The only way for award-winning photographer Jody MacDonald to go in search of the Mauritania coast was on top of an enormous freight train. Here, she shares scenes from her incredible journey through the Sahara.
When I was young, I used to look through National Geographic magazines and dream of adventures like this.
I dreamed of oceans of sand, the loud clattering of the train, the cold, the wind, the scorching sun, the unknown smells, the sounds of the desert, and all the discomfort that goes with it. I couldn’t think of anything more exhilarating than train hopping through the Sahara.
So when I was asked to photograph a trip in harsh conditions, that’s exactly what came to mind.
After weeks of planning, our journey began in the Mauritania capital of Nouakchott. From there, my brother and I moved north through the interior to board the Mauritania railway. Our risky rail journey kicked off from the iron-mining center of Zouérat in the Sahara, and snaked through the barren desert toward the port of Nouadhibou on the Atlantic.
We were headed to Africa’s Atlantic Coast in search of unexplored surf breaks, capturing our incredible train journey along the way. Having only a few minutes to hop on the train in the middle of the night, we spent 15 hours slithering through the desert on the three-kilometer-long train that transports thousands of tons of iron ore across the country. We were in search of the coast; of the unknown.
From Nouakchott, we head north on what can only loosely be described as roads. Our curiosity leads us to some desert exploration. We catch our first glimpse of the stark beauty of the landscape. In the endless sea of sand, curious wild camels stare at us like impostors. Perhaps we are.
The weather conditions take a turn for the worse and a sandstorm begins to form on the horizon. I stop to take some photographs and before we know it, the wind picks up and it begins to rain. Within minutes, the wind increases; the blowing sand and wind so intense that it feels as though it could tear my skin right off.
We take shelter by pinning ourselves to the side of our truck. When the wind finally dies down, we inspect the truck to find pieces of shattered glass everywhere. Our back window has completely imploded and the interior is soaked. Our guide, who had been waiting for us in the back seat, had cuts all over his body. As the storm settles, we resume our journey north. More wary than ever of the strength of the desert.
We finally reach Choum and are told that the train comes through in the late afternoon. As we settle in and wait in the dirt by the tracks, a few families show up with goats and boxes of goods.
The kids run around while the parents make dinner and tea on small fires. As the light of the day fades and the sun dips below the horizon we resolve to try to get some sleep. When the train finally does arrive—a whining growl that can be heard long before it is seen—it is six hours late. It’s now long after midnight.
We grab our gear and wait for the train to slow, but it doesn’t actually stop. We run alongside the cars, illuminating the ground with our headlamps. We have no idea how much time we have so we quickly pick our moment and climb one of the ladders to the ore car, throwing our gear and ourselves into it as fast as possible.
Within minutes the train picks up speed again. We try to get a sense of our surroundings, but settle on making a bed on the mounds of jagged iron ore in the hope of getting some sleep.
I put on all the clothes I have to fight the chill. The wind swirls the ore dust and we wrap our head in scarves to prevent breathing it in. Sleep is difficult; not only because the train itself is noisy, but because its huge length means the cars hammer together violently whenever the speed increases or decreases.
Dawn brings with it the realization the dust from the iron ore has seeped into all our clothing, giving everything a rusty red hue. As the sun begins to warm, we look across the vast Sahara; endless sand and arid plains.
The Mauritania railway serves not only as the sole connection between remote locations and the country’s only major shipping port, but as free transport for locals seeking to travel from isolated communities to the coast. The hours pass slowly and, as the temperatures rise to a sweltering heat, we realize how exposed we are. The dust that comes off it is abrasive and gets everywhere. We wear ski googles to protect our eyes and again cover our heads and mouths with scarves.
Eventually we pull into Nouadhibou Station on the Atlantic Coast, where we head out in search of a huge cemetery of shipwrecks and undiscovered surf. The port of Nouadhibou is the final resting place of over 300 ships and hence the world’s largest ship graveyard. The number of shipwrecks has increased over time, thanks to corrupt officials accepting bribes from boat owners to allow them to dump their vessels in the area.
Nouadhibou is the second largest city in Mauritania with a population of approximately 120,000 people. Despite the harsh living environment and relentless encroachment of the Sahara, there is so much beauty among its friendly people, weathered buildings, and rusting shipwreck skeletons.
From the shipwreck graveyards of the north, my curiosity leads me to spend time with the Imraguen fishermen in Banc d’Arguin National Park in the south. It is a World Heritage site thanks to its natural resources and fisheries.
The Imraguen tribesmen have maintained their ancient lifestyles, based almost exclusively on harvesting the migratory fish populations using traditional sailboats. They still use techniques unchanged from those first recorded by 15th century Portuguese explorers.
One thing that shocks me is that the fishermen cannot swim. The night I arrived in their village, one of the fishermen had fallen off his boat and was believed to have drowned. The next day we looked for his body but it was never found. It’s incredible to me that these people live by the sea and spend everyday fishing, yet still do not know how to swim, as though some kind of cultural superstition prevents them from learning.
As my journey comes to an end I reflect on sandstorms, train-hopping, lost shipwrecks, and ancient fishermen. I realize that this adventure has been one of those rare times in life where dreams and reality converge. The whole thing played out better than I could have ever imagined.
Jody MacDonald is an award-winning adventure sport and documentary photographer. For the last decade, she was the resident photographer on a 60-foot catamaran on a global kiteboarding, paragliding and surfing expedition to explore the wildest corners of the planet.