FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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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