Eritrea: Mallets to Asmara

Steam in Eritrea: 7.1. – 15.1.2023

Italian Flair in Africa: 15.1. – 20.1.2023

Railways in Eritrea

It seemed at first glance that the two year opportunity to repair the rolling stock and clear the line was traded for two years of coffee and cake. The weather is so nice in Eritrea, and as there were no customers to care about why someone should think about repairing anything? However, it only seems like nothing was going on. They really cared for the locomotives (their statement) and started to clear (in early 2022) the line from Asmara to Nefasit from boulders, debris and mud. They want to get the line ready for new groups of railway enthusiasts. The most scenic and steepest section of the entire line is between Nefasit and Asmara and this part of the line should be ready to use by 2023. Hence we’ll return to Eritrea, the architectonical and railway gem on the Red Sea.

Eritrea was occupied by Ethiopia for many years. After gaining independence in 1993, some of the staff started to rebuild the totally destroyed railway. 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 any more, and it would be risky to take the Krupp diesel out on the line. The vintage steam machines were sometimes operated by railwaymen of a similar age, although nowadays by younger “apprentices”, and 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 950mm gauge line to gain some 2,400m in height over a distance of 118kms. There are many tunnels and stone arch viaducts. You can see deep gorges, steep rock faces and valleys, overlooking the mountains, covered in clouds … but only for a brief spell before you enter the next tunnel. All a photographers’ paradise!

The capital of Eritrea, Asmara, has an irresistible Italian flair. Whether you like a pizza or a Cappuccino in the afternoon sitting in a beautiful garden restaurant, the “Dolce Vita” is everywhere in Asmara. The Art Déco style buildings give the city a real Italian touch and it’s on the world heritage list of the UNESCO. There is much more to see in Eritrea than the stunning railway. If you want, you can stay a bit longer here for a holiday. You’ll not be bored! Probably the most wife/girlfriend-friendly destination on the FarRail calendar …

Railways in Eritrea

top

Itinerary

Date

Itinerary

07.01.

Departure to Asmara

08.01.

Early morning arrival in Asmara and transfer to our hotel. The group will meet around noon for lunch. In the afternoon we’ll explore the art deco world heritage capital of Eritrea, Asmara with its iconic buildings, cinemas and cafés. In the late afternoon we’ll visit the depot of Asmara and have a look at the locomotives which should be ready for our tour.

Hotel in Asmara for the whole railway part of the tour.

09.01.

In the early morning we’ll leave Asmara to do some shots at sunrise. 440 008 will haul a freight train. Around noon our train will roll down to tunnel 23 below Shegereni, from there we’ll start the afternoon climb through many tunnels and horseshoe curves towards Asmara

10.01.

With one of their bigger Mallets class 442 a mixed train we’ll leave Asmara in the morning and roll down below Nefasit which we’ll reach by noon. We hope that the line is cleared until tunnel 8 in the vicinity of Ghinda. After a lunch break we’ll ascent towards Nefasit which will be reached short before sunset. We’ll return by charter buses to Asmara.

11.01.

Our charter busses will bring us back to Nefasit, situated at a huge mountain ridge. In the morning our 442 will climb from Nefasit to Arbaroba, where we’ll have a lunch break. In the afternoon we’ll continue the steep climb from Nefasit to Shegereni, from where our train will return back to Arbaroba and stay there overnight while we’ll return to the capital by charter buses.

12.01.

We’ll return to Arbaroba to continue our climb uphill. Today we’ll go far away from any road access, towards Lessa, an abandoned, but refurbished siding in the middle of the mountains and start the steep climb from somewhere between the numerous tunnels back to Arbaroba. We’ll return by chartered buses on to Asmara.

13.01.

We’ll use the early morning light to take some interesting pictures between Arbaroba and Shegereni. Here another train with one of the larger 442-Mallets will arrive, and the afternoon is reserved for a double header, passing Devil’s Gate and running over arch viaducts and through tunnels to Asmara. After we arrived we’ll line-up our locos in front of the beautiful depot and take some night shots.

14.01.

Besides the mallets they also have 0-4-0 locos class 202. One of them will perform some shunting duties in the nice station of Asmara. In the afternoon we’ll visit the workshop. In the evening we’ve planned a dinner with traditional Eritrean food.

Our hotel is booked until about 1 am, then transfer to the airport for those who are leaving us.

15.01.

Return flight home and arrival at home in the same afternoon

15.01.

Breakfast probably at the Victoria Café – you should try their bombolone! Asmara has a Synagogue which is kept and cared by the last Jew in town. He’ll open it for us and tell you some stories of the former vibrant Jewish life in the town. In the afternoon we’ll go by charter bus down to Keren. After a sundowner beer or wine on theooftop of a local hotel in the city centre we’ll go to the best hotel in Keren.

16.01.

In the morning we’ll visit the camel and general markets of Keren, feeling much like 13th century Arabia! In the afternoon we'll visit some of the architectural highlights of Keren. The old railway station is for sure one of them. Loco shed, turn table and warehouse buildings are still in place. Keren is full of beautiful churches and mosques and a mixture of different building styles. We’ll also visit the war cemetery from WW II. Italian troops have been beaten by British troops in 1941, near Keren was the battle of decision. Hotel in Keren

17.10.

In the morning we’ll travel from Keren to Asmara on the old embankment of the railway by 4WD cars. The line winds through very scenic landscapes and it's a pity that there are no hopes for seeing this line rebuilt in the near future. In the afternoon we’ll continue to the harbour city of Massawa, Dhalak Hotel in Massawa

18.10.

In the morning we’ll walk through the remains of the historically highly interesting city of Massawa. Massawa was destroyed in the end of the liberation war and never rebuilt. The palace of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie lies in ruins. But there is still life in the harbour city. From here we’ll go to Asmara. On the way we’ll stop at an abandoned hot spring, which was used by the Italians. In Nefasit we’ll have a look at the church before we’ll continue to Asmara, where we will see the beginning of the Timkat festival. Hotel in Asmara.

19.01.

Timkat or Timket festival in Eritrea, the Coptic Epiphany! The Christian Orthodox festival starts in the evening before and lasts the whole night. In the morning they’re still praying, dancing and celebrating, everyone dressed in white. It’s an impressive event, so far unspoiled by any tourists.
For the afternoon we’ve planned visits to the recycling market and to the Art Deco highlights of Asmara.

We’ve booked a hotel in Asmara to relax a bit before the return flight starts in the early morning.

20.01.

Early morning: return flight home, arrival in the same evening.

Railways in Eritrea

top

Line description

Although we’ll probably (hope dies last) not see the complete line from Massawa to Asmara it is described here in full. 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. 1,000m 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 about 2,400m 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 get. 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

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 changed much since the Ethiopian period or after independence. Hence you'll still find the Art Déco 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 80 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 coming from it is very tasty!

Railways in Eritrea

top

Remarks

Eritrea is facing a difficult time. In the western media you can read about the refugees from Eritrea, but you can hardly find any evidence of why so many people are leaving the country. 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. The military service can virtually hit 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 get and in case of the slightest irregularity you may lose it. 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

Having said this, you shouldn’t be concerned about lethargy or reluctance when you need something special, although they earn the same money, even if they don’t move. This amount can be so little that they rely almost entirely on the help Eritreans abroad send to their families. If they do something, but do it the wrong way, they may even lose their job or, even worse, get a national call – which everyone tries to avoid. So arranging a demanding tour can be somewhat difficult, especially since the former General Manager, Amanuel, died.

Eritrea is a country which has only recently gained independence (in 1993). Before that, a war of independence raged for decades. Even after that there was more fighting over the exact borders 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 led to a high crime rate. Eritrea is one of the safest countries in the whole of Africa. The locals are very friendly. Tourism is still in its infancy, so our hotels are of an acceptably standard only (matching 1 or 2 star hotels in Europe) but are quite clean. Sometimes hotels may have a problem with hot water supply for a shower. We try to avoid these sorts of hotels, but things can change quickly in Eritrean hotels. As Eritrea is still a young country the process of getting all official processes "streamlined" is not finished yet. Visa regulations can change with short notice in advance. But so far we always got the requested visas. Some embassies require that you pick up your visa personally.

Railways in Eritrea

Railways in Eritrea

The railway, as already mentioned, was built through very difficult terrain. There are photo locations which only have room for around 15 photographers. In these cases we’ll make several run pasts until everyone has got the shot. This also means that some discipline is required. Nobody should get in the way of others, even if their location is supposedly better. If this is indeed the case other people will feel the same and the position of the shot can be altered. Our time for photography is naturally limited by the shadows of the mountains in early morning and late evening and by the harsh light at midday. We won’t waste much energy trying to get useful shots in the midday sun. Our time is also limited by the technical limitations 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 with no chance for any kind of compensation. At least you should expect several stops on the line to raise steam pressure.

Please don’t get carried away with the scenery, we are in the mountains. One wrong step can lead to a fall that can seriously endanger your health or even 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 in the train! There will be other opportunities that can be reached more easily and will be just as good.

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 20 to 30 degrees in Asmara and Keren and around 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.

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 are popular among the poorest of the poor when they need to do a hard job as well as by soldiers of invading western troops, nothing you should even think about copying. Also short trousers indicate that you don’t care for their culture and you’re somewhat arrogant. If you see some foreign tourists wearing short trousers you can only shake your head.

Railways in Eritrea

The electricity supply (220 Volts) is reasonably dependable due to generators in our hotels; often you will need an adaptor for your plugs. There is a mobile phone network available but no western company signed a roaming contract so far. 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 to “rent ”a local SIM card at extra cost (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 pealed and/or cooked food and not drinking tap water should be abided by. Besides the local food, which you really should try, many Italian influences remain from the colonial time. It’s no problem getting a pizza in Asmara. Breakfast (except early morning departures) and dinner are planned in our hotel or restaurants not far from our hotels while lunch is a small snack which will be served in the train. Cold drinks can also be bought in the train for local prices which can’t be described being cheap any more. A 330 ml bottle of beer is now about 2 Dollars while drinking water has a very similar price!

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

We know the technical state of the Littorina, the "Litorinella" and the Krupp diesel loco only too well to add one of these vehicles to our programme. The risk of failures – if you get them out of the station of Asmara at all – is just too high. Promises to run charter trains with these are as good as a pre-election promise of an average politician to lower taxes.

Railways in Eritrea

Railways in Eritrea

The railwaymen have already entertained many groups of railway enthusiasts and know what we want and how we want it. 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 and in our case after more than two years for the first time. 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. Don’t lose your temper or spoil other people’s fun if, for example, an injector doesn’t behave itself. The quality of their coal is doubtful 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 handling these machines either. However, even with the worst possible timekeeping you’re guaranteed many very good pictures of a great mountain landscape. In the case of technical problems with the locos we might have to cancel trains with no refund possible.

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 costs you easily 30 Dollars, without alcoholic beverages.

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 again destroyed, as well as parts around Embatkala were buried under rocks and sand. You should keep in mind that weather conditions may damage a 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.

Railways in Eritrea

Hygienic and environmental standards in Eritrea do not conform to Central European, Australian or North American expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is hence 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 or cancellation. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy.

top

Price

Eritrea
Arbaroba Special: Asmara - Nefasit 22 to 37 participants £2,470
07.01.2023 – 15.01.2023 16 to 21 participants £2,740
  Single room surcharge £270
Registration Deadline: 31.10.2022
Italian Flair in Africa 6 to 30 participants £1,520
15.01.2023 – 20.01.2023 Single room surcharge £225
Registration Deadline: 16.10.2022

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

top


© FarRail Tours - e-mail: Bernd Seiler - zurück zu FarRail Tours
Click here to return to FarRail Tours