FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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.


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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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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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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