At one million square kilometers, Mauritania is not a small country, but a very small percentage of it is habitable. The rest is covered by the sands of the Sahara. Towns and settlements are separated by vast stretches of inhospitable desert. Roads often have to make detours hundreds of kilometers long just to avoid the drifting sands.
The mining town of Zouérat in northern Mauritania is one such isolated outpost. With a population close to fifty thousand, Zouérat is not a small town either. Yet, Zouérat’s only connection to the city of Nouadhibou, the country’s only major shipping port on the Atlantic coast, is via a railway. This railway, the only one in the country, serves as the lifeline for one of the world’s poorest nations, hauling iron ore from the mines at Zouérat to the port city of Nouadhibou to be shipped to China and Japan, as well as to Switzerland, Spain, France, Italy and Germany. This railway not only helps drive half the economy of Mauritania, it is also the sole connection to the outside world for the people who live along its route.