The Non-Flying Dutchman in Search of a New Adventure

Every year, I try to embark on a new adventure, but flying is not allowed. It started in 2016 when I set myself a small challenge: how do you travel without money and in an electric car from the Netherlands to Australia? Now, you might be thinking: “Why would you do that to yourself?” Partly to showcase the potential of sustainable mobility, but mostly for the thrill of it. Three and a half years, 95,000 kilometers, and 33 countries later, I can safely say it was worth every moment, even though my buttocks still haven’t forgiven me.

Adventures with Public Transport to EXPO 2020 Dubai

Since my return in 2019, I’ve become an “inspiring speaker,” and in 2022, I received an invitation to speak at EXPO 2020 in Dubai. Most people would hop on a plane without a second thought, but not me. I couldn’t ignore the environmental impact. So, I began an unconventional journey, preferring public transport over airplanes. Who needs a first-class flight when you have a comfortable train seat and a great playlist? It took me 17 days to reach the United Arab Emirates, and my route went through fascinating places like the Kurdish region of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

This journey made me realize that you can reach exotic places and different cultures in a short time without flying, and the journey was just as exciting as the destination itself. The journey begins the moment I close my house’s door, and I love experiencing how the landscape, cultures, people, and surroundings gradually change.

Gaining New Inspiration

When I was looking for inspiration for a new adventure at the end of last year and scrolling through endless copycat travel photos on Instagram, one photo stood out: a picture of a man standing on top of a freight train in the middle of the desert. I was intrigued. It turns out that there is an iron ore mine in the middle of the Mauritanian Sahara, and every day three colossal trains transport tons of ore to the port of Nouadhibou. Anyone can travel for free. It seemed like the biggest, dustiest roller coaster in the world, and I couldn’t wait to jump on it.

The journey to Mauritania also attracted me because it went through Southern Spain and Morocco, where I had never been before. It wasn’t far; I had calculated that if I traveled non-stop, I could reach Mauritania in just five days. This is really short considering I had been traveling for more than three years to Australia. But I wanted to discover Morocco, so I took about 10 days for it. Up to halfway through Morocco, I could travel by train, then mainly buses and minivans.

People often think I’m a big train fanatic, and although I love them, it’s not like I have a train tattooed on my chest or anything. It’s just my favorite way of traveling because they can take you far in relatively short times, which people often seem to forget.

The route of my journey

From the Netherlands to Mauritania by Public Transport

On the early and foggy morning of January 2nd, I jumped on the Eurostar to Paris, ready for a new adventure. Three hours later, I was in the City of Lights, on my way to Gare de Lyon for a layover.

In Gare De Lyon, there’s a world-famous restaurant named Le Train Bleu, and since I heard about this restaurant (about four weeks before I left), it had been my dream to go there. I tried to make a reservation in advance, but alas, it was fully booked. When I saw the grand staircase leading to the restaurant, I couldn’t resist walking up, and when I approached a waiter who rushed past me, it turned out that there was one table available! So now I’m enjoying a tartare with a good wine in a chic Art Nouveau setting. Eleven euros for a bottle of water? I turned a blind eye to that.

After lunch, my next high-speed train awaited, and just before midnight, I reached Barcelona. Two trains a day connect Paris with the Catalan capital. Ideally, I would have liked to continue to Madrid on the same day, but there’s no late connection. This is the only aspect of this journey that, in my opinion, could be improved.

Booking train tickets for international trips is not always easy. I used various websites like Seat61, Trainline, and Interrail‘s planner to map out my route. By the way, I traveled on an Interrail pass, and their app also made it easy to find routes and book tickets.

After a good night’s sleep, I continued my journey through Spain. I traveled business class and had the entire carriage to myself until Antequera. I enjoyed the scenery like a king on his throne. By late afternoon, I had to catch another train to Algeciras, the southernmost station in the Interrail network. Quick dinner, check. I could almost taste Africa in the air, tajines everywhere you looked. A bus took me to Tarifa, and after a quick check-in, I was on the ferry crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, and just 36 hours after leaving Amsterdam, I was in Africa, a whole new world waiting to be discovered.

Discovering the Charm of Morocco

There I was, fully immersed in Morocco for the first time. Tangier, my first stop after getting off the ferry, had an irresistible attraction. It was delightful to get lost in its labyrinthine alleys.

After two nights, I continued my way to Marrakech. This was simple by train. From Tangier, there’s a super-fast French TGV train to Casablanca. Tickets were easy to book online, and I was surprised by how modern the stations are. Traveling by train in Morocco is really good. From Casablanca, there’s a local train to Marrakech, but a new high-speed rail line is currently being built, so soon it will be even quicker to travel from Tangier to Marrakech, but the five hours it currently takes is already great.

Marrakech and Beyond

Marrakech is an assault on the senses. Markets bursting with colors and food that make your taste buds do a victory dance. Three nights there felt like three minutes, but hey, that’s the beauty of traveling.

From Marrakech, however, it was buses all the way to Dakhla. A massive 1,400-kilometer journey that took 24 hours. This was the toughest part of the trip but the people I met along the way and the stops for some delicious food made it worthwhile.

Diplomatic Drama and Desert Divides

This journey crosses the Western Sahara. When I told a taxi driver in Marrakech that I was going there, he got angry and shouted: “No! No! That does not exist, it is the Sahara Marrocain!” This reveals a bit about how complicated this area is. This region is disputed between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). The United Nations classifies Western Sahara as a non-self-governing territory, meaning it doesn’t yet have full self-governance. About 50 countries recognize the Sahrawi Republic, but the UN does not recognize the status of Western Sahara, making it not a country.

I never felt any tension, no police checkpoint stopped us, and I always felt safe. I spent the night in Dakhla, a quiet town where many tourists come to surf and relax on beautiful beaches.

A 1,600 km long wall of sand and rock separates Moroccan territory from the Sahrawi republic, the second longest in the world after the Great Wall of China, known as the ‘Berm,’ symbolizes the ongoing struggle and division in the region.

This surreal landscape felt like another dimension. Endless stretches of rugged desert, interrupted occasionally by a glimpse of civilization, whether it be a modest tent, a dilapidated police checkpoint, or a cheeky herd of wild camels. And even when there was nothing to see but sand and stones, I was glued to the window to take in the grandeur of it all. To see nothing but desert for miles as a Dutch person? Incredible.

The border crossing? Let’s just say it was a test of patience and resilience. The Moroccan side was strict, with checks lasting more than an hour. Then came the surreal ride through No Man’s Land, a 4 km buffer zone known as PK55. In our minibus, we passed signs warning of landmines. Although reportedly now removed, these signs are reminders of the turbulent history and ongoing issues in the area.

From Skepticism to Surprising Charm

Finally, I reached Mauritania. Some governments advise against traveling to certain regions, especially the border areas. But according to the blogs I read, I had nothing to worry about. By minibus, I reached the capital, Nouakchott, just before midnight.

When I looked up information about the country, Nouakchott was described on many blogs as “the worst capital in the world.” So when I read this, I thought: “Okay, let’s go!”

My first impressions were not exactly promising. Due to a problem with my Airbnb: no host, no water, and electricity, those blog warnings seemed to be true. But the next day, Nouakchott surprised me.

I discovered a local market. A man saw me with my camera and beckoned me over for a photo. In broken English, he said “Car, car, friend, friend, go, go.” I wasn’t sure where he wanted to take me, but a few minutes later, his friend was there. These nice guys offered me an authentic tour of the city, followed by dinner.

Nouakchott is incredibly raw. The markets are uncommercialized gems, untouched by tourism. It felt very pure, without annoying pushy sellers and tourist trinkets. It’s a city that challenged my prejudices, turning ‘the worst’ into a very authentic experience.

Exploring Mauritania

Zouerat, the starting point of the train, is about 750 km from Nouakchott, and I wanted to see as much of the country as possible along the way. My first stop was Terjit, and I took another minivan. They told me Mauritania would be difficult to travel through, and it did not disappoint. The minibuses were cramped and old, so after 7 hours of travel, I was happy to get out.

The Terjit oasis was one of my highlights. This village in a gorge was once known as ‘Paradise in Hell.’ For centuries, travelers crossing the vast desert have come here to shelter and drink fresh water to recharge for the arduous journey. It was amazing to walk around here, I camped at the Chez Jemal campsite where the kind people made amazing food and had interesting stories to tell. Definitely one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited.

The Next Destination Set by AI Before

Some weeks ago I watched this amazing film about the iron ore train. It includes a shot of a man standing on a stone in the desert with a huge rock in the background, reminding me of Uluru in Australia. This place looked so surreal, and I wanted to go there, but I had no idea where it was. I mean, how would you ever find a rock in the Sahara? I took a screenshot and uploaded it to Google Images, and immediately Google knew this place was Ben Amera. The second-largest monolith in the world, after Uluru. And it was a few hundred kilometers west of Atar.

You couldn’t reach this place by public transport. From the excellent camping site ‘Auberge et Camping Inimi’ in Atar, a guide was willing to take me in his 4×4. In the afternoon, we reached this place and managed to take a photo from exactly the same spot. Unbelievable.

Ben Amera in Mauritania. Where they shot the famous Lion King scene ;)

Zouerat: Gateway to the Iron Ore Train

Between Atar and Zouerat, there are many police checkpoints. This is the region that is marked red on most websites of Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and this is due to rebel groups that are active here. I was told that there have been no major incidents in recent years. At each checkpoint, the police ask for a “fiche” which is a copy of your passport, and I had about 30 of them with me. Eventually, I finally reached Zouerat, the starting point of the train.

The Mauritanian Iron Ore Train: Riding the Backbone of the Sahara

The Mauritanian Iron Ore Train: Backbone of the Sahara Here we go then. The highlight and the main reason for this trip. In Mauritania, iron ore is vital, accounting for half of the country’s exports. Every day, three colossal trains leave Zouerat for the port of Nouadhibou. The 704 km journey takes 17 hours, and the trains are enormous. They can be up to three km long, and each train carries 17,000 tons of ore, enough to build an Eiffel Tower. They are among the longest and heaviest trains in the world.

Everyone can join for free. Go to the starting point (there’s no station) and wait for the train to arrive, sometime between 11 am and 6 pm. The train is a lifeline, used by locals to transport goods, themselves, and even camels. Tribes living along the rails depend on goods from this train. That’s why the train is called the ‘Backbone of the Sahara.’

I was well-prepared and had brought ski goggles, gloves, a sleeping bag (the temperature can drop to about zero at night in the desert), and toilet paper. The next morning, I went to the local market to get a second-hand shirt, another blanket, and lots of water, more than I could carry. A local had given me a blanket.

Around 2 pm, I was picked up by the train engineer, whom I had met by chance. He took me to his office, right next to the track, and we waited for the train to arrive. I didn’t need to ask when it would come; I could hear the engines from afar. The train passed us, and it just didn’t seem to end, unbelievable. The engineer asked me where I wanted to get on, at the front, please. If you’re in the middle or at the end of the train, you get the dust from the front of the train in your face.

I chose a nice wagon and dragged all my stuff, including my huge suitcase, inside. Once I finally sat down, it took a while to get used to it, and frankly, I was a bit scared. I realized I was sitting on top of a huge pile of iron ore, all alone, in a train not meant for passengers.

Finally, the train slowly started to move, now I was really going! It took at least an hour to get a bit used to the rumbling, squeaking, and smells of the train, and finally, I dared to stand up and move my butt to the biggest pile in the wagon. My fears faded, and excitement took over. It was just amazing to see nothing but desert and feel the sand scraping against your skin, and for the first time during this ride, I felt comfortable.

It’s legal to ride this train, it’s also free. To one of the three trains that leave every day, a passenger wagon is attached, but for many locals, this is still too expensive, so they travel like this. You can also travel the other way, from the port to Zouerat, but then the trains are empty, so your view isn’t as good, and the ride is bumpy. The train never goes faster than 50 km/h.

After three hours of driving, the sun was already setting, and I couldn’t see anything anymore. I tried to eat a sandwich, but it was full of ore. The iron ore is extremely fine and gets everywhere. It’s also magnetic, and it sucks into every electronic device.

I decided to go to sleep, on the side where the pile was lower than the top of the wagon, so I laid down my blankets there and didn’t have to worry about falling off the train. If that happened, I would have three km of train to get back on, but this was not exactly ideal. Surprisingly, I managed to sleep a total of about 6 hours, often interrupted by the loud noise of the engines and sometimes a stop.

At sunrise, I woke up. It was a cloudy day. A few wagons in front of me were six locals, the only other passengers on the three km long train. They came over and asked for water, since I had plenty left, I gave them a few bottles.

Around nine o’clock in the morning, the train reached Nouadhibou. It stopped a few kilometers before the entrance to the port to drop off passengers, taxis were already waiting.

Iron Ore, Dirt, and Joy

In the taxi to the hotel, I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was completely black and covered in ore. In my ears, nose, hair, and everywhere else. A new look that I call ‘industrial chic.’ Exhausted? Absolutely. Dirty? For sure. Happy? Weirdly, yes. I wish the ride had lasted longer. Of the 17 hours, only 4.5 hours were in daylight. It’s like buying a ticket for a blockbuster and then spending most of it with your eyes closed.

Three days later, I’m still finding iron ore in my backpack. I thought I was carrying memories, but it turned out to be just dirt. But hey, now I at least have a valid excuse for the mess I leave everywhere.