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One is free to travel on top of the iron ore train that crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of September 2015. The travelers, usually traders that transport food and live animals, have to endure strong winds and temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, during the 20-hour trip.

One is free to travel on top of the iron ore train that crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of September 2015. The travelers, usually traders that transport food and live animals, have to endure strong winds and temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, during the 20-hour trip.

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A donkey is loaded using ropes while other two donkeys wait to be boarded on top of a train loaded with iron ore that crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015. It’s free to travel for the traders that transport food and livestock, but they have to endure a 20-hour trip with periods of strong wind and temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.

Sweeping across a lawless stretch of the Mauritanian desert on a 700 km track, runs one of the longest cargo trains in the world. From the harbour of Nouadhibou to Zouérat iron mine in the north, its carriages extend for 3 km each loaded with around 80 tons of iron ore.  While there haven’t been any terrorist attacks over the past four years, Mauritania is still recognized as an international “red zone,” a place where slavery and human trafficking are not uncommon.

When Romanian photographer George Popescu visited Mauritania for the first time in 2010, he arrived in the wake of several kidnappings. Returning two years later, it was still too risky for him to ride the desert train, but eventually he found his opportunity in September 2015 during a one-month long trip to the country. Braving the fierce heat, wind, dust, and chilling nights, Popescu took the 40-hour round trip, burrowing amid heaps of iron ore as protection against raging wind.

Passengers without tickets ride open-top in the train wagons. In exchange for facing the often harsh and unforgiving elements on top of the train, these people are awarded free transport along with all their cargo, including donkeys and goats. Popescu says: “Only for an outsider this trip is so spectacular. For a local who does it regularly to make a living, or to visit some relatives, it is just as normal as a train ride.”

In this remarkable set of images, we accompany the photographer on this fascinating journey. The recurring perspective of the train converging to a vanishing point, as the hundreds of wagons make their steady progress across the Sahara, awakens within us a sense of adventure. We see the mounds of black ore, the swelling dust clouds, the dawn mists, the weary scarfed heads emerging from slumber, the rare sight of two women as they sit huddled close together dwarfed by the size of the train car, wagon-riders expertly pouring mint tea into tiny glass cups, and baskets of bread sold by people running alongside the tracks.

When asked about Mauritania’s current safety and his own experience of the country, Popescu says: “Now it is a secured country on the border with Mali and Algeria, so I think the risks of being kidnapped are low. Mauritanians are friendly and peaceful people. You are always welcomed as a traveller – it is part of the desert life.” The sense of ‘train brotherhood’ he witnessed and was himself openly invited into despite the language barrier, made his job photographing much easier. “On the whole journey I only met one person who didn’t want to be photographed,” he says. In fact, the main challenge he faced was the weather – hot, turbulent, and dust-filled. The iron ore whipped up by the wind. Sahara dust like glass splinters sailing through the air. On reflection, Popescu admits, “I think my new lens aged a year during that trip.”

Rocky landscape seen in Zouérat region as iron ore train crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015.

Rocky landscape seen in Zouérat region as iron ore train crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015.

Two minor sisters pose for a portrait while traveling with their family (not seen) on the train loaded with iron ore that crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015.

Two minor sisters pose for a portrait while traveling with their family (not seen) on the train loaded with iron ore that crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015.

Ghassem, a train mechanic and SNIM employee, poses for a portret in his Jim Morison t-shirt, during a train stop, as seen on October 1st 2015.

Ghassem, a train mechanic and SNIM employee, poses for a portrait in his Jim Morrison t-shirt, during a train stop, as seen on October 1st 2015.

Sheep loaded in wagons that usually transport iron ore are ready to start a 20 hour journey through Sahara dessert from Nouadhibou harbour, Mauritania, to the mine at Zouérat, in northern part of the country, September 29, 2015.

Sheep loaded in wagons that usually transport iron ore are ready to start a 20-hour journey through Sahara desert from Nouadhibou harbour, Mauritania, to the mine at Zouérat, in northern part of the country, September 29, 2015.

Rocky landscape seen in Zouérat region as iron ore train crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015.

Rocky landscape seen in Zouérat region as iron ore train crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015.

Travelers use a train stop to pray at sunset. September 29, 2015. Mauritania is nearly 100% muslim country with only 4500 Catholics as the major religious minority. It is one of thirteen countries in the world that punishes atheism by death.

Travelers use a train stop to pray at sunset. September 29, 2015. Mauritania is nearly 100% Muslim country with only 4,500 Catholics as the major religious minority. It is one of thirteen countries in the world that punishes atheism by death.

Two Mauritanians travel together with three donkeys (one not seen) on top of a train loaded with iron ore that crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015. The travelers, who are usually traders that transport food and livestock, have to endure a 20-hour trip with periods of strong wind and temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.

Two Mauritanians travel together with three donkeys (one not seen) on top of a train loaded with iron ore that crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015. The travelers, who are usually traders that transport food and livestock, have to endure a 20-hour trip with periods of strong wind and temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.

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A child awaits next to his luggage to board one of the two passenger coaches of the iron ore train that crosses the Sahara desert from the mine at Zouérat, in northern Mauritania, to the Nouadhibou harbor, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa, as seen on 1st of October 2015.

People wait for the train to take off again, during a 20-hour trip from Nouadhibou to Zouerat, September 29, 2015. Sometimes people donÕt hear the whistle signal because the train can be 1.5 miles long and the passenger coaches are at the end so they jump on the moving train in order to no be left behind.

People wait for the train to take off again during a 20-hour trip from Nouadhibou to Zouérat, September 29, 2015. Sometimes people don’t hear the whistle signal, because the train can be 1.5 miles long and the passenger coaches are at the end, so they jump on the moving train in order to not be left behind.

A traveler lights his cigarette after the sunset while riding on top of the iron ore train as seen on October 1st, 2015. Most of the trip through the desert is in the night time.

A traveler lights his cigarette after the sunset while riding on top of the iron ore train, as seen on October 1st, 2015. Most of the trip through the desert is in the night time.

All images © George Popescu

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