By Amanda Stringfellow @amanda_l_s

A BRITISH photographer spent 14 hours riding an open-top train as it transported 16,000 tones of iron ore across the Sahara desert

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Michal first arrived in Port de Pêche, or Fishermen's Beach, in Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania. Men are holding a boat temporarily anchored to the shore so that fish can be taken out

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.

En-route to the train Michal was offered tea by this group of men and women travelling on camels

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.

In Chinguetti Michal's driver Ahmed looks at the road ahead

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.

Michal stands by the tracks on a deserted stretch of desert near Choum and waits for the cargo train to arrive

“A suffocating dust storm commenced - coughing and mildly swearing we continued to dig, and then fall exhausted in the shallow pits.”

The bulk cargo train Michal and Ammar travelled on can reach up to 2.5km in length

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.

The train carriage Michal and Ammar travelled on. This is where they spent the whole night. They had to dig holes in the iron ore, against the edges of the wagon, to sleep in

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.”

Michal Huniewicz sits on the iron ore train wearing goggles to protect his eyes

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.

Michal's companion Ammar stands on the open-top carriage, his face covered in a scarf to protect from the dust clouds
Boxes of pasta that travelled on the iron ore train were quickly offloaded, some goats arrived as well

“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. 

Some of Michal's fellow companions on the train line, for many the cargo train is the only way to travel across the Sahara

"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.

After roughly 14 hours, the train arrived in Nouadhibou. The Mauritanian train stopped pretty much in the middle of nowhere, with not much but packs of taxi drivers awaiting the passengers

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.”