By Amanda Stringfellow @amanda_l_s
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Michal Huniewicz, 31, documented the 700-kilometer journey across Mauritania – a country crippled by poverty, slavery and terrorism – on the world’s longest cargo train which can reach up to 2.5 kilometres in length.
Sat on top of about 84 tones of rusty red ore, the software developer and his friend Ammar encountered brutal weather conditions and scenes of immense poverty as they wound their way through the desert on the open-top carriage.
The pair boarded the Mauritania Railway in pitch darkness in the middle of the night, half-way through its journey from the iron plant in Zouérate to Nouadhibou on the Atlantic coast.
Michal and Ammar were immediately forced to dig themselves into the iron ore cargo in fear that the suffocating sand storms would blow him off the train into the desert.
Michal said: “We dropped to the surface of the train and frantically began to dig holes in the iron ore with our bare hands, so that the wind doesn’t blow us off.
“A suffocating dust storm commenced - coughing and mildly swearing we continued to dig, and then fall exhausted in the shallow pits.”
The railway is the only way to get across the desert, and for many Mauritanians it is the only way they have to visit family and friends in distant places, or to find work.
Early in the morning Michal noticed that people began to emerge from the cargo around them, mostly men with their faces covered in scarves.
Michal said: “Bags around us that we didn't notice earlier were moving around us. We assumed it was the wind, but it turns out there were more people travelling like this.
“We were as surprised to see them as they were to see us, now that they begin crawling out of their heaps of blankets, staring at us, then yawning and stretching.
“We smiled, shook hands, waved, but didn't interact much more than that.”
Mauritania is Africa's second biggest producer of iron ore and it’s export is essential to the economy of the country.
The train is also a free means of transport for local people and their cargo, who travel with cartons of pasta, rice, bottles of water and even live goats.
“There are no planes, no trucks, and no other options to travel through the sweltering Sahara. If you try to drive and your car breaks down, you're as good as dead,” Michal said.
“You see decaying tourist infrastructure here and there, forgotten concrete stumps and grey skeletons of buildings, while everyone is assuring you that the country is safe.
“And they’re trying – we went through over 50 military or police checkpoints in total, not at all convenient, but installed there for our safety.
"We saw no crime, people were kind, showed some curiosity or ignored us. There are no inspectors, no tickets to show.”
The pair sweltered in temperatures above 50 °C during the day and at night were engulfed by freezing winds.
But despite the harsh conditions, Michal was stunned by the size and beauty of the Mauritian desert.
Michal said: “We’re riding a huge sandworm through endless dunes of this petrified sea, immobilised by geological rigor mortis.
“Supposedly, when you greet people in the desert, you address them in plural, because you are referring to them and their guardian angel, as no one in their right mind would venture into the Sahara without their protection.”