near Ben Aicha and, at the end of the day, we’ll watch the sunset at Ben Amira.
Overnight in tents in the desert, distance travelled today some 300 km

07.11.

After watching the amazing sunrise in the desert, we’ve planned another brief visit to Ben Aicha to see the sculpture garden in the morning light. Then we’ll head for Erg Ouarane. On the way, we cross the Amoghar Pass. Arriving at Erg Ouarane, the area with the most impressive sand desert in Mauritania, we’ll see rolling hills of yellow sand up to the horizon. We’ve planned to hire a camel caravan for taking pictures in the late afternoon light and the sunset. Overnight in tents in the sand dunes of Erg Ouarane, distance travelled today approximately 245 km

08.11.

After the sunrise and a small breakfast we continue to the oasis of Terjit. The oasis is in a gorge, embedded between high rock faces. In the shade of mountains and palm trees we can take a refreshing break and stroll around the oasis, probably the most beautiful in Mauritania. The water of the oasis comes from a spring in the mountains. After our break, we’ll drive to the Vallée Blanche (white and bright yellow sand dunes, dotted with a few trees, reaching up to the mountains) and the "Passe de Tifoujar", a breathtaking canyon. Both spots are spectacular, and we’ll spend some time to capture the exceptional landscape on film and memory card. We’ll also look for a nice place to see the sunset. Overnight in the tents within this fantastic landscape, where we’ll also watch the sunset. Today’s travelled distance about 250 km

09.11.

After watching the sunrise in the dunes, we’ll continue to the Banc d'Arguin National Park (around 8 hours driving time), where we may catch some glimpses of the ordinary, rural life of Mauritania. Our local guide will give us information and insight that you’ll never find in newspapers. Accommodation in Iwik. Travelled distance today about 550 km.

10.11.

Before sunrise we’ll go to the fishing village of Nouamghar, inhabited by the Imragen people. This is probably the only place where you still can experience the traditional sail boats and the traditional way of catching fish. Here we have the unique chance to hire a sailing boat to take pictures of the fishermen. If you want to stay on solid ground, please mention it when you register for the tour. In the afternoon we’ll drive to Nouadhibou. Hotel in Nouadhibou. Today’s distance travelled is about 180 km.

11.11.

At sunrise, we’ll visit the fish market and the ship grave yard in Nouadhibou. There are more than 300 abandoned vessels, rusting away. Around noon, we’ll go back to our hotel in Nouadhibou to relax a little. In the evening some more participants will join us. Hotel in Nouadhibou. Covered distance today: about 50 km.

Itineraray Desert railway in Mauritania

Date

Itinerary

10.11.

Flight to Casablanca, overnight in Casablanca

11.11.

Late afternoon flight to Nouadhibou and hotel there.

12.11.

Visit to the harbour terminals where the trains are unloaded and visit to the railway workshop. Hotel in Nouadhibou

13.11.

Linesiding along the railway between Nouadhibou and the oasis of Boilenoir (line km96). In the late afternoon we’ll return to our Hotel in Nouadhibou.

14.11.

The whole day, we’ll follow a train from Nouadhibou to Zouérate. It’ll take us about 13 hours. Trains need more time. For a good part of the way, trains run in the darkness, hence we’ll not see the complete line in daylight. Hotel in Zouérate.

15.11.

The loading facilities for iron ore are in Zouérate, El Rhein and M'Haoudat. Whether all these are in use is impossible to forecast, we’ll find out on the spot. We’ll also visit the loco depot in Zouérate. Hotel in Zouérate.

16.11.

Linesiding in the region of Zouérate – Choum. We’ll stay overnight in a bivouac in a nice setting near Choum.

17.11.

Today we’ll follow a train from Zouérate back to Nouabidou.

18.11.

In the morning we can have another look at the railway. Our return flight to Casablanca starts in the afternoon. In Casablanca we should reach our connecting flight home.

19.11.

Arrival at home

Wüsteneisenbahn in Mauretanien

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Line description

The line was opened in 1963. At that time it laid completely in Mauritania and had to cross a mountainous section. After the line was nationalised in 1974 the government negotiated a new route with Western Sahara, to avoid the mountainous part, and in 1978 they inaugurated this new section, which crosses Western Sahara for 5km (3.1 miles).

Desert railway in Mauritania

The iron ore is transported from the mines in the desert to the port of discharge on the peninsula of Ras Nouadhibou, in Casado. The railwaymen call this place Point Central or, in short, PC. Trains can be turned on a terminal loop. This is carried out by a single locomotive as the line locomotives leave the train as soon as they arrive.

From Nouadhibou the line heads about 460 kilometres to the east before it turns to the north near Choum. To get access to two additional mines, they built a 70km long link from F’dérik to Guelb and M’Haoudat.

Two pairs of trains run daily. If the production levels are high it can be three or even four pairs of trains. Besides the ore trains they operate a weekly water supply train for Zouérate. This train will be filled at the oasis of Boilenoir.

People are allowed to travel in the ore wagons or the flat wagons free of charge. This is a very dusty mode of transport, but the old SNCF passenger coach isn’t much better. However, on almost every train you can see people travelling in the ore wagons. The trains V3 and M4 are the ones which have the passenger coach attached. Those two trains have a timetable, but delays of several hours are not uncommon.

Apart from people, also general freight, camels and lorries are common goods on the railway. For camels (on their way to slaughter) and lorries they’ll attach some flat wagons behind the ore wagons. The people in the ore wagons often carry fish, food and sheep with them. Some of the trains have a wagon for employees of the railway, SNIM, at the end. The SNIM company, which is responsible for the passenger traffic (the wagon at the end of train V3 and M4), is called TFM. The branch in charge of tourist traffic (they own a double deck passenger coach) is called SOMASERT.

Desert railway in Mauritania SNIM

The four different modes to travel on the trains are:

Desert railway in Mauritania passengers

Desert railway in Mauritania passenger coach

The TFM passenger coach is often crowded and in a poor and smelly condition. Travelling in it is no joy! The brake van FS17 is reserved for the management of the railway. All brake vans are air-conditioned.

A FIAT double deck railcar, as well as Krupp diesel cranes, are stored/dumped in Zouérate.

During daylight you can expect to see at least one or two trains arriving from Nouadhibou and two departing trains to Nouadhibou. In addition there are movements between the four loading points and, additionally, there might be the water supply train.

Apart from the arriving trains, there are only a few movements to be seen in Nouadhibou during daylight.

Desert railway in Mauritania loading goods

Loco wise, the variety is very limited. The elderly SD40-2 locos are preferred over the new SD70ACS locos. Those six new, 3,310 kW strong EMD locos sometimes have problems with their turbochargers, we were told by some railway employees in 2017.

The line speed is 40 km/h, the rails are designed for 26 tons axle load. An increase of axle load to 30 tons is planned. In recent years they added two sidings to allow four pairs of trains per day.

The daily runs of the track gang speeders have some influence on the timetable.

Desert railway in Mauritania camels

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Remarks

The northern part of Mauritania is neither a major destination for tourism nor for terrorism. Despite this, there are many foreigners in Nouadhibou for the fishing business. Our hotels have a sufficient standard and offer electricity, hot water and internet access. But you should not expect a perfect holiday hotel in this corner of Mauritania. The bivouacs have mattresses and simple blankets, but there are no proper toilets. The desert is vast and endless …

Wüsteneisenbahn in Mauretanien

The city of Zouérate has seen better times, when the cinema and the theatre were still open. A fair proportion of the inhabitants do nothing different from Europeans:- spending hours looking at their mobile phone screens! All the people are friendly and helpful.

We’ll cover long distances over unpaved or non-existant roads. Both of the longest trips will take more than 12 hours – without photo stops. We’ll carry sufficient food, tea and water with us. Any technical problems needing to be resolved in the stone desert may extend our travelling time drastically. On the journey we’ll not find any sanitary facilities. In the case that you need to release any ballast in the desert – there might be no bush to hide behind! In the desert, no medical aid is available. There is no pharmacy in the desert either. You must carry sufficient medicine with you if you’re in need of some medication. Your health condition should allow you to travel in a 4WD car for 16 hours.

Trains, even those with a timetable, are for the ore traffic. And iron ore doesn’t care when and where it will arrive. Bear in mind that hefty delays are common and unpredictable. Delays can destroy the hopes for a certain picture, but they can also offer new opportunities. There is no guarantee for the number of trains we’ll see, for punctuality or certain stops at sidings and stations. We’ll keep in touch with the railways and will follow developments.

Desert railway in Mauritania shunting cars

Daytime temperatures in November are around 20 to 30 degrees Centigrade, while nights can be chilly. Morning temperatures can drop to twelve degrees Centigrade. Precipitation is almost zero.

Close to the trains it can be very dusty, hence you should consider the wind direction when choosing a photo position.

The visa for Mauritania will be issued on arrival (55 Euros). Casablanca can be entered visa-free for many nationalities.

Hygienic and environmental standards in Mauritania do not conform to European, Japanese, Australian or North American expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is hence advisable. Please bear in mind that accommodation and transportation in Mauritania falls short of EU/US etc. safety standards. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. Neither FarRail Tours nor the local agency can be held responsible and neither will accept any liability whatsoever in the case of any accident, damage or delay. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy as well as travel cancellation insurance.

Desert railway in Mauritania shunting containers

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Price

Mauritania
Sahara Express 12 to 22 participants £2,335
10.11.2018 – 18.11.2018 7 to 11 participants £2,420
  Single room surcharge £345
Registration Deadline: 10.06.2018
Sand Dunes and Fishermen in Sailing Boats 10 to 14 participants £1,290
05.11.2018 – 11.11.2018 6 to 9 participants £1,395
  Single room surcharge £150
Registration Deadline: 04.08.2018

The price includes:

Not included are:

Desert railway in Mauritania

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