Arbaroba Special

Magnificent locos, a magnificant line and magnificent mountains. Eritrea in the Autumn!

Mallets to Asmara: 25.10. – 1.11.2019

All photographs: Bernd Seiler, January 2019

railways in Eritrea

Once again we are going to photograph this stunning line. A great picture waits round every twist and turn. Fabulous bridges, an amazing sequence of tunnels and the world famous “Devils Gate”. Based in the world heritage city of Asmara, we will cover the line from Ghinda to Asmara over two days AND our trains will be double headed. The final part of the tour will likely be a small group with a maximum of around 20 people.

As the last company who still offer tours to Eritrea, we left the country in 2016 with serious concerns about the future of the railway. But when we returned in 2018 coal was available and a much more track and photographic opportunities were possible due to quite extensive  PW repairs. However, because of a landslide between tunnel 7 and tunnel 8 the line was usable only down to shortly before Embatkalla. This section, we were told, couldn’t be repaired without the agreement of the politicians. So it was a political problem, not a technical one. On the January 2019 tour*, I investigated the area in great detail and came up with a solution which doesn’t need the approval of politicians. The great news is that my idea was accepted by the railways and that they promise to carry out the necessary work before October. This will allow us once again to go down to Ghinda and even a bit further. Just think of the extra locations and amazing photos we will have access too!

The line maintenance is done by a mere handful of track workers and this is just not enough for a mountain railway where the brute force of nature can demolish the line at any time and finish such tours for ever. Hence there is no time to loose -visit Eritrea this autumn! You’ll be rewarded with one of the most beautiful railways in Africa, with an insider’s view of the peaceful local life and the cultural gems of art deco Asmara - the world heritage capital with an irresistible Italian flair. Whether you like a lunchtime pizza, or a Cappuccino in the afternoon in a garden or local bar or restaurant, the “Dolce Vita” is everywhere in Asmara.  If you or your partner wants a relaxing break in a fascinating city then stay a little longer. Exciting yes! Boring never!

Asmara: Fiat Tagliero building

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Itinerary

Date

Itinerary

25.10.

Individual flight to Asmara, arrival around midnight or in the early morning, hotel in Asmara

26.10.

Afternoon visit to the tank cemetery, the Italian and the Jewish cemetery and one of the cinemas in Asmara, Hotel in Asmara.

27.10.

In the morning we’ll visit some of the iconic Art Deco buildings of the city. In the late morning we’ll take a double headed charter train down to Ghinda and with luck a bit beyond. In the late afternoon light we’ll steam, around Ghinda. Return by charter bus to Asmara, Hotel in Asmara

28.10.

In the early morning we’ll roll down to Ghinda using our charter buses. We’ll start the ascent over the incredibly scenic line up to Nefasit. Our train should be double headed. In the evening we’ll return by our bus to our hotel in Asmara

29.10.

We’ll roll down by bus to Nefasit where our train will be waiting for us. Today is the most difficult(lots of walking for the master shot) but also the most scenic sections is wait for us. Our train is, again, double headed. Hotel in Asmara

30.10.

We’ll get up early to see the sunrise near the summit of the line. Our train will be a pure freight train, hauled by the small Mallet, 440 008. Later we’ll do some early morning pictures at the viaduct in Shegereni. For those who are leaving us for Karthoum: transfer to the airport. In the early afternoon we’ll do some shunting operations in the station of Asmara, using one of the small 0-4-0 locos (if available). For the sunset we’ll go out to the summit again. In the evening we’ll take some night pictures in the depot. Hotel in Asmara

31.10.

The small Mallet will go down to Arbaroba. In the morning light we’ll take several pictures around Arbaroba, before we will climb uphill to Asmara. In the late afternoon we’ll prepare for our return flight. Night transfer to the airport. The hotels are booked until our flights leave.

01.11.

Return flight.

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Our line

Eritrea was occupied by Ethiopia for many years. After gaining independence in 1993, some of the former railway staff started to rebuild their railway now totally destroyed. Some of the Mallets, built by Ansaldo (Italy) in 1938, were brought back to life. Also one of the small Breda built shunters, one Krupp diesel loco and two diesel railcars (one from 1935) have been put back into working order. However, the Littorina railcar is not serviceable at the moment, and it would be very risky to take the Krupp diesel out on the line. The vintage steam locomotives are used for specials on a line which can easily be compared to the lines in the Andes, the Semmering in Austria or the Darjeeling railway. Spectacular mountain sections with gradients of up to 3.5% were needed to enable the 950 mm gauge line to gain some 2,400 m in height over a distance of 118 km. There are many tunnels and stone arch viaducts. You can see deep gorges and steep rock faces. Valleys and mountains can be covered in clouds or swirling mist one moment and clear azure sky the next.

Challenging yes. Rewarding oh! yes!!

railways in Eritrea

railways in Eritrea

railways in Eritrea

It’s very unlikely that we’ll see the complete line from Massawa to Asmara but  we can go down to Ghinda and will see the most spectacular section of the line. The line runs from Massawa harbour through relatively flat coastal land, with a desert character up to Mai Atal (km 29). After Mai Atal several dry riverbeds are crossed by long stone arched viaducts before the ascent becomes noticeable. Before Ghinda (70 km, approx. 1,000 m above sea level) there are the first tunnels. Then the really breathtaking part of the line starts, with many tunnels, bends, bridges and retaining walls. The summit is reached at 2,430 m above sea level between Arbaroba and Asmara (km 118). After Asmara the line first runs through slightly flatter country before a steep decent through beautiful scenery follows, but this part hasn’t been rebuilt and may never be. Most of the section Asmara - Keren is passable with four wheel drive vehicles. Beyond Keren the line is not passable by cars. Several parts are blocked by washouts, landslides or huge rocks on the embankment.

railways in Eritrea

Asmara is the capital of Eritrea. Asmara is a gem (if not THE gem) of the Art Déco building period. In 2017 it was added to the list of world heritage sites by the UNESCO. It was built by well known Italian architects during the time that Eritrea was an Italian colony. The busy time for construction of the buildings came to an abrupt end with the invasion of British troops during World War II and construction has never since gained much ground over the Ethiopian period or after independence. Hence you'll still find the city almost untouched from more modern influences. Asmara has more cinemas than many other cities in Africa three times larger than Asmara. All of these cinemas are landmarks of the modern art of building such locations some 70 years ago. Most of them are still in use. Coffee houses, pizza and pasta restaurants, small shops, apartment blocks and official buildings, churches and mosques, villa quarters and poorer corners, markets and the fish market and even a synagogue dominate the picture of one of the most scenic cities in Africa. Even the local brewery is built in the Art Déco style. And the beer is great!

Asmara in Eritrea

Asmara Art Deco filling station

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The country in general

When you travel through Eritrea you’ll find a lot of friendly, welcoming people, an infrastructure which is among the best in this part of the world, a working educating system and tasty food. But, of course, there are reasons for young people to leave the country. Military service can virtually affect anyone between 18 and 80, no matter whether male or female without children (with them you are exempted), and the duration is unpredictable and unlimited. In the economy almost everything is under the control of the government. Licences to start up your own business are hard to receive and in case of the slightest irregularity you may lose your licence. Working in a state owned company will guarantee you only a very limited income which would make even a bottle of beer a week beyond affordability. Hence educated, young people barely see any chance to build a life in Eritrea.

Railways in Eritrea

Railways in Eritrea

Eritrea is a country which has only recently gained independence (in 1993). Before that, an independence war raged for decades. Even after that there was more fighting over the exact borders with Ethiopia. Since 2018 they have a peace contract with Ethiopia. The country has not fully recovered from these long periods of war and there is widespread poverty. Unlike many other African countries this hasn’t lead to high crime. Eritrea is one of the safest countries in the whole of Africa. The locals are very friendly. Even though tourism is still in its infancy, our hotels are of an acceptably standard (matching 2 or 3 star hotels in Europe) and are quite clean. As Eritrea is still a young country the process of getting all official processes "streamlined" is not finished yet. Visa regulations can change rapidly and with short notice, but so far we always got the necessary visas. Some embassies require that you pick up your visa personally but with a bit of luck a visa on arrival MAY be possible in some circumstances.

The railway, as already mentioned, was built through some incredibly difficult terrain. There are a few photo locations which only have room for around 15 photographers so ,as and when, we’ll have several run pasts until everyone has got the shot. So some discipline is required and nobody should get in the way of others, even if their location is supposedly better. Flexibility and patience is the way to go and then everybody will leave with a collection of superb photos. Our time for photography is naturally limited by the shadows of the mountains in early morning and late evening and by the relatively harsh light at midday, so thing tend to go a bit quieter around lunchtime. Time to relax and have a beer maybe!  Our time is also limited by the technical limitations and servicing requirements of the locomotives. They are not in the best state and we face a risk that such a loco can fail or delay our train. You should expect several stops on the line to raise steam pressure.

But please don’t get carried away with the scenery, remember, we are in the mountains. One wrong step can lead to a fall that can lead to a serious injury - please don’t risk your life. If you take part in this tour you do so at your own risk, particularly when getting out of the train along the line and moving through the terrain. If you aren’t up to reaching a certain photo point, (for example because the wine the night before was very nice), please stay on the train! There will be many, many other opportunities that can be reached more easily and will be just as good.

Railways in Eritrea

Railways in Eritrea

In Asmara we offer an option: if you like you can stay in a lovely four star hotel near the city centre. They have only double beds. That’s why they are only suitable for single room bookings or travellers with their partner. It’s a classical hotel from the late 19th century which was refurbished a couple of years ago. Slow wireless Internet is available in the Lobby. Their price is much higher than the other hotel we’re using. A premium of 65 US-Dollar (or equivalent) a night plus the standard single room supplement (except when you’re travelling with your partner) is required.

We expect temperatures of around 22 to 28 degrees Centigrade in Asmara and up to 30 degrees in Ghinda. In Asmara the temperature can drop to some ten degrees in the early morning. Rain is rather unlikely but the area near Ghinda/Arbaroba often experiences fog, which can allow for some really atmospheric shots – or make photography impossible for a couple of hours. Sometimes hotels may have a problem with hot water supply for a shower.

Railways in Eritrea

Below 2,000 m altitude there is a risk of malaria throughout the year. The best defence against malaria is to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, so it’s recommended you wear long clothing in the evening. Long clothing is also a cultural necessity as half of the population is Muslim (the other half Christian). Short trousers are unsuitable for wearing in public even if it’s really hot. Short trousers tell Eritreans that you don’t care for their culture and maybe interpreted as being somewhat arrogant. Please be sensitive!

The electricity supply (220 Volts) is reasonably dependable due to generators in our hotels but you may need an adaptor for your plugs. There is a mobile phone network available but no western company has yet signed a roaming contract. That’s why you can’t use the mobile network of Eritrea. International calls are possible from our hotel in Asmara. You can also call abroad in the large towns via the telephone exchange. We can arrange a local SIM card at some extra costs (need to be negotiated as these cards are private cards from Eritreans and need to given back at the end of the tour). In Asmara and Massawa there is “slooooow” internet access.

You should take all the usual precautions for a stay in the tropics if you prefer a trouble free trip rather than a hospital stay. Basic rules like only eating peeled and/or cooked food and not drinking tap water should be abided by. Besides the freshly cooked local food, which you really should try (the pizzas are fabulous), has many Italian influences a hangover from the colonial time. Breakfast (except early morning departures) and dinner are planned in our hotel or restaurants not far from our hotels but lunch is a small snack which will be served on the train. Cold drinks can also be bought in the train for local prices which can’t be described  as being cheap any more. A 330 ml bottle of beer is now about 2 Dollars while drinking water has a very similar price!

Railways in Eritrea

Railways in Eritrea

Railways in Eritrea

We’re expecting these locomotives to be serviceable:

We can’t guarantee that a every locomotive is serviceable but we can guarantee there will be sufficient locomotives to haul all planned trains with steam.

The railwaymen have already entertained several groups of railway enthusiasts and know what we want and how we want it doing. They are even used to the high demands of a FarRail Tours charter train event! Even so, we are in Africa where time has a different meaning from that in our hurried world. We have to account for problems on the railway and with engines that are only used every few weeks. Serious delays and failures are possible. And with a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius in the shade there’s no room for frantic rushing around when solving a problem. But there will always be a solution. Patience is key - please don’t spoil other people’s fun. The quality of their coal is often dubious and we will need some extra breaks to raise steam pressure. The technical state of the locomotives with all their steam leaks is not the best. Some of the railwaymen are not very sophisticated in handling these machines either. However, even with the worst possible timekeeping you’re guaranteed many very good pictures of a great mountain landscape.

Railways in Eritrea

Prices changed since they introduced new banknotes (looking the same as the old ones, but the issuing date is important), there is a shortage of cash and the black marked dried out completely. The official rate is 1 Dollar = 15 Nakfa which makes everything very expensive. A proper dinner can cost you up to 30 Dollars, without alcoholic beverages.

Railways in Eritrea

Hygienic and environmental standards in Eritrea rarely conform to Central European, Australian or North American expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is advisable. Please bear in mind that accommodation and transportation in Eritrea falls short of EU/North American/Australian/Japanese or generally so called western safety standards. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. FarRail Tours, the local agency or the railway cannot be held responsible and will not accept any liability whatsoever in the case of any accident, damage, delay, changes or cancellation to the advertised program. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy.

The line between Baresa and Massawa was partly destroyed by severe weather conditions in December 2012 and November 2013. The damage was repaired by January 2014. In 2016 it was once again destroyed and, as well, parts around Embatkala were buried under rocks and sand. You should keep in mind that weather conditions may damage any part of the line with no chance to repair the section in time (or at all). But they'll try their best and even use the army to rebuild the line in such cases in time. Every FarRail tour has ended with a happy bunch of photographers taking home incredible images of this amazing line!

Railways in Eritrea

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Price

Eritrea
Arbaroba Special 28 to 40 participants £2,270
25.10.2019 – 01.11.2019 20 to 27 participants £2,470
  Single room surcharge £240
Registration Deadline: 24.07.2019

The price includes:

Not included:

* A video from our January 2019 tour can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBw4SSXC44Q

Railways in Eritrea

All photographs: Bernd Seiler, January 2019

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