No Chance: Eritrea: Mallets to Asmara - Italian Flair in Africa

updated: 24.10.2015

The End of the Line – A Dead End

In December last year we chalked on the smokebox door of a 442, “ l’ultimo treno? ” (The last train?). Unfortunately we now need to change the question mark to a full stop.

Eritrea - the last train?

The state railway of Eritrea told me that they’re unable to run any trains, no matter which kind. They came up with a bundle of “reasons”, but those reasons are so lightweight that I even don’t want to repeat them here. They are poorly hidden excuses for saying, “we do not want to run any trains”. Technically it would be no problem to carry out our programme, but this isn’t what they want to do. They aim for higher targets.

The only option I can offer is a trip into a warmer climate while the weather is quite harsh in northern Europe. If you want to see this fascinating country, the old railway line to Keren, the camel market there, the depot with its sleeping steam and Krupp diesel locomotives as well as Fiat railcars, have stone oven pizza and cappuccino in a street coffee bar and if you want to say farewell, you’re most welcome in the warmer part of the world: 




Flight to Asmara, flights can be arranged by FarRail Tours


Early morning arrival in Asmara, transfer to our hotel and take a rest. After lunch we’ll go by bus to Keren, Hotel in Keren


In the morning visit to the camel market and the general market, In the afternoon we’ll visit the two stations in the city, Hotel in Keren.


Today we’ll go by 4WD cars to Asmara, using the old embankment of the railway, driving through tunnels and over small bridges. It will take us about 8 hours, to complete the journey over this once scenic line. Hotel in Asmara.


In the morning we’ll visit some of the highlights of Asmara, for instance, the FIAT Tagliero filling station, a masterpiece of Art Dèco, the cathedral, the central mosque and the former opera building. In the afternoon we’ll visit the railway station and try to arrange a small line-up of locomotives in front of the shed. The afternoon light should be perfect for this shot. Hotels in Asmara.


We’ll visit the famous recycling market. This market is the complete opposite of the quiet railway yard: here private enterprise dominates! From every thinkable material and structure, they’re remodelling new items for daily use. They hammer, saw, drill, weld and paint at every corner of the market. In one part they mill chilli, you can’t miss it ... In the afternoon we’ll first visit the brewery of Asmara and, if you’re still able to walk straight, we’ll have a look at the remains of 30 years of independence war – the tank cemetery. In the late afternoon we’ll continue to the Italian, military (WW II) and Jewish cemeteries nearby. Hotels in Asmara


Our tour bus will bring us to the fantastic mountain scenery at Shegereni, Unfortunately, with an idle laying railway line. Around noon we’ll continue to Dekemhare and to the valley of the gigantic trees. One of these trees is shown on the back of the five Nakfa banknote. Evening return to Asmara to our hotels.


Because we’ll be a very small group only, we will have a chance to visit the Synagoge of Asmara and meet the last Jew of the town. Afterwards we’ll make a tour to the cinemas of Asmara, everyone a sight of Art Déco. There are not many cities in Africa which can compete with the density of cinemas. Hotels in Asmara


Return flight, departure in the early morning, arrival in Europe at the same day..

Dahlak island extension possible, please enquire.



The End of the Line 10 to 18 participants £870
16.01.2016 – 24.01.2016 6 to 9 participants £1,040
  Single room surcharge £215
Registration Deadline: 06.12.2015

The price includes:

Not included:

This used to be the original program:

Steam in Eritrea

Keren Camel Market and the Old Railway Line: 16.01. – 19.01.2016

Steam in Eritrea: 19.01. – 24.01.2016

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 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.

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.

Steam in Eritrea

Getting confirmation for the tour isn’t expected to come in before September 2015. The Eritrean government has big plans about the future of the line. As Amanuel already said, they want to connect the mines near Bisha to the railway. There are several projects, and some of them could require the entire available workforce. Hence they do not want to run a tour and stop the construction, if it has finally started after so many years of discussions and negotiations.

However, we’ll try the best possible under the current circumstances. Although I included some double headers on the last tour, there is still some coal left and they promised not to use it for any purpose other than our tour. The line has been rebuilt. In February 2015 a diesel with a flat wagon from Mai Atal and a cold steam loco reached Massawa and came back to Asmara, the diesel hauled the cold steam loco. The locos went there to celebrate the victory over Ethiopia. Although the line is rebuilt down to Massawa we will not go there. The remaining coal isn’t sufficient to get us as far as Massawa. So our tour is limited to the section Asmara – Embatkalla. On this section, of around 37 km, you’ll find 22 tunnels and 9 viaducts. It’s the most spectacular section of a most spectacular line.

The capital of Eritrea, Asmara, has an irresistible Italian flair. Whether you enjoy an afternoon pizza or Cappuccino in a garden restaurant, the “Dolce Vita” is everywhere in the streets of Asmara. The Art Deco style of the buildings gives the city a real Italian feel. It’s on the list of prospects for world heritage status. If you want, you can stay a bit longer here for a holiday. You’ll not be bored!

Because Lufthansa cancelled their flights to Asmara, we'll focus on flights with Star Alliance members Egypt Air or Turkish Airlines. Neither of them flies daily and it may be necessary to change the tour dates by one or two days by the autumn when we can take the published timetable as fixed. The dates given in the itinerary at present suit the Egypt Air flights.

Steam in Eritrea: Arbaroba




outdated Itinerary


Flight to Asmara, flights can be arranged by FarRail Tours


Early morning arrival in Asmara, transfer to our hotel and take a rest. After lunch we’ll go by bus to Keren, Hotel in Keren


Visit to the camel market, the general market and the two stations in the city, in the afternoon we’ll go by 4WD cars to Asmara, hotel in Asmara


In the morning we’ll visit the depot and see our loco being prepared for the day. In the late morning we’ve planned a city tour through Asmara. Around 13.00 hrs we’ll take four freight wagons down to tunnel 22. Our loco should be the small Mallet 440 008. From tunnel 22 we’re steaming uphill to Devils Gate – we’ll take water and continue to the famous arch viaduct, then we’ll roll downhill again, our loco will run round the train in Shegereni and continue to Embatkalla which will be reached well after sunset. A bus brings us back from Shegereni to Asmara, hotel in Asmara


In the morning we go by bus to Embatkalla, where our train is waiting. Around 08.30 hrs we’ll set off for Algenet (km 87). Our loco will roll back to the road for a water supply while we go by bus to Ghinda for lunch. In the afternoon we’ll return to Algenet, around 14.00 hrs, we continue the ascent to Nefasit (arrival around 17.30 hrs). By bus back to our hotel in Asmara


We’ll return to Nefasit in the morning, where our train with 440 008 is waiting for us. We’ll take some nice shots in and around Nefasit (08.15 – 10.00 am), then we’ll go up to Lessa, where we’ll have a lunch stop in the middle of nowhere while our locomotive continues light engine to Arbaroba for water supply. After it is back we’ll continue to Arbaroba (arrival around 17:30 hrs). From there our buses will take us back to our hotel in Asmara


Today we’ll see the final ascent of 440 008 with its four freight wagons, starting from Arbaroba at 07.30 in the morning, arriving Asmara around sunset at 18.15 hrs.


This day has an optional steam programme, depending on there still being some coal. If there is no coal left, we’ll take a visit to the brewery, the tank cemetery, the Italian cemetery, the cathedral and, last but not least, the recycling market. Of course, we’re hoping for option “coal available”. This would lead us to a big Mallet, class 442, and a passenger train. The plan “coal” should allow us to haul a passenger train from Shegereni, tunnel 23, up to Asmara. In the afternoon we’ll arrange a little line-up at the depot of Asmara. Hotel in Asmara


Return flight, departure in the early morning, arrival in Europe at the same day.

A video from our December 2014 tour can be seen here:


Line description

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 2,430m 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 yet. 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 or landslides.

Steam in Eritrea

The railway, as already mentioned, was built through some 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 afternoon and by the harsh light at midday. We won’t waste 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.

After a long search we found some original head lamps. Although they might not look nice for the taste of some Europeans we’ll place them sometimes on the buffer beam of a locomotive.

camel market in Keren, Eritrea

Keren is a fascinating city, surrounded by mountains. Only a few tourists go there, so you can see authentic African life almost everywhere. The city is rich in mosques and churches and merges several architectural styles. Some of the most interesting events are the camel, the cattle and the general market, the latter one usually held in a dry river bed. The hustle and bustle of these colourful markets is remarkable. But around midday the activities fade out and the markets disappear, leaving empty places and a dry river bed. Keren is well worth a visit, especially once you've flown so far already. It will widen your horizon about Eritrea.

Cathedral in Asmara, Eritrea

Opera of Asmara, Eritrea

Asmara is the capital of Eritrea. Asmara is a gem (if not THE gem) of the Art Deco building period. 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 Art Deco 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 in the modern art of building such locations around 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 Deco style; and the beer coming from it is tasty!

Steam in Eritrea



Eritrea is a country which gained independence in 1991. Before that, an independence war raged for three 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 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 good standard (matching 1 or 2 star hotels in Europe) and are quite clean. However, hot water for a shower is a problem. If the water temperature exceeds 25 degrees Centigrade you should be happy. 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.

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, just recently, refurbished. Slow wireless Internet is available in the Lobby. The extra price for staying in this nice hotel is £320 in addition to the standard single room supplement (except when you’re travelling with your partner).

Albergo Italia Hotel, Eritrea

We expect temperatures of 25 degrees in Asmara and just below 30 degrees in Keren, where it barely cools down at night, unlike Asmara where 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 height 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, neither of which 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.

Steam 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. In Asmara and Keren there is slow internet access available.

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 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 very reasonable prices.

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.

Steam in Eritrea

We know the technical state of the Littorina, the "Litorinella" and the Krupp diesel loco only too well to risk adding one of these vehicles to our programme. The chance of using these diesels according to a plan is less than 30%. 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!

The railwaymen have already entertained several 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 a railway and with engines that are only used every few weeks. Serious delays and failures are possible. And with a temperature of 32 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. 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.

Steam in Eritrea

The line between Baresa and Massawa and, later on, between Ghinda and Embatkalla was partly destroyed by severe weather conditions in 2012, 2013 and 2014. The damages are all repaired by now, but 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.

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/US/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 or damage. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy.

Steam in Eritrea



The price includes:

Not included:

A video from our December 2014 tour can be seen here:

Steam in Eritrea


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