FolkestoneJack's Tracks

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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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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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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