Riding an iron ore train through the Sahara Desert, by Jody MacDonald & Leica.
We first came across Jody's adventure shortly after the announcement of category winners of the Red Bull 'Illume' - a triennial photography competition celebrating lifestyle, action sports and the natural world. Across all the categories, there was one particular shot that caught our attention. Jody's winning shot in the lifestyle category featured a surfer sat on top of an ore train, with its length stretching towards the horizon of the vast desert. The shot came as a result of being asked by Leica to take their new X-U shockproof, weatherproof outdoor camera on an adventure.
“I ended up in Mauritania. I have a particular fascination with the Sahara desert and I have always wanted to hop onboard Mauritania’s iron ore train. As I began researching this unique country I became more intrigued. Mauritania is a strange country. It’s one of the poorest in the world and a country in which 4 percent of its 3 million people are enslaved. It’s nearly twice the size of France and 90% desert – vast arid plains broken by occasional ridges and cliff-like outcroppings. Ceaseless winds constantly reshape the mountainous dunes of Mauritania’s interior, while its northern coastline is littered with rusty shipwrecks and long-forgotten landmines."
“When I was young I used to look through National Geographic magazines and dream of adventures like this. Train hopping through the Sahara on one of the world’s longest trains. This was one of those rare times in life where the expectations of your dreams and reality converge and it plays out how you imagined. I had dreamt of the oceans of sand, the loud noises of the train, the cold, the wind, the scorching sun, the unknown smells and sounds of the desert and the discomfort that goes with it. That visceral experience is exactly what we got as we slithered night and day through the desert while sleeping on an iron ore train. Our 700km journey took us through the Sahara to the coast where we were hoping to find a place of forgotten shipwrecks and unknown surf.”
Jody’s journey began in the capitol of Nouakchott, from where she, a surfer and a local guide moved north through the interior to board the Mauritania Railway. Their risky rail journey started from the iron-mining centre of Zouérat in the Sahara, and snakes through the barren dessert toward the port of Nouadhibou on the Atlantic. The majority of Mauritania’s lifeblood is found in its vast deserts. The export of iron ore is essential to the country’s economy, with the Mauritania Railway serving as the only connection between these remote locations and major shipping ports. The train also provides locals with free transport from isolated communities to the coast. More often than not, passengers ride on the iron ore itself, but some will pay a few dollars for a hard wooden seat in an overcrowded carriage. Heading to the Mauritanian coast on a 2.5km long cargo train with carriages carrying up to 84 tons of iron ore is a daring way to travel – but it’s also the only way. Should your car break down during an attempt to drive, you’re as good as dead.
“We wanted to get to the coast to try to find some surf. My aim was to try and to capture the spirit of adventure and exploration through this incredible landscape. Adventure is not about the destination, but the process, hardship and inevitable beauty in the process of getting there.”
This isn’t your average rail journey – the trip takes approximately 12 hours, during which travellers battle raging winds, dangerous sandstorms and sweltering temperatures. Despite being a seasoned adventure photographer, Jody was stunned by the challenges that she faced saying, “I am used to being in remote locations, but being in the Mauritanian desert brings a whole new set of challenges. The heat in the middle of the day is quite unbearable and when the train stops along the way, it’s so easy to get lost. And if that happens, the odds of someone finding you are very slim.”
During the journey, the brutal Saharan conditions took a turn for the worse when Jody and her crew found themselves caught in ferocious sand storm during a stop. She says, “The storm came upon us very quickly. I had stopped to take some photographs outside and before we knew it, the wind picked up considerably and it started to rain. Within minutes, the wind increased to 150km/h. I thought my skin was going to scrape off, because of the rain and blowing sand. It felt like sandpaper on my skin. I have never experienced winds that strong before.”
The gusts were so violent, it pinned Jody and the other passengers to the side of the train truck and made opening the truck door impossible. After a few minutes, the wind died down and they were able to open the door and board the train again. “When I got inside there was glass everywhere. Our back window had completely imploded. It was soaking wet inside too. Our guide had been sitting in the back and had cuts all over his body from the glass. It was crazy.”
Incredible then, that in the midst of all this, Jody still managed to get some mind-blowing shots.
After the storm subsided, the battered old ore train continued on and eventually pulled into Nouadhibou Station – on the Atlantic coast. Jody then continued to where her journey first began – Nouakchott. Just south of the capitol city’s coastline, hides one the biggest ship graveyards in the world. In the last few years many of the shipwrecks have been sold for their metal and have been dismantled but there are still some to be found. It’s after traveling to this impoverished, yet beautiful area, where she encountered more of the elements that make Mauritania so unique.
One of the many interesting things I came across during my travels were the Imraguen fishermen. The term Imraguen means ‘the people who fish while walking on the sea’, as they cannot swim. The Imraguen tribesmen have maintained age-old lifestyles, based almost exclusively on harvesting the migratory fish populations using old traditional sailboats. The night I arrived in their village, one of the fishermen had fallen off his boat and believed to have drowned. The next day we looked for his body but never found it. It’s incredible that these people live by the sea and spend every day fishing, but don’t know how to swim.”
Spending time in Mauritania is no walk in the park. And neither is capturing the true spirit of the impoverished country and its camera-shy people. It’s a journey that requires instinct, courage and the will to dive into the unknown. “That’s when I think adventures truly come alive and the magic happens,” Jody says.
“You have to be vulnerable and curious.”