"Completely surreal and unlike anything I've done before."
A Crazy Puffin advert popped up on my Facebook feed just at the right time: Suffering from Covid induced cabin fever and years' worth of pent-up wanderlust, flying off to Mauritania and catching a ride on the iron ore train through the Sahara sounded like just what I needed.
I replied to the ad and sure enough, a Crazy Puffin promptly replied, answering all my questions, and before I knew it I was booked and ready to go.
Even so, nothing could have prepared me for what lay ahead. I'm a pretty avid traveller; I've visited around 50 countries across five continents including Africa and been reading travel books, blogs and accounts all my life. Mauritania hardly ever shows up in any of these, safe for the iron ore train creeping into some of the more back alley niche-adventure blogs in recent years, so I thought I had a rough idea of what was coming: A pretty uneventful trip through a little-visited country until hitting the train, which would really be the only noteworthy part. Boy, was I wrong.
I had a fairly rocky lead up to the trip itself: Cancelled flights, Covid-situations and other hurdles were thrown my way, but from the moment I touched ground in Nouakchott, it was such smooth sailing, thanks to Crazy Puffin Adventures and their excellent, curated local partner and team. As part of the package I was promptly picked up at the airport and taken to our hotel, where I met up with the rest of the team and we headed out to explore the city. The capital, only established in the mid 1950's isn't one of those brightly lit, skyscraping, cosmopolitan cities we know from some other places, but don't let the internet deter you from visiting.
Being a basic European everything I saw and heard on our tour of the city was intoxicating: The roads and sometimes lack thereof. The confluence of cars (some older than my grandparents or so it seemed), Toyota pickup trucks, donkeys and pedestrians in a bustling stream of traffic that moves to its own beat. The colorful boats and hardworking fishermen. The recycled airport runway and camel market. The beautiful people all around who's heritage has mixed through the centuries, donning gorgeous local clothing; colorful dresses, boubous and turbans.
The next morning we were picked up on the packed and ready Toyota Hilux 4x4s that would be the center of our little universe going forward. As the city disappeared in our rear-view mirrors, the desert opened up in front of us, wind blowing sand over the highway, heaps almost blocking the road at times, and frequent encounters with camels roaming their territory. Encounters with another species also guarding their territory, the gendarmes at check-points, were also frequent but smoothly maneuvered by our local team. Assalamualeykum and onwards we went.
In the days to come we would drive through the ever changing desert landscapes and towns, on roads, tracks or off-road through the wilderness, always finding our destination without hesitation, thanks to the drivers' in-depth knowledge of the area - well, and GPS I'm sure. Getting stuck, puncturing a tire; all part of the program, adding to the adventure.
Some of our nights were spent in camps in the wild. They were quickly set up by the team while we Puffineers explored the surroundings, before devouring the hearty meals that seemed to always magically appear in front of us when hungry - with three little cups of minty sweet tea of course. Food was good and fresh, and vegan options are available on all Crazy Puffin adventures. At other times we'd stay in little guest houses or hotels where we'd be able to take a hot - or sometimes cold - shower, charge our electronics, get on WIFI or connect to the internet if you had the good sense to get a local SIM card before leaving the city. I didn't, although I meant to, and actually found being off the grid to be quite liberating.
Mauritania is home to the Eye of the Sahara (Richet's Structure) and a few UNESCO sites that we made sure to visit, as well as hidden gems, different oasis and a national park by the Atlantic. Apparently it gets a lot of migrating birds but as for me a bird is just something with feathers I more enjoyed the surroundings, crisp ocean breeze and a "refreshing" dip into the water.
By the time we reached the iron ore train the trip had been so fun and plentiful that it would have stood on its own as a great adventure. After having done the train though, I have to highly recommend it. Well, if you're into that kind of stuff anyway. If you're a creature of comfort and predictability, it might not be your (sweet, minty) cup of tea. But if you like it rough, raw and dirty then buckle up.
The train leaves when it is loaded and ready from the industrial mining area around Zouerat, some 700 km from the port in Nouadhibou to where it is headed. It doesn't run according to any fixed schedule, so riding might entail some waiting around for departure - but with good people in a cool place that is just called hanging out. Then once you're on the train you're on it for a long time - and again, in the absence of a fixed schedule, who knows if it will be 13 hours or 30?
We spent some 19 hours on the train, and it was surprisingly unpainful, thanks in large part to the care and preparation of our team. Having read some other accounts of travellers riding the train it is clear that doing it with Crazy Puffin is the way to go. Having ridden the train for years themselves, privately and with tourists, our crew has it down to a science. They flattened out the mounds of ore as soon as we climbed on to create a nice living space. They laid down tarp, lit a fire and made some tea which made it all such a nice - albeit still very rough, raw and dirty - experience.
It will get hot and cold on the train, very windy and very dusty. We came dressed in layers and armed with snacks, but other essential gear was provided; sleeping bags, goggles, gloves etc. All geared up, hunkering down in a sleeping bag with wind and dust violently beating me up seemed like a perfectly good way to spend hours on end - enjoyable even. Completely surreal and unlike anything I've done before.
I was far from ready for the trip to end once it did. Having said that, I think it's fantastic to have the option to do these types of ultimate adventures without basically having to quit your job or take months off from your every-day life (although I must say, it is tempting). In the same number of days as the average beach holiday in the costa-del-sols of this world you can have your mind blown, world view challenged and an experience of a lifetime. My choice is easy at least.
For a certain type of traveller - like the type that would be looking at Crazy Puffin adventures website in the first place - Mauritania and this trip in particular checks all the boxes: It is a little rough around the edges but you're taken good care of. Driving through the dunes to your wild-camp or riding on top of mounds of iron ore through the Saharan night makes you feel as wild and free as the place itself. The rest of the world seems galaxies away when you sit by a fire under the stars in the desert after offroading for hours to get there. The surroundings are beautiful, the people are kind and welcoming. The local team will go out of their way to make your holiday a great one and a rep from Crazy Puffin is available all the way through. How could anything ever beat that? Well - I'm sure that in spite of my current doubts the world is still full of wonders waiting to blow my mind to equal measure. Which is why I stay firmly on Crazy Puffin's postlist, ready to take the next leap into the unknown.