FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Farewell to Eritrea

Posted in Eritrea by folkestonejack on November 2, 2018

Our time in Eritrea came to an end with a convoy of cars and minibuses to take us to the airport around 11pm, ahead of a flight to Istanbul scheduled at the rather unfriendly time of 2am. You can’t enter the airport until three hours before your flight so there was little point getting there any earlier (passengers for later flights were stopped in the open air walkway to the terminal). To be honest, there are few facilities in the airport and you really wouldn’t want to be there too early.

The whole process at Asmara airport was a bit more intense than anywhere else I have been, but others who have been here before tell me that it is actually much more relaxed than it used to be.

Eritrean Stamps

A few years back they counted every bank note and repeated the process when you left, checking exchange receipts. You also had to fill in a form with the serial number of each piece of equipment that you brought in (camera, computer and lenses) which was also checked on departure to make sure you took everything out of the country. Now, there is none of that – just a thorough check of luggage and a near obsessive check of tickets/boarding passes (from our arrival to departure these were checked six times).

Once we made it through the formalities we thought we could relax, but no sooner had we sat down in the small airside departure lounge than the speakers crackled into life and called selected individuals called down to basement to open their hold baggage. This was, for example, just to check where the x-rays were not clear enough to distinguish a hairdryer from something of a more menacing nature. Slightly on edge, we sat waiting in the lounge with crickets chirping menacingly in the background and counted down the minutes to departure.

There is little in the way of distractions – just a few handicraft shops, a small bookshop, a liquor store and a bar. Most took US dollars but the bookshop only accepted Nafka. Tempting as it seemed, there was little point in buying bottles of Asmara Gin as these could not be brought through the transit security checks in Istanbul. The few books on offer in English were not light holiday reading to pick up either – one was about managing mass casualties in wartime and the other was about abdominal war wounds.

Ten Nafka Banknote

The inbound Turkish airlines flight arrived late but was turned around relatively quickly. Unsurprisingly, there was no traffic at all to slow our departure – a pleasant change from the clogged airports of Europe. Flying relatively low on a clear night offered some terrific views of the night lights of Port Sudan and the communities strung out along the Nile in between short bursts of sleep.

I was quite bleary eyed by the time we landed at Istanbul around 6.30am but mustered up the last reserves of energy to find my way through the brightly lit terminal to the queue for transit. I had no need to hurry with a long gap before my onward flight. The nightmarish scene at the gates was a shocker, with staff screaming at and mimicking passengers who hadn’t followed their precise instructions. I passed through smoothly enough but felt sorry for those targeted. Not a great advert for Istanbul’s plans to challenge for the world’s top transit hub with their new airport.

Although I was only halfway home it was good to relax a little at Istanbul before a flight to London Gatwick in the afternoon. I finally made it through my front door around 5pm and didn’t take long to collapse into a long and much needed sleep.

Fiat-astic Eritrea

Posted in Eritrea by folkestonejack on November 1, 2018

One of the things that the guidebooks don’t mention about Eritrea is that as well as the marvelous modernist buildings and natural wonders there is also an abundance of vintage vehicles on the roads.

In particular, there are some gorgeous FIAT trucks (manufactured 1952-88) and cute FIAT 500 driving school cars (manufactured 1957-75) on the roads. I gather that this is changing, as those who had been to Eritrea before noted an increase in trucks manufactured in China, but right now there are still enough around to catch your eye fairly regularly.

A FIAT 682 truck in front of the San Francesco Church (Paolo Reviglio, 1938)

I think my favourite would have to be the FIAT 682 trucks, produced between 1952 and 1988, which became known by the name “Leone d’Africa” ​​(King of Africa). I am no expert on road vehicles, so I’ll let the pictures of the vintage vehicles (mostly Fiats) do the talking…


Cimitero Italiano di Asmara

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on November 1, 2018

The cultural tour was officially over, leaving me with a free day to mop up a few last sights by myself. I made the decision to take a walk to the west, up Beirut Street to the high ground overlooking the city. This brought me to the doorstep of the church of St Michael (1957), a relative youngster compared to most of the churches in the city. The church was closed when I turned up, but the faithful were undeterred by this – kneeling on the steps and praying in front of the locked doors.

The gates of the Italian Cemetery in Asmara

Across the road from the church was my intended destination, the Cimitero Italiano di Asmara, where many of the individuals who established and ran the country in the colonial era can be found, as well as their many descendants. After spending days admiring the city it felt only right to come and pay homage to the people who left such a lasting legacy for future generations.

The first Italian settlement was established on a spot of high ground at the centre of the Asmara plain, named Campo Cintato, but it was soon recognised that it was vulnerable defensively. In 1889 General Baldissera ordered the occupation of the high ground to the west of the city, a move which required the relocation of the existing village of Biet Mekae. A large fort was constructed in its place – Forto Baldissera – and the cemetery was established in close proximity to its southern gates.

All traces of the fort have long gone, but the cemetery has remained in use ever since. It has always had a strong military association. Some of the earliest burials in the cemetery were of the soldiers who had taken part and fallen in the campaign to seize the highlands (as well as others veterans of the campaign who lived into old age, such as Vincenzo Giannavola). Today, the cemetery holds the remains of 178 soldiers who died in military service up to 1950, some in formally delineated military plots while others were located among the civilian graves.

I noted a few of the many military graves on my wanders. These included Capitano Giacomo Stevenson (1892); DalPiaz Giovanni (1889); Sergente Maggiore Lareschi Umberto (1919); Maggiore Cav. Luigi Ferrari, Comandante d’Artiglieria (1920); Sergente Maggiore Quero Antonio (1898-1923); Capitano Medico Dottore Giuseppe Bagarotto (1886-1920); Luogotenente Generale Vittorio Verne (1915); S. Tenente Talamo Tarchi (1921-41) and cavalry Lieutenant Santilli Oscar (1913-41) who fought in the battle at Keren and died on the Asmara front.

Memorial to Giulio Rebecchi inside one of the ornate tombs

There are also other memorials of note from the Second World War, such as the Asmara born partisan fighter Giulio Rebecchi (1924-45) whose nickname of ‘the lucky charm’ was sadly not true enough to save him on a dangerous reconnaissance operation to supply intelligence on the strength of the fascist forces on the Bologna front in April 1945.

Among the most ornate tombs from the nineteenth century you could see that the grass had been cut and neatly stacked, while in other parts of the cemetery workers were busy tidying graves. It must take some effort to keep nature from reclaiming the space but I gathered that funding provided through the Italian Embassy has helped. Not everything had been cleaned up – the lanterns inside some of the grandest tombs had been adopted by birds who had successfully converted them into impressive nests!

One of the most striking graves in the cemetery was that of Ferruccio Vignali (Milan 1908 – Asmara 1947), described on his tombstone as an exemplary husband and father, as well as an ardent and irreverent soul. Ferrucio’s passion for the sport of motorbike racing that would ultimately climb his life is represented through a sculpture of a rider in goggles.

The striking sculpture and a photograph from the tomb for Ferruccio Vignali

I spent a good couple of hours walking around the cemetery before heading back to the centre of town for a look inside the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary (1923), usually just referred to as the cathedral, and a reviving drink at the bar inside the Opera House (1918).

In the afternoon I continued my exploration of art deco Asmara with a walk that took in the marvelously preserved interior of Crispi Bar (est. 1938), the former soap factory (1937) and the BAT offices (1938). Those last few visits took me over 5,000 photographs for the trip which seemed like a good place to stop. Time to chill out in the hotel, pack and prepare for the journey homeward.


Recycling and reinvention

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 31, 2018

One quirky attraction in Asmara is the recycling market, or Medeber Market, on Qelhamet Street. It was, at one time, the home of the Caravanserraglio (literally a stopping off point for caravans travelling across the country) but gradually developed into a manufacturing centre by the 1950s and now to its current role as a recycling centre.

Sign at the recycling market

The first thing that hits you as you enter is the incredible sound of bashing, battering and clanging accompanied by sparks from welding equipment. All around you can see the result – rows of crosses and pans fashioned from scrap metal, bed frames constructed from poles and belts being cut by knife from old tyres. It is truly incredible to see the ingenuity on display, adapting old material to fit new purposes.

It’s worth paying close attention to the materials awaiting adaptation, which seemed to include an East German motorbike from the 1950s/60s, and to the craftsman setting about their work who often wear the most remarkable improvised googles and shields as the photographer Ayla Hibri captured in The welders.

Little remains of the original buildings. Those buildings which hadn’t fallen into ruin by the mid twentieth century were mostly destroyed by a large fire in 1958 and subsequently replaced by small manufacturing workshops in the 1960s. Today, just the entrance gateway from Odoardo Cavagnari’s 1914 construction stands to greet visitors. Nevertheless, it’s a striking sight.

The site is also home to a number of chilli-pepper mills. It’s quite something to wander that section of the market as the intensity of the chilli powder is so strong that you can only bear to stay in the area for a minute or two before your eyes start to suffer. I have total respect for the women working at those mills and the stalls attached to them. I don’t know how they do it day in, day out!


The tank graveyard

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 31, 2018

The tank graveyard is one of the more unusual sights in Asmara, located roughly 1km from the Fiat Tagliero Garage on the outskirts of the city. At a first glance, it can be a little hard to spot on satellite maps of the city as the density of the tangled metal makes it look like thick forest. It gives no sense of what you will actually see on the ground or the strangeness of the arrangement.

Inside Asmara’s tank graveyard

Our guides handled the process of obtaining the permits needed to visit the site, giving us an hour to explore the vast piles of scrapped vehicles left over from the thirty year war for independence. It is sort of a war memorial but not necessarily a permanently fixed one – members of our group who had been here before noted that some vehicles no longer appeared to be at the site.

I had seen pictures of the graveyard before I arrived but nothing prepares you for the extraordinary scale of the place, nor the fascinating detail visible as you wander around. Among the strange sights were a Berlin bus; a Fowler traction engine (stamped with the number 16555); a MiG; various railcars; an assortment of cars; a tank or two; some Eritrean airways steps; a boiler manufactured by E. Loman (I think) of Chatham Street, Manchester; medical phials and empty shell cases. Ultimately, the rusting relics of war make a sobering sight.


Architectural wonders of Asmara

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 31, 2018

Our trip to Eritrea gave us an opportunity to visit some of the most interesting sights in Asmara, ranging from off-beat sights like the recycling market to the stunning modernist buildings that saw the city added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in July 2017.

Eritrea was Italy’s first colonial outpost in Africa and a stepping stone towards grander ambitions of an Italian empire to rival the Romans. Asmara was established as the capital in 1897 but the growth of the city was relatively modest until the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 triggered a massive increase in the size of the Italian population (rising from 4,000 to close to 70,000 in a decade). In the six years that followed an entire city was constructed in modernist styles. A relative lack of development means that this is still largely the city before you today.

Asmara is a relatively compact city so most places are easily reached on foot and a copy of the Asmara City Map and Historic Perimeter (Municipality of Asmara and the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project, 2003) makes it easy to locate the most interesting buildings. There are a few books that are really helpful in explaining the background to the architectural wonders of the city, but my recommendation would be ‘Asmara: Africa’s secret modernist city’ by Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren and Nancy Gebremedhin (Merrell, 2003).

I have picked out a few highlights, but I found plenty to admire wherever I wandered. Although the big set-pieces were superb I got just as much delight from discovering the humblest buildings superbly realised in modernist styles.

1. Fiat Tagliero Service Station

The former Fiat Tagliero Service Station is the poster child for the art deco wonders of Asmara, featuring heavily in articles and tourist promotions. It is entirely justified too – this place has a visual impact like no other building in the city. It is no longer in use, but its architectural value has long been recognised.

The former Fiat Tagliero service station (Giuseppe Pettazzi, 1938)

The styling of the building is spectacular enough in its own right, giving the appearance of an aeroplane with its streamlined office and striking wings. However, the real marvel is that Giuseppe Pettazzi was brave enough to deliver those spectacular unsupported 30 metre cantilevered concrete wings in the face of considerable opposition.

Not everyone shared this confidence in Pettazi’s engineering skill and the authorities insisted that the building be constructed with wooden support columns underneath. Legend has it that the architect put a gun to the head of the builder before he would remove them…

2. Società Anonima Alfa Romeo (Unknown architect, 1937)

The former branch office of Alfa Romeo looked to be in a sorry state when we visited. The plastering over the breeze blocks is steadily disappearing, many of the windows are broken and the decorative flagpoles are now decidedly wonky. Somehow the faded grandeur of its entrance still manages to impress and the lasting legacy of the name can be seen in the eateries and internet cafes nearby named after the company.

The crumbling exterior of the Società Anonima Alfa Romeo (Architect unknown, 1937)

Seeing the state of this building and others like it reminded me that the unique selling point of Asmara, in terms of the extent and consistency of the modernist architecture across the city, is also its downfall. Maintaining one architecturally significant building is one thing, but maintaining an entire city of architecturally significant buildings is quite another!

3. Cinema Capitol

The Cinema Capitol offers another striking design, intended to visually represent a reel of film. It has not had the luckiest of histories, having been destroyed by fire in 1941 and then repaired in 1944. Today, it looks very much need of more love and restoration.

Cinema Capitol (Danielle Ruggero, 1938)

As the cinema is just over the road from the grounds of the Presidential Palace and located in close proximity to other ministerial buildings we didn’t hang around long with our cameras. The guidebooks provide ample warning of the perils of photographing government buildings and we didn’t want to put this to the test. Later, when photographing buildings near the American Embassy a guard came out to make sure that we didn’t point our cameras in the wrong direction!

4. Cinema Impero (Mario Messina, 1937)

The maroon exterior of the Cinema Impero with its illuminated roundels always draws the eye whenever you pass, but is actually situated in an architectural hotspot among striking large commercial, residential and municipal buildings from the same era. It’s still in use today and the caretaker was kind enough to unlock the doors from the lobby so that we could take a look at the two-storey interior of the auditorium.

Cinema Impero (Mario Messina, 1937)

The auditorium is quite wonderful, still retaining (I assume) its original wooden seating on both levels. On the walls you can see stucco decorative elements that included two horned antelopes gracefully leaping over cacti, palm trees and some athletic figures. However, my favourite element would have to be the pillars decorated with lions’ heads at the front of the stalls.

Lions at Cinema Impero

One of the buildings I didn’t photograph, for obvious reasons, was the Ministry of Education. This monumental building, originally the Casa del Fascio (Fascist Party Headquarters), was built in the late 1920s, then extended in 1940. It would have featured a fascist eagle on its frontage and included a balcony for delivering speeches to the masses on what would, at that time, have been Viale Mussolini. Some say that the appearance of the F on its back was a sly criticism from the architect but I’m not sure that I buy that.

Other highlights from my stay included a villa from the 1930s (re-opened on 6th September 2018 as the Ethiopian Embassy); the Central Post Office (1916); the medieval styled villa and offices of the Ministry of Water Resources from the 1910s (known as ‘the Castle’ in its early days, it acquired a darker history when it was converted into a prison by the Derg regime); the Market (1938); the Grand Mosque (1906); the Asmara Soap Factory (1937); Tamoil Service Station (1937); Ministry of Tourism (1938); Cinema Roma (1937); the now waterless Mai Jah Jah fountain (1938); Bar Zilli (1930s); and the Asmara Swimming Pool (1945).

A villa, later used as offices for the World Bank and now the Ethiopian Embassy

Our sightseeing in the city has been spread over a few days, but even if you didn’t intend to seek out the modernist architecture you soon discover that they pervade the entire city and that any drive will reveal countless wonders. There are too many for the guidebooks to document, which makes every turn of a street corner exciting.


Travelling down the old trackbed to Asmara

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 30, 2018

The chances of seeing the restoration of the railway line between Keren and Asmara seem pretty slim, but the trackbed is still driveable using four wheel drive vehicles. After our experience of the road from Asmara to Keren, which winds its way over the hilltops, I was intrigued to see how different the route forged by the railway engineers would be. The railway takes a much lower route, never straying too far from the river Anseba, so I hoped that at the very least the scary bends and precipices of the road wouldn’t be repeated!

A rare piece of track in situ at Halib-Mentel

As we set off in a convoy of four vehicles we all wondered how good the condition of the old trackbed would be, knowing all too well the problems with the section between Asmara and Massawa. Initially, the indications were not terribly good. A short while after leaving Keren (8.15) we left the road and joined the track (8.30) at a point where the track cuts across the main road near Halib-Mentel. We didn’t make it far before we were forced to return to the main road (8.45). Our drivers said the trackbed was in no condition for the cars.

We continued our drive down the main road, passing what our driver described as a former orange plantation established by the Italians in the early twentieth century. There was scant evidence of this to the untrained eye, bar for a villa and church overlooking the site that our driver pointed out to us. It was a familiar story – many of the terraces on the hillsides that we had seen during our week on the railway had once been planted with orange trees and the like.

In his book ‘Keren: A handbook’ (Francescana Printing Press, 2007) the late historian Mebrahtu Abraham explains that in the first phase of Italian colonisation the plan had been to re-settle unemployed Italians in large numbers and this would in turn help their agricultural projects. The rich arable land of the highlands in which Keren sits were a prime target for re-organisation into modern farms. In 1893 one of these settlers had established a modern farm at Ela Bared growing tobacco, green peppers and oranges. I assume this was the same farm that our driver had been trying to point out to us.

The ruins of the station at Ela Bared – including bullet holes from the war of independence

At Ela Bared we turned off the main road, taking a local road under a railway bridge (part of the old alignment of the railway), over the dry bed of a tributary, across the river Anseba, along a dusty track and finally reached the ruins of the station building at Ela Bared (9.30). The station platform and building have survived, albeit as a shell, with a square water tank wagon dating to 1915 (according to a plate on its side). There was also a circular structure above the station, presumably a water tank, with holes where a ladder must once have been attached.

The station building was marked with bullet holes from the thirty year war of independence (1961-1991). The railway and the passengers who relied upon it often ended up in the front line, as can be seen by a photograph from December 1970 showing a rebel soldier, with a Soviet made submachine gun, guarding passengers who appear to have been forced to disembark at Asciadira and another showing the deliberate derailment of a train at Asciadira.

It was good to finally reach the railway and be in a position to start our journey in earnest, starting with the ‘new’ alignment of the railway. The first surprise as we started to drive along the line was just how much track was still around, usually stacked up to the side of the trackbed. At a stop by a bridge (10.00) we noted that most of this track was of US origin and dated 1919.

The spot featured in one of the most striking photographs from the 1940s

The next sights on our drive were the ruined station at Furkutu (10.45) and the two giant boulders just beyond (10.50) where one of the most well known photographs of the railway was taken in the 1940s (a Littorina between the boulders). It wasn’t long before we approached the entrance to tunnel 33, which surprised our driver who seemed to suggest that he hadn’t expected to drive ‘underground’.

I thought we had discovered Big Bird’s nest (of Sesame Street fame) but sadly the more mundane explanation was that haystacks were being constructed in the trees, presumably to help the hay dry quicker after the recent rain. After passing through the tunnel (11.00) and through tunnel 32 (11.15) we reached the next station at Amba Derho (11.45) to find that it too was being used for hay storage.

Big Bird’s Nest

Our four car convoy provided an entertaining runpast at a stone arched bridge (12.15). Besides the bridge we noted the presence of lumps of coal from the 1970s, which presumably fell off the loco at this spot before the line met its end.

At the next stop, at Abrascicò station (12.35) we took a longer stop, soaking up the atmosphere of the community that had sprung up around the station. The station building still has its name sign, which most have lost, and looked considerably better cared for as a family home. One of our group soon found himself surrounded by kids and led an impromptu and slightly bonkers english and drawing lesson which thoroughly won over the locals.

Abrascicò station

Our journey onward continued, reaching tunnel 31 in the early afternoon (13.30) where we noted a changeover from earth to something more like ballast on the trackbed. A little later we reached the next station on the line, Andennà (13.45), followed by the scenic setting of Dem Sebài (14.15) just after a single arched bridge in a narrow valley. Next up was tunnel 30 (14.30) and a sequence of three bridges. Not only was the scenery spectacular, the wildlife was pretty impressive too – ranging from squirrel like creatures to a family of jackals.

The final stop on our drive down the line was at a water column standing in splendid isolation on a relatively open stretch of track near Zazzega. There were a few blocks on a spot overlooking the column, but I couldn’t see any sign of any surviving station buildings. Of course, it is possible that we may have left the trackbed before reaching the station site. We turned off the line (15.25) as it crossed what looks like a relatively fresh unsealed red road, driving up to the main road into Asmara. It didn’t take long from this point to reach our accommodation at the Savanna Hotel (16:00).

Water column at Zazzega

It has been a wonderful day and gave us all a fascinating glimpse of the quite different scenery on this stretch of the line. It doesn’t look as though there would be any major obstacles to relaying a line on this route if the desire to do this is there barring for some re-grading of the trackbed and repair work to a few of the structures along the route.


Railway remnants in Keren

Posted in Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 29, 2018

Our afternoon sightseeing in Keren gave us a chance to see some of the remains of the railway in the city. The railway line to Keren opened in 1922 and was a significant factor in the development of the city, helping to transport the agricultural produce of the surrounding area to the capital. Two round trips a week brought passengers to and from Asmara.

The old station at Chèren-Tantarùa

The first stop on our tour was the station building at Chèren-Tantarùa at 222km from Massawa, just a short distance from the Sarina Hotel. The suburbs of Keren have swallowed this place up, so it no longer sits in isolation to serve a village. The station building has been adapted for housing and demonstrates the contradictions of life in Eritrea today – there are four satellite dishes on the roof but no-one has been sufficiently bothered to repair the roof, which is now falling in.

The next railway relic on our list was the depot at Keren, located 2km further on, now in use as a bus workshop and repair facility. The turntable and water tank from the railway are still visible here. A short walk away from the depot is the former station building for Keren (Chèren), now at the heart of the bus station. Inside the original decoration is still visible in the cafe with murals depicting local scenes on the walls and ceiling.

The old station at Keren (Chèren)

Finally, we visited one of the last remaining semaphore signals on the line between Keren and Agordat. It now stands in splendid isolation at a crossroads in the middle of a cluster of houses.

The railway may be long gone but it is clearly far from forgotten, as we encountered murals depicting the railway in two locations – one near the Giro Fiori roundabout and the other opposite the Ditta de Ponti building. Maybe one day the sound of steam engines will reverberate here once again, hard as that is to imagine right now.


Sightseeing in Keren

Posted in Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 29, 2018

Although the camel market was always going to the highlight of our day sightseeing in Keren there was still plenty to occupy our time all the way through to sunset. I will cover the railway remnants we visited in the next post, but here is a quick round up of the other sights we visited.

A view of Keren towards the Grand Mosque (built 1896, renovated 1956)

My out of print guidebook only devotes a few paragraphs to the city but a small 57 page book (Keren: A handbook by Mebrahtu Abraham) about the origin and development of Keren is available from the bookshop at the Giro Fiori roundabout. It’s an important work, based on interviews, that collects strands of local history that could all too easily have been lost.

Although the Italian period of rule tends to get the most attention, it is worth remembering that the Turks and the Egyptians had sought to colonize the area first. Indeed, wherever you wander in Keren you are overlooked by the hilltop Tigu Fort, built by the Egyptians during their short lived occupation of Keren (circa 1865 to 1884).

Our time in the city gave us ample opportunity to see some of the key sights, listed below, but this should not be regarded as a complete list of sights to see in Keren as there are other places that we did not get to, such as the Grand Mosque. Nor did we did not seek the permits needed to go and visit the battlefield sites outside the city.

1. The General Market

The general market, located on a dried up river bed in the centre of town, is a colourful affair and fascinating to watch from the bridge or mingling with the crowds. I was most fascinated to see camels loaded up with straw for roofing at the far end of the market. You would have thought I would have seen enough camels for one day, but apparently not.

The colourful sights of the general market

If you find yourself needing a drink to cool down after a visit to the market I can happily recommend the Red Sea Bar, located at a spot overlooking the nearby Giro Fiori roundabout. It was a pleasure to watch the world go by from their shaded outdoor tables.

2. The Shrine of Mariam Daa’rit

On a slow October day the shrine in the hollow trunk of a giant baobab tree seemed a quiet spot, but on one special day in May each year pilgrims come from far and wide to pray at this site and to see the bronze statue of the Madonna that was installed in 1878.

The shrine that contains the Madonna of the Baobab

It is said that a group of Italian soldiers sheltering inside during a mortar bombardment in 1941 emerged unscathed, despite a bomb breaching the tree (a scar which survives to the present day).

3. The Italian War Cemetery

The Italian war cemetery, laid out in 1950, is situated in a peaceful compound just off a dusty square. The site holds over 1200 burials, split in half between Eritreans and Italians with the flags of each country flying over the opposite section in reflection of their status as brothers in arms.

The Italian War Cemetery

It appeared to us as though they were treated as equals in death, though in his handbook the late historian Mebrahtu Abraham notes that the majority of the Eritrean graves have no names or ranks, whereas the opposite is true of the Italian graves.

4. Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery

The largest battle in Eritrea during the Second World War took place just outside the city of Keren in early 1941, following the withdrawal of Italian forces from Agordat. The Italian forces positioned 23,000 riflemen and a mixture of mortars and machine guns in the heights surrounding the deep gorge that carried the road in to Keren and on to the Eritrean plateau.

After months of hard fighting British forces led a surprise attack from the shelter of railway tunnel number 3, under Cameron Ridge, once it was cleared of mines. This action allowed the British to capture two crucial hills, Railway Bumps and Railway Ridge, which would ultimately lead to the fall of Keren. In turn, this was followed by the surrender of Asmara and Massawa.

Keren War Cemetery

The appearance of Keren War Cemetery would be pretty familiar to anyone who has visited the battlefields of France and Flanders, albeit with earth rather than grass at your feet. The grounds contain 440 Commonwealth burials from the Second World War, of which 35 are ‘Known unto God‘. A separate cremation memorial stands within the cemetery to remember 285 Sikh and Hindu soldiers from India and Pakistan killed on the battlefield at Keren.

5. The Italian Quarter

The central district of Maekelay Ketema, known as the Italian Quarter, was reserved for the Italians during their time in power here. It holds some of the most striking buildings in the city, including the Ditta de Ponti building (1916), the former Governor’s House, the villa of the Italian Police Commissioner (1910s), the red brick Catholic Cathedral of St Antonio (1932), the Cinema Impero and the Casa del Fascio (1930s).

Some of these buildings have been restored, such as the former Governor’s House, which is now a municipal office. Others looked to be in varying states of decline and decay.

The Ditta de Ponti building

Not all the sights in this area were historic – a modern cathedral of St Antonio has been constructed alongside the older church (2006) with striking blue domes. Amusingly, a closer examination of the Cinema Impero showed a notice for a screening of the upcoming match for Crystal Palace (my local team) which was the last thing I expected to see here!

6. Rooftop bar at Hotel Keren

Our day came to an end at the Keren Hotel (1971) which offers a rooftop bar with a marvelous view over the city and a ready supply of Asmara beer. It proved to be a popular spot – we shared the sunset with two other groups: an Italian tour party and a German medical mission based in the city.

The Keren Hotel and observation tower

The hotel is topped by a rather precarious observation tower, located atop a seemingly unsupported concrete column with a wobbly metal staircase strapped around it. It can only support a couple of visitors at a time. When an entire tour party turned up and tried to climb up everyone screamed in unison. The mime of a collapsing tower didn’t need much explanation! In truth, I am not sure the small improvement in view merits the risk involved – the view is perfectly fine from the rooftop terrace.


Camels for sale

Posted in Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 29, 2018

The weekly camel market, held on Mondays, is one of the must see tourist sights in Keren according to my old and out-of-print guidebook. The market is located in a walled compound a little way out of town on the road to Nafka, accessed from the sandy bed of a dried-up river. It actually offers much more than camels, including goats and cattle, but inevitably it was the more exotic creatures that caught my attention.

The camel and cattle markets

Although the market nominally starts around 8am, a few of us opted to skip breakfast and head down to the market am hour and a half earlier to see the camel market being set up. It wasn’t that hard a decision to make, having seen how painfully slow it had been for the hotel to rustle up dinner the previous night. In truth, after a week of omelette for breakfast and omelette rolls for lunch (with the occasional chilli to catch you off guard) I was happy never to see another omelette again!

I wondered if I had made the right call when the bus dropped off, sensing that despite the market’s appeal as a tourist attraction we were the only westerners wandering around. However, after the initial curiosity faded everyone got back to herding their charges towards the market, setting up their stalls and greeting their fellow traders. Nevertheless, with animals wandering in every direction, you still had to keep your wits about you.

The spectacle felt timeless. I think you could have stumbled into the same place a couple of centuries back and seen hardly any differences in the way that the market operated. A little bit of negotiation on the dry river bed, perhaps a cup of tea brewed in a structure assembled on the morning and then the main event. It was a privilege to be able to be able to wander so freely and watch events unfold.

Inside the camel market

Inside the compound potential buyers were testing the abilities of the camels for sale from sitting down to getting on their knees and so on. There must have been at least 50 camels in the compound when we arrived, though it is hard to be precise as the numbers were fairly fluid. Camels were still being led to market as we left, while others were already on their way home with their new owners.

Beyond the camel compound was a much larger market for cattle, including a ploughing area to put potential purchases to the test. I would guess there were around a couple of hundred animals in this space.

Upon entering the cattle market, I noticed that the man in front of me had dropped an envelope containing all the money he had obviously brought to buy some animals. I tried calling out, but quickly realised that no amount of calling in English was going to succeed. I picked up the stash and went to run after him, but then stumbled on the uneven ground and almost started a cattle stampede! The commotion of the one bull I had managed to startle was enough to get the trader to turn round and I was able to return his cash. All’s well that ends well…

One last train of camels on the way to market

Our time at the market came to an end at 9 o’clock. It was long enough a stay for me to have racked up a couple of hundred photographs, but there was still room for a last photo or two as a camel train passed by on the way to market. You can never have too many camel photographs it seems!


The road to Keren

Posted in Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 28, 2018

Our week long photo charter through the mountains might have been over, but we were far from done with Eritrea.

On the morning after the photo-charter I joined a smaller group to see the sights of the capital, Asmara, and the second largest city in Eritrea, Keren. To some extent we had already seen quite a few of the sights of the capital as we traveled to and from the railway, but Keren would be entirely new to us. I was intrigued to discover how far the Italian influence extended beyond Asmara.

The railway line between Asmara and Keren has not been restored so our journey would take us on the winding roads through the rugged hills and then down into the river valley to the city. It is approximately 80km north-west of Asmara. Our initial estimate was two hours, but it turned out to be closer to three and a half hours allowing for stops along the way.

The debris of war sits beside the road to Keren

Along the way the drive, which began at 2.30pm, gave us an opportunity to see the changing landscapes of the Anseba Region as well as some of the debris left over from the 30 year war for independence. At one spot we stopped to see two armoured vehicles by the roadside, then a tank in a gully and lastly a village with two rusting tanks as a centrepiece. I opted to skip the last ‘request stop’ as the bus was besieged by kids with baskets of fruit trying to make a sale.

Besides the relics of war there was plenty of stunning scenery to admire, though one memorial at a hairpin bend illustrated the perils of the road. At another we saw a mother nursing a goat that she had just given birth to and then for good measure some children waved chickens at us as we left the hills and drove along the valley floor! Striking also to see the change in building styles, with many traditional huts with thatched roofs now included in the mix, as well as industrial activity, such as the brick making on display all along the riverside.

The sun was just dropping below the hills as we walked into our hotel for the next two nights, the Hotel Sarina, located just on the edge of town. Indeed, it could be described as being barely in the sprawl of today’s city – the official checkpoint for entry was located just outside the hotel gates.

The hotel looks somewhat plusher than the one we left behind in Asmara, with a soft bed that I could already feel tempting me. I even have a balcony that overlooks the huts on the fringe of the city and a selection of abandoned/burnt out cars by the petrol station. It’s not perfect (curtains falling off the rails, power sockets coming off the walls and only half the lights work) but it will do. The only real difficulty was trying to get food before falling asleep – it took one and a half hours for the hotel restaurant to serve up the pizza I ordered for dinner!


Last thoughts from the Eritrean lineside

Posted in Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 27, 2018

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on this remarkable railway at the farthest end of the steam age, somehow clinging on against the odds. The line’s revival and restoration in the aftermath of the thirty year war help was one of the most unlikely railway stories of the 1990s and seeing the beautiful scenery along the line amply demonstrates the massive tourist potential it has. It might be some way off its best right now, but I hope one day it is able to deliver on its full potential again.

The sun sets over Asmara, as seen from the railway depot on the last day of the railway tour

There are many complex issues behind the difficulties that we experienced on our week long photo-charter, but I was glad to have seen the railway in action at all having thought that my opportunities had passed a few years ago. To be fair to the railway, it would have been remarkable if the whole operation had gone 100% to plan after a three year gap in photo-charters like this.

The ultimate test of a trip is what you bring back in the way of images and memories. My collection of photographs certainly looks every bit as good as those I have brought back from trips in other parts of the world, if not better. In part that is testament to the astonishing scenery to be found on every stretch of this railway but also to Bernd’s ability to get the best out of the limited resources available.In other words, my glass is at least half full rather than half empty!

I had long thought that this would be my one and only trip to Eritrea but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a repeat, particularly if the line to Massawa re-opens and if the railway gets a grip on the problems with its loco fleet. I can understand entirely why one member of our group has been back 14 times.

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Double header at the devil’s gate

Posted in Eritrea, Shegereni by folkestonejack on October 27, 2018

Our final afternoon on the tracks saw us return to Shegereni with a double header (440.008 and 442.56) on a mixed freight (it was supposed to be the freight wagons on their own but when we turned up the passenger coach had been included in the consist). From Shegenereni we rolled down to tunnel 23 and began our climb back from there.

The stunning scenery of Eritrea combined with a double headed mixed train at the Devil’s Gate

The afternoon had its moments, including a terrific shot of the track curving away from tunnel 24 and the magnificent sight of the double header at the Devil’s Gate with the valley beyond. However, it also had moments that tested your patience, such as the slow re-filling of the water tanks from a road tanker, and a bittersweet moment with our locos taking so long to come back that an absolutely beautifully lit shot was lost. In that sense, the afternoon reflected the trip overall.

The afternoon could hardly be faulted for a lack of action – two runpasts at tunnel 23; another through a cutting a little further on; two runpasts at the S curve before tunnel 27; four runpasts at the Devil’s Gate; two runpasts at the four arch viaduct; a runpast by the three arch bridge near the house with tyres for window frames; two runpasts at a curve in the track by the new dam between tunnels 28 and 29; a runpast on a curve with a terrific mountain view; the bittersweet shot and then an arrival shot in Asmara.

A lovely scene, beautifully illuminated with a short-lived burst of sunlight

In the pause in the action at the Devil’s Gate I opted to take a wander round the track to appreciate the full magnificence of the track – cliambering down from the road bridge, around the curve, through the single-track tunnel and then up to the Bar Durfo. Such impressive, cliff-hugging track. Was it really necessary? Some say that the engineers were simply showing off their brilliance, but to me it looked like it was necessary to negotiate the bend. The road bend is quite tight at this point and some vehicles have clearly not made it from the looks of the mangled barriers.

Once our double headed train had taken the passenger coach and freight wagons into the station at Asmara they returned to the shed light engine separately. One dropped its fire as we watched while the other sat patiently on the turntable as the crew gathered for our farewell. It was good to have the opportunity to thank them for all their hard work and be able to donate some good working clothes and other gifts for them and their families.


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Track sanding at sunrise

Posted in Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 27, 2018

The last day on the tracks for us presented a final opportunity to try and get the sunrise shot that had been eluding us. It required everything to go to plan.

First, the buses had to leave the hotels on time at 5.15am. Second, our train had to leave the station at Asmara at 5.30am in order to reach the summit of the line in good time for the rising sun. Lastly, there had to be enough time spare for the loco to run around so that it would be running chimney first for our runpasts. It didn’t seem overly ambitious but we were all aware how little had worked smoothly over the past week.

Steam at the summit at sunrise

On this occasion more or less everything came together perfectly but between every shot we had to dash from our photo positions to hack sandy earth from the ground and then pour it onto the slippery rails on the gradient. The effort was rewarded by some lovely opportunities for sunrise shots in absolutely beautiful light. Hopefully everyone got something out of that.

After the sun had risen a little higher we returned to the S curve beyond the next tunnel and got into place ready to take a photograph. However, the loco was really struggling to reach our position. Many of us answered the unsurprising call for us to put some sand down on the track but by the time we had walked halfway to the tunnel we suddenly heard the unmistakable sound of the loco coming. Everyone ran back, got into position and picked up their cameras. If anyone was shooting video at this point I am quite sure they would have picked up a soundtrack of a collective panting for breath…

As the morning’s photography concluded we found ourselves back at the familiar setting of the four arch viaduct (at the 113km post) and once again a donkey carrying water appeared to join the scene, led by its young handler. The shot looked perfect but shortly before the train arrived we got six for the price of one. Trying to create some order out of the ensuing chaos seemed near impossible. A busy shot with the legs cut off the donkeys was the best that I could manage. Not one for the photo albums.

Six wheels…

…or two?

It was time to call time on the morning session. While our loco ran light to get water we climbed up the hillside to our three buses for the short journey back to our hotels. At the top of the hill we were amused to see a vintage lorry chugging up the hill with a couple of cyclists getting a tow up. Two wheels or six – both seemed to have a much easier time with the mountain gradients than our eight wheelers!


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Levelling up

Posted in Eritrea, Shegereni by folkestonejack on October 26, 2018

A short drive up the road from the Devil’s Gate brought us to a marvelous viewpoint with a view looking down on three levels of the railway line that loops round and round to gain height. The plan for the afternoon was to attempt an ambitious sequence of shots as our loco climbed its way to the top. The backdrop was truly stunning, the scene was beautifully lit and all we needed was for the loco to play its part. What could go wrong!?

442.55 climbing the middle of the three levels

I think we all knew the answer to that question, but everyone hoped that a miracle could be performed as we watched our train roll down to the lowest level a little after 1.15pm. It was an incredible place to watch our train in action with scope for terrific pictures from a variety of viewpoints along the road. I made my stand at a crumbling clifftop but the longer the climb took the more I became tempted by the other spots nearby, eventually ending up in a backyard with a crowing cock.

Our loco perhaps made the challenge a little harder than it needed to, rolling down farther than was absolutely necessary. On the way up it came to a halt twice with pressure problems and by the time it reached the highest level an hour and a half later the sun had completely gone. The train then rolled back to the Devil’s Gate to take on some more water. All the while the dark clouds rolled in. We could do nothing but wait and hold on to the hope that there would be better conditions over the summit.

Progress beyond this point was painful. Our loco kept stopping to build up pressure, never getting very far on each attempt. At 5pm we were still a few hundred feet away from the summit but that looked like an almost impossible challenge. In the end it was only the extra help from tour participants sanding the track using beer cans that helped the loco get over the top. All the while the rumble of thunder crept closer and the air felt increasingly moist. Somehow we avoided the rain that was clearly coming and reached Asmara at 5.25pm.


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Misty morning in Arbaroba

Posted in Arbaroba, Eritrea, Shegereni by folkestonejack on October 26, 2018

A new day, a new plan and some hope that we might see more action than yesterday. I’m not sure what this expectation was founded on, but in any case we had a relatively low baseline to improve on.

The plan for the day was to take our minibuses to Arbaroba and then roll down to Lessa with 442.55. However, this changed when we reached Arbaroba and saw that the valley was shrouded in thick fog. It would have been utterly pointless to go downhill as we wouldn’t have been able to see or photography anything. Instead, we would go uphill.

Good morning Arbaroba!

The day started well with three runpasts in the fresh morning air and the steam billowing beautifully. The village offered plenty of opportunity for photographs with all manner of foreground interest, though I had to admire the attention to detail that saw one member of the group re-arrange a washing line to best photographic impact (even if I am not entirely sure that the owner of the washing would have appreciated the filthy gloves used in that process!).

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the loco showed signs that it was struggling. It was all very well having a passenger coach in the consist but not at the expense of a train that actually moves.

Overall, the morning generated a familiar mix of hope and despair. In the space of two hours we managed to get a variety of shots from runs around tunnels 22, 23 and 26. Sometimes the loco struggled, needing some sand to make the gradient, while at other times the loco made great progress. The pressure in the cab varied between 16 bars when we were going well to 6 bars towards the end of the morning – compared to a normal level of 12 bars. Eventually, with the pressure down to 5 bars, it was decided to send the loco light to Devil’s Gate for water.

Gravity in action

The spectacle at Devil’s Gate was fascinating in its own right. At an awkward ninety degree bend in the road a water tanker had stopped, much to the annoyance of passing trucks which clearly find it tricky at the best of times. The driver dropped a hose over the side to fill one of the side tanks. Nothing more complicated than gravity in action. It held our interest for a little while and gave us an opportunity to photograph the loco running light around the sharp curve with a view of the valley below. It is one view that never gets any less impressive however much you see it.


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Tortoise of terror

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 25, 2018

A later start brought us to the depot in Asmara at 7am to see some shunting with 202.008 (Breda, 1929) in the yard and up the gradient to the workshop. As expected the turntable couldn’t be moved round the full 360 degrees and the traverser in the depot proved an equally dead loss. It was a little dispiriting to see the workshop looking so quiet and all the heavy machinery covered. Appearances may have been deceptive, but I didn’t get the sense that there was anything likely to happen here anytime soon to help address the many problems facing the loco fleet.

The hose challenge

The morning was not without its moments of photographic opportunity, such as when they were were filling the 202 with water. This seemed to need an inordinate number of people to hold the hose. At times the sheer comedy value of the process left you wondering whether this was all just an elaborate way to create a sequel to the joke about how many people it takes to change a lightbulb. Still, all of this delivered a moving locomotive to us and that really wasn’t something to be sneezed at.

As we began our morning’s work a large tortoise appeared on the scene, moving surprisingly quickly through the depot grass with an unerring instinct for where to find railway photographers. It also took a dislike to the water truck, pressing against one of the wheels and astonishingly managed to move the truck back a little!

Tortoise on the tracks!

None of us could be sure whether the tortoise was simply defending its territory or saw the photographers as a source of food but the bones scattered across the depot grounds suggested that we didn’t want to put this to the test! Instead, a degree of tortoise tempting (think a slower version of a bull fight with a camera instead of a red cape) ensued to try and get a shot with tortoise and locomotive together.

I’m not sure I got the best tortoise and train shot possible but it was certainly fun trying. Given its likely age it didn’t seem beyond the bounds of possibility that the tortoise had been here before the railway (perhaps that was why it was so upset!). However, it hadn’t been seen on past tours and no-one from the railway staff knew when it arrived here.

The tortoise seemed to have an unerring ability to track down photographers…

In the afternoon we made another attempt at a parallel run between tortoise and train, but a passing local thought it was getting in the way of our shot and his thoughtful but misguided attempts to shoe it out of the way thoroughly scuppered our shot. Instead it headed straight towards us, scattering the photo line. Maybe it was employed by a rival tour operator…

You might wonder what happened to the plan for an afternoon run on the line. The plan had been to set 440 on its way mid-morning but while we were at lunch the news came through that they had no water to get it down to Nefasit. In short, we were completely stuffed. Various solutions were proposed but the railway just offered new problems to counter each of them. Although this was a disappointment we knew that Bernd had tried everything possible to get something running for us.

A three loco line up in front of the shed

A coffee in the beautiful setting of the Cinema Roma and a little spot of sightseeing in Asmara helped filled the time before we returned to the depot around 3pm to photograph the locos lined up in front of the historic shed, which dates back to 1911. As we packed up and headed back to the hotel we saw the Krupp diesel set off for Nefasit to bring the freight wagons back to Arbaroba.


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The art of the possible

Posted in Arbaroba, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 24, 2018

An evening update gave a clearer picture of the problems facing us.

First off, we have two broken locomotives. Today’s rescue locomotive (55) failed en route after suffering problems with both injectors (as well as some other issues). This is not a new problem – the same issue was evident about four years ago and some relatively straightforward fixes were identified at the time, but clearly not implemented. This loco is now in Arbaroba.

442.55 at Arbaroba

Our original locomotive (54) is also in Arbaroba but now only has 7 bars of pressure. The leak is now really heavy. Again, this is not really a new problem – the railway has some past history with washout plugs that were again evident four years ago.

On top of this, there is a problem with the crew. There are two locomotive drivers from the state railway – one is in hospital and the other who has been working tirelessly for us since 5am. To remedy the shortfall the railway has re-hired a former driver that they had dismissed a year back.

The new plan devised by Bernd is to send a car to Arbaroba to bring the only working driver back to Asmara to get as much rest as possible and then send him to the depot to fire two locos – 202 and 440. Even this has its difficulties. One of them is not facing the right way and although they have a turntable that worked 4 years ago it probably doesn’t work now. So, we will attempt some shunting in the yard, visit the workshop and then send the small loco with freight wagons from Nefasit to Lessa.

At times like this you really appreciate the massive effort that Bernd has to go through to keep a tour on track when everything is failing around us. Especially knowing that the plan you have just devised may all fall apart at 5am the next day.

Let’s see what the new day brings.

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Camels and kalashnikovs

Posted in Eritrea, Nefasit by folkestonejack on October 24, 2018

The lunchtime news bulletin was all bad news. The original plan for the afternoon had been to take just the loco and the passenger coach to Lessa with no stops and meet the second loco there. Unfortunately, the situation with our loco had gotten much worse in the meantime and that plan had to be scrapped. The washout plug was leaking and the crew no longer trusted the loco. Instead of moving on, we would have to wait in Nefasit for the second loco to reach us – an estimated wait of 2 hours.

Back home this inventive re-use of material would surely indicate an art gallery…

In our passenger coach we were sitting ducks for crowds of kids demanding pens and pencils. Those words sound rather ridiculous written down, but you just have to trust me that it was risky even daring to look out of the window. As our tour leader wisely said, better not to give out the first pencil…

About an hour in to the wait it was agreed that some short runpasts at the level crossing would be possible for our struggling loco and an order for two camels at 1.30pm was duly placed. The camels were on time but their young handler, wearing modern clothes, didn’t quite fit the image. Instead, two old gentlemen in more traditional garb who happened to be passed were persuaded to take their place.

Camels and kalashnikovs

Three runpasts were arranged with our camels and as luck would have it, the picture was completed by three hunters who just happened to sit on a wall by the track with their kalashnikovs. I don’t suppose there is much point trying to persuade anyone that the picture is only half staged!

After this burst of action we returned to our passenger coach to resume the afternoon siesta. The loco shunted to a spot next to the carriage and from our open window we could see only too well the conditions that the crew on the footplate were having to contend with. I didn’t envy them working in that steam bath.

Steam bath

As the leak was getting worse it was decided that it would be better to send the loco light engine to Asmara for repairs before the pressure dropped too low, rather than waiting for the second loco to arrive. The loco set off at 3.15pm and the expectation was that the locos would cross at Lessa. We re-boarded our buses at 4pm when it was clear that nothing more could be expected today.

By sheer chance our minibus reached Arbaroba just as our replacement loco arrived with a single passenger coach. It had taken 4 hours to reach this point from Asmara and couldn’t go any further. The plan to take it down to Lessa tomorrow to do the stretch of line up to Arbaroba looked to be in tatters. We are no longer pondering how far down the line we would get, but rather whether we would see any action at all. How things change in the space of a day!


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An extended stay in Nefasit

Posted in Eritrea, Nefasit by folkestonejack on October 24, 2018

A fresh day gave us renewed hope (or delusions) of taking our train uphill from Nefasit into the most scenic stretches of line. To that end we set off by bus from our hotel in Asmara after an early-ish breakfast, arriving at Nefasit at 7.30am. The drive gave us all too good an appreciation of the hairpin bends and vertical drops on the road up and over the mountains. There was plenty of loose rock on the roads too, reminding us that the problem of rockfalls is not restricted to the railway.

442.54 passes the mosque in Nefasit

Our morning warm-up exercises saw us climb up some rocks in the town for a a splendid view of the track curving away from Nefasit towards Lessa with the mosque in the foreground. It was a great vantage point to see our train (hauled by 442.54) make its way out of Nefasit at 8am but it already looked to be struggling and stopped before it was supposed to. Not particularly encouraging with a full day ahead of us.

The train rolled back down to the station at Nefasit and we then enjoyed another couple of runs from a high vantage point over the town and from a railway bridge. In a lengthy wait between the runs, due to a problem with the loco, we were entertained by some pretty serious looking Eritrean cyclists dressed in the colours of Denden Cycling Club who headed uphill from Nefasit with a greater degree of success. It is not hard to see why these roads make a great training ground, especially with the high altitude.

Eritreans are passionate about their cycling and perhaps that is no surprise, given how much else of Italian culture has influenced the country since its introduction in the early twentieth century. The legacy of that Italian import can be seen in the impressive results that Eritrean riders have racked up in Olympic cycling and on the international cycling circuit over the past 60 years.

The most famous of the riders to come out of Eritrea would have to be Daniel Teklehaimanot, whose palmarès include a couple of victories in the mountains classification at the Critérium du Dauphiné and the honour of being the first rider from an African team to wear the king of the mountains jersey at the Tour de France.

442.54 steams out of tunnel 10 towards Nefasit

Anyway, back to the railways and an all too familiar tale. Our locomotive had developed a problem and could not hold train. The only option was to remove the passenger coach and roll back from Nefasit to see what shots we could take there before taking lunch. In the meantime our tour leader, Bernd, asked for a second locomotive to be brought into steam to meet us at Lessa (half way to Arbaroba).

After a bit of shunting our train started to roll back just before 10 o’clock. Once we reached tunnel 10 we started our climb back with a couple of runpasts photographed from high up on the hillside. It was another of those spots where the picture improved the higher you climbed, which is always dangerously enticing. As we have come to expect, the Eritrean scenery is simply stunning.

I regretted climbing quite so high when I tried to make my way back to the track. It was definitely easier climbing up than scrambling down. In the end I jettisoned the last scraps of my dignity and slid down the last part of the scree slope on my backside, much to the amusement of the all woman track gang who applauded in unison when I reached the bottom. Some of the other photographers thought I was staying behind the group for a superior going away shot, but I had to admit the less edifying truth!

Thankfully the donkey had second thoughts about running straight into us…

The next runpast looked like it was going to be a fairly straightforward shot with beautiful yellow flowers, rocks and a tree or two but then out of nowhere a donkey appeared. Unfortunately, it got ahead of the moving train and then raced to stayed ahead. It momentarily looked as though the donkey had decided on an escape path directly through the line of photographers but thankfully thought twice about that. We were all relieved when the donkey managed to get clear of the train chasing it down, sparing us from a gruesome bit of railkill.

After three more runpasts we reached the familiar dusty streets of Nefasit once more. Time for the loco to take water and the passengers to take lunch!


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Tunnel of truth

Posted in Eritrea, Nefasit by folkestonejack on October 23, 2018

The moment of truth had arrived. The track gang told us that the rain of the past four days has flooded tunnel 9, leaving enough mud and rubble on the trackbed to make it impassable. This news meant that we would not be able to make it to the next station at Embatkala, let alone the station beyond. Instead, the revised plan would see us take the train down as far as tunnel 9 and then work our way back up from there.

442.54 in Nefasit

Before we continued on our way downhill we took the opportunity to take some shots around Nefasit, including a false departure and a shot with the local mosque. To be honest, there was so much local interest in Nefasit to keep us busy for ages from a gathering of elders at a street stall to a small group of children looking at the loco from under a tree. The star of the show in Nefasit though was the elderly chap with a walking stick who turned out to be the pointsman!

After over an hour at Nefasit, including a water stop, we returned to the train and set off for tunnel 9. The journey didn’t take long – we reached the tunnel mouth at 1pm and clambered down on to the track to walk through. Strangely, the track was completely fine. The train eventually followed us through while we continued to walk on to the next tunnel. The tracks in tunnel 8 were covered by mud in a couple of places but not my much. It wouldn’t have taken long to clear.

Walking into tunnel 8

As the reports from the track gang could not be relied upon our guide and the manager of the railway started to walk from the tunnel towards Embatkala to see if anything else was blocked with the thought that if the line was actually clear we could send the train down overnight and start from there tomorrow. I later heard that beyond tunnel 8 there was a more serious problem – a line washout at a culvert – so that idea was sadly quashed.

Our climb back up the line began at 1.45pm and just ten minutes later we were enjoying a couple of runpasts at a curve in the line with a terrific view of the mountains. Next up was a superb hillside spot which gave us a more distant view of the same spot, but which allowed us to full appreciate the s shaped curve of the line beyond. It was one of those spots where the shot just kept getting better the further you walked. Shame I made the acquaintance of the cacti there. That is one mistake I won’t be repeating!

Climbing back from tunnel 8 to Nefasit

The next stop required an interesting climb up a drainage ditch for a view of our train emerging from another tunnel mouth (around 2.45pm) which was perhaps a little lower on the effort to reward ratio than I would have liked! Sadly, this proved to be the last runpast of the day…

It was pretty clear that our loco was really struggling with the gradient. At one spot we made three attempts to get going and only succeeded after the crew and some local boys put sand on the tracks. It was to be short lived success – the train came to a halt after the track leveled out. It turned out that the sander on the loco was not working and it was now low on water. The decision was made to send the loco light to Nefasit (leaving at 3.45pm) where it could take on water (estimated at one hour).

Guarded by goats

With a bit of time to kill took a walk down the road (which runs parallel with the railway here) to a bar that we had passed a little earlier. I was permitted to enter by the two goats guarding the entrance and bought a couple of bottles of soft drink to quench my thirst. The view of Embatkala from this point demonstrated just how close we had come to making it.

An hour passed. The news that came back from Nefasit was not encouraging. Our loco was still taking water and now the crew also needed to completely rebuild the fire. It was pretty clear that we wouldn’t get any more shots in daylight so we abandoned the train and re-boarded our buses for the drive back to Asmara. Taking the road was a clear reminder of why the railway would not be anyone’s first choice for transporting goods or passengers these days. As the sun set we trooped back into our hotel, a little dejected.


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Bunker first to Nefasit

Posted in Arbaroba, Asmara, Eritrea, Nefasit, Shegereni by folkestonejack on October 23, 2018

A new day brought with a new loco, 442.54, a mallet built by Ansaldo (Italy) in 1938 which would haul our mixed train bunker first from Asmara to Nefasit. The workers are still clearing the track today so it is only when we get to Nefasit that we will discover if we can continue on to Embatkala. Fingers crossed…

Departure from Asmara

The passenger coach was a welcome sight and allowed us to spread out a little more. On the first two days we hit the tracks tightly packed into a single box car which had its moments, but a little comfort is good too. Still, it was memorable – it even included a lady roasting fresh coffee beans on a small metal box fire, ready to serve small cups of coffee during the brief pauses in action!

The plan was to make only a few stops on our bunker first run after leaving Asmara at 7am. The first stops came not long after we set off, at a hill and puddle just beyond the depot gates. It probably sounds a bit unlikely but the hope was to take advantage of the rains that had caused us so many problems. If you got it right there was a reflection shot to be had, though my attempts were less than successful. Sometimes it is all too easy to miss the photographic equivalent of an open goal…

Our journey up and over the peak continued, delivering us a continuous feast of stunning vistas interspersed with scenes from everyday life, such as a spot of open air butchery by the lineside. After reaching Shegereni at 8.20am we clambered down from the coach and walked through tunnel 23 to get to a hillside viewpoint which allowed us to photograph our train with the monastery in the background. Once the shot was in the bag everyone packed up and got back on board.

Our mixed freight train passes below the monastery

The familiar watering facilities at Arbaroba provided the next photographic opportunities as we took on water and our crew made some small running repairs/adjustments. Once this was all complete we continued on our way, stopping before a sequence of tunnels for a runpast at 10am. To reach the intended photospot we had to walk through a couple of tunnels (complete with a few bats flying around) which disorientated me a little, but I think the view we were presented with was of the track curving round between tunnels 15 and 16.

For the runpast I found a spot away from the group that required a little scramble up the loose rocks of the hillside but after a little effort discovered that it was a little too much on the dark side for my liking. Not all gambles pay off but nevertheless I was quite happy to have rediscovered my inner mountain goat along the way. It always come in very handy on a FarRail tour!

Our onward travels took us through the abandoned sidings at Lessa (10.20am) and then into the sweeping curves that brought us into Nefasit (10.55am). It was pretty obvious that a train full of westerners was heading into town and we soon spotted plenty of kids following us down the curving road to join the crowds on the platform. I don’t know how often the train runs (in theory a tourist train runs on Sundays if enough tourists turn up to make it economic) but it is clearly still a spectacle that everyone enjoys.

The moment of truth

The rail truck of the track gang was in the station and a small group of workers had gathered round some officials. The moment of truth was almost upon us. How far would we be able to go?


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Afternoon trip to Arbaroba

Posted in Arbaroba by folkestonejack on October 22, 2018

The afternoon on the line around Arbaroba presented the opportunity to try a few shots around some of the many tunnels on the line with a short freight train hauled by 440.008.

Members of the group get a shot from a hillside vantage point

There are 39 tunnels on the entire line between Massawa and Agordat, with the majority (25) located on the stretch between Ghinda and Asmara. Our photographic efforts for the day concentrated on tunnels 13+14 (1.30-2pm), 18+19 (up to 3pm) and 20 (3.30-3.50pm). All of this gave us much more of a taste for the magnificence of the line, even if the conditions were not always as co-operative as we might have hoped.

After these efforts we climbed up a gentle path through the cacti to a spot with a view over the line. It was pretty obvious from this point that the mist was rolling in incredibly quickly, much as it had at our hilltop vantage point in Sri Lanka earlier this year. It was particularly striking to see how quickly the conditions had changed. Not long before it had been sunny and clear.

The clouds close in on 440.008

Our short freight train returned to Arbaroba at 4.15pm, which was now looking very atmospheric with the mists swirling around the watering point. It took a little for the crew to fill the tanks of our loco but once they were ready we ere able to take a photograph of the departure (at 4.55pm) before continuing on to Shegereni. The light had gone by this point so we re-boarded our buses for the half hour drive to Asmara.

The evening at the hotel was livened up by a couple of blackouts (a common occurrence in Asmara) but on each occasion the hotel staff were pretty quick to get the generators up and running. Hopefully, the next time I will not be ladling soup into a bowl as the light vanishes!


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Sunrise at the summit

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea, Shegereni by folkestonejack on October 22, 2018

An early breakfast and departure in the hope of getting some glorious sunrise shots somehow fell through our fingers this morning. Instead, we had to watch in frustration as the red glow of sunrise spilled through the cracks in our box car, illuminating the group. Nevertheless, there was at least enough light to try some atmospheric shots among the trees before we rolled down to the viaduct.

Steam freight with 440.008

There was plenty of local colour at the bridge with donkey trains carrying water cartons led by local children, flocks of goats, women in traditional dress and men wandering around with kalashnikovs. It was perhaps inevitable that one of the donkey trains would be persuaded to stop in a position that would add to our photographs, but the lesson of not working with animals and small children was too easily forgotten. By the time our loco (440.008) hauled the small freight train towards us all the donkeys had turned to show us their backsides!

After a handful of shots in and around tunnel 29 we learnt that our loco was out of water. It was time to return to Asmara and take a look around the diesel and steam sheds. There was plenty to see, such as the beautiful but inactive Littorinas (Italian railcars built by Fiat in the 1930s), a smaller baby Littorina (an inspection railcar), some more modern diesels (including a Krupp Bo-Bo from the 1950s) and a rail vehicle rather oddly covered in a tarpaulin designed to make it look like a high speed train!

A baby Littorina!

With the morning’s work done we headed back to the hotel for a bit of a rest ahead of a return to the railway in the afternoon (fueled by pizza and a bottle or two of Asmara beer).


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Sleepless in Shegereni

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea, Shegereni by folkestonejack on October 21, 2018

Awaking to the bright sunlight of the Eritrean day I could appreciate the leisurely start to the day that had been planned for us. A suitably strong black coffee in the hotel lobby, followed by lunch at the highly recommended open air Ghibabo restaurant, allowed me to feel a little more alive than I might have expected. It was in the relaxed setting of the restaurant that we got our first installment of bad news, but I was sure it would not be the last.

Our first taste of the stunning scenery that surrounds the railway

The heavy rain storms of the past week or so have blocked the railway line. There are now two major obstacles on the route from Asmara to Ghinda, our intended destination. The first means that we have no chance of reaching Ghinda, while the second is before the previous station, Embatkalla, and requires machinery to move. There is some hope that the latter can be cleared but if not, we might only make it as far as Nefasit.

After lunch we set off from the surprisingly modest station in Asmara, travelling tender first to Shegereni in an open top wagon. It was a wonderful way to travel, introducing the absolutely stunning scenery that the line passes through (probably better than looking down at the cracks in the wagon floor for a view of the wheels moving!). At Shegereni the loco (440.008) ran round and we set off back towards Asmara.

A mallet in the mountains – 440.008 (Ansaldo, 1915) at the Devil’s Gate

Taking a short walk up the road from the station brought us to a sharp bend in the road, with a heavily mangled road barrier, that gave us a view of one of the classic locations on the line known as the Devil’s Gate (or the Devil’s Throat, to use the literal translation of the Italian name) which we enjoyed with varying degrees of sunlight. The impressiveness of the engineering needed to build a railway up this steep escarpment has long been recognised and it is perhaps no surprise that this spot was featured on Eritrean stamps as far back as 1936.

After that we moved on by bus to another of the classic locations, the viaduct at Shegereni with a view of the valley beyond. The name apparently translates as ‘the difficult place’ but it certainly presented us with no problems. To be honest, it felt as though we had hardly done any work and yet already been rewarded with some stunning photographs. I appreciated that, having been on tours where it has only been the last day that has delivered the images that make the tour worthwhile.

Our freight train on the four arch viaduct at Shegereni

We tried a few more positions on the way back from here but by now the cloud was working against us, giving fewer and fewer breaks for the sun to illuminate the track. In the distance we could see heavy rain and lightning, but despite the darkening clouds we were lucky to escape without a single drop. Blessed though the rains might be in Africa, I was very glad they weren’t falling on me!

As the light faded a slither of a sunset toyed with us but I didn’t get anything decent from it. I’m sure others performed miracles and got beautiful shots. I think that is one of the pleasures of a trip like this – seeing the shots that got away and the different opportunities that much more experienced photographers spot. I am always climbing that learning curve.


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An unearthly hour in Asmara

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 21, 2018

A Sunday morning sleep-in is always a pleasure, but today it was a necessity. Most of our group had arrived on early morning flights from Cairo and Istanbul, followed by lengthy formalities to escape from the terminal. The only people who looked more exhausted than us by this unfriendly timing were our drivers and guides who had to meet each flight as it came in, losing a night of sleep in the process. It was hard to believe that at some point later in the day we would have to shake this off and get snapping!

The four year old Boeing 777-36N(ER) that brought me from London to Istanbul

My journey from London to Istanbul had been wonderfully smooth, with clear skies giving terrific views as we flew over the top of the pub at Harty Ferry (Isle of Sheppey) that my ancestors ran in the early 19th century (while running a sideline in tobacco smuggling), across western Europe, over the mountains of Bulgaria and into Istanbul. So smooth in fact that it made the absolute chaos of the next flight all the more unexpected…

Arriving at the gate for the Asmara flight we found a large crowd surrounding a couple of staffers behind their desk. Hundreds of bags were strewn across the floor around them. The extra bags and cases seemed to be at the heart of the problem – they had to bring a train of baggage carts down to the gate to help shift it all. The madness continued into the boarding process with passengers going through the gate and then coming back through a different doorway to help their friends! The staff tried their very best, but could not help but laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

Our flight landed at Asmara airport at 12.30am but it was another two hours before I reached my room at the Savannah Hotel with a freshly stamped Eritrean visa in my passport. The drive didn’t take long at all as the airport is located on the edge of the city, roughly 3 miles from the city centre. It’s a relatively small airport dating back to the 1920s and can’t have seen much, if any, expansion since it was restored in the 1950s but then again I don’t think it sees that much air traffic.

The Savannah International Hotel in Asmara

My room in the hotel is relatively spartan, the handles are falling off just about everything and I can grout tiles better than they have managed here (which tells you just how bad they are). Nevertheless, the room is better than some I have experienced on my travels and I at least have a trickle of hot water each day. Right now though, I couldn’t really care less about any of these details. I just need sleep…

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Selam Eritrea

Posted in Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 20, 2018

Eritrea may not seem the obvious place to choose for a holiday, nor the easiest, given the well known difficulties of arranging visas. However, there was one pretty compelling reason for making the effort to get into the country – the opportunity to once again experience and photograph steam on one of the most spectacular railway lines in the world.

Welcome to Asmara

The railway line between the port of Massawa and the capital of Asmara was completed in 1911, with further extensions over the next couple of decades taking it on to Keren, Agordat and Biscia. The stretch between Massawa and Asmara offers some spectacular running through the mountains, looping back and forth with gradients of up to 3.5% to gain 2400m in height over a distance of 118km.

It is probably fair to say that the railway has not had the smoothest of histories. It was destroyed by the Derg in 1975, partially rebuilt over the decade following independence and repaired on many occasions since then. In a further setback, flooding and land slides severed the line between Massawa and Asmara a few years ago.

Our expedition will be the first in a few years to attempt to run a week long series of photo-charters on the repaired track. Ahead of our trip the line had been cleared between Asmara and Ghinda, while the section on to Massawa remains out of use following a major washout. Unfortunately some unseasonable storms and heavy rain in the last week caused some further damage, creating some uncertainty about just how far we would be able to get.

As the internet connection in Eritrea is exceedingly slow I will be adding the posts for this trip retrospectively, taking a little time to write up an account of the trip from the notes I take along the way.

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