Passengers build a seat for themselves atop mounds of iron ore on the train leaving Zouaret to cross the Sahara desert to Nouadhibou. ( Daniel Rodrigues)
In Mauritania, only one train to ride exists: It is nicknamed the Iron Train. It stops once for five minutes in Choum on its daily 437-mile journey from Zouerat in central Mauritania to Nouadhibou on the coast. Its main purpose is to transport iron ore, 22,000 tons mined in Zouerat daily and poured into 220 iron hoppers linked together to make a 1.5-mile-long train. Passengers can stow away for free in the hoppers or they can pay about $3 to sit on benches inside two passenger cars. The journey can take anywhere from 16-21 hours depending on the weight of the train.
Photographer Daniel Rodrigues rode back and forth twice, climbing onto the mounds that sank beneath his weight and turned his clothes burnt orange. Fellow passengers wrapped their heads and faces with long pieces of cloth to ward off the hot winds of the desert, or the iron dust that pierced their skin like tiny needles. Sometimes goats or donkeys could displace the common sight of boxes of apples or potatoes thrown hastily on board by food sellers. People shared tea, cooked atop bits of charcoal dug into the iron and lit aflame. Most of the time people slept as the train ambled at 30 miles per hour.
It was the sky that Rodrigues remembers the most. “It’s that time when the moon has just disappeared and the sun has not yet risen that you can’t believe the number of stars,” he said. “Only in the desert can you see this. Millions and millions of stars.”
Two hundred and twenty cars stretch over 1.5 miles in the Sahara desert. (Daniel Rodrigues) After the train is emptied of iron in Nouadhibou, local merchants load their goats into the empty cars for a free ride to Zouarete, 437 miles away through the Sahara desert. High temperatures in the day and very low temperatures during the night make the journey a tough one. ( Daniel Rodrigues) Merchants in Nouadhibou load apples, potatoes, oranges and lettuce onto the train. They must work fast because the train does not wait for them to finish. (Daniel Rodrigues) Nouadhibou residents stand inside an empty iron hopper to make the 16-hour journey to visit family in Zouarete. (Daniel Rodrigues) Passengers hang off the sides of the hoppers while the train is moving to urinate, the most dangerous part of the trip. (Daniel Rodrigues) Two people try to board the train as it pulls out of Zouarete. They did not make it this time. (Daniel Rodrigues) A man boards the passenger car in Choum, the only stop between Zouarete and Nouadhibou. A ticket costs 1000 Ouguiyas, or nearly $3. (Daniel Rodrigues) Bitter cold air hits a passenger as he waits for the train to move in Choum one evening. ( Daniel Rodrigues) Many people sleep as the train ambles at 30 miles per hour for the long journey. This passenger brought a piece of foam to sleep on. (Daniel Rodrigues) Passengers create a fire by digging a hole in the iron ore pile and lighting bits of charcoal. They made a pot of peppermint tea to share with others on the journey from Zouarete. (Daniel Rodrigues) These donkeys stood for most of the journey until their owners forced them to lie down on the mounds of iron during the night. (Daniel Rodrigues) Passengers shake the dust from the iron ore off their comforters that they wrap around them to ward off the cold air of the evening in the desert. (Daniel Rodrigues) Just as the moon sets, and before the sun rises, millions of stars fill the sky above the Sahara desert. (Daniel Rodrigues)