Eritrea: Mallets to Asmara

Steam in Eritrea: 12.1. – 20.1.2019

The Eritrean tour in October 2018 was quickly sold out. Hence, we will repeat the tour in January 2019 and add a comprehensive round tour, which will allow an insight of the country.

Dampf in Eritrea

As the last company who still offered tours to Eritrea we left the country in 2016 with very sad feelings about the future of the railway. Of course, there were big projects which would have required huge investments, but for authentic looking charter trains it seemed to be the end of the line after we used up the last bits of the coal we imported on our own from Zimbabwe. The line was damaged by floods, they rebuilt some parts, it was again damaged and washed away, and land slides did the rest. Slowly they worked on it, faced problems, continued to work and finally, in 2017 they, received a large quantity of coal. The line was not yet usable, only down to Nefasit. But now Ghinda is in reach, and so we decided to run a tour before it is too late again. The political situation is stable at the moment, but this may change at some point and the railway might become be out of reach again. Hence, we didn’t want to wait. Plans for this tour were in the drawer for long.

Dampf in Eritrea

Eritrea was occupied by Ethiopia for many years. After gaining independence in 1993, some of the former railway staff started to rebuild their totally destroyed railway. Some of the Mallets, built by Ansaldo (Italy) in 1938, were brought back to life. Also one of the small Breda built shunters, one Krupp diesel loco and two diesel railcars (one from 1935) have been put back into working order. However, the Littorina railcar is not really serviceable at the moment, and it would be risky to take the Krupp diesel out on the line as well. The vintage steam machines are sometimes operated by similarly well aged railwaymen, although nowadays mostly by younger learners, and are used for specials on a line which can easily be compared to the lines in the Andes, the Semmering in Austria or the Darjeeling railway. Spectacular mountain sections with gradients of up to 3.5% were needed to enable the 950mm gauge line to gain some 2,400m in height over a distance of 118kms. There are many tunnels and stone arch viaducts. You can see deep gorges, steep rock faces and valleys, overlooking the mountains, covered in clouds … but only for a brief spell before you enter the next tunnel ...

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

Kamlemarkt in Keren, Eritrea






Departure to Asmara


Early morning arrival in Asmara and transfer to our hotel. The morning is for relaxation, but in the afternoon we’ll go to the railway station where the small Mallet 440.008 should be in steam. With a freight train we’ll go towards Shegereni and return from there to Asmara. If the weather co-operates we’ll do some sunset shots near the summit. Hotel in Asmara for the whole railway part of the tour.


In the early morning we’ll leave Asmara to do some shots at sunrise. 440 008 will haul a freight train. Around noon our train will roll down to tunnel 13 below Arbaroba, from there we’ll start the afternoon climb through many tunnels and horseshoe curves towards Asmara


With one of their bigger Mallets class 442 a mixed train we’ll leave Asmara in the morning and roll down to Ghinda which we’ll reach by noon. After a lunch break we’ll roll down in the direction of Baresa and then go uphill around the sweeping curves of Ghinda. We’ll return by charter buses to Asmara.


Our charter busses will bring us back to Ghinda, a small city with no suitable hotel. In the morning our 442 will climb from Ghinda to Embatkala, where we’ll have a lunch break. In the afternoon we’ll continue the steep climb from Embatkala to Nefasit, where our train will stay overnight while we’ll return to the capital by charter buses.


We’ll return to Nefasit to continue our climb uphill. Today we’ll go far away from any road access, will have Lunch in Lessa, an abandoned, but refurbished siding in the middle of the mountains and reach Arbaroba in the late afternoon. By chartered buses on to Asmara.


We’ll use the early morning light to take some interesting pictures around Arbaroba. By noon we want to reach Shegereni. Here another train with one of the larger 442-Mallets will arrive, and the afternoon is reserved for a double header, passing Devil’s Gate and running over arch viaducts and through tunnels to Asmara. After we arrived we’ll line-up our locos in front of the beautiful depot and take some night shots.


Besides the mallets they also have 0-4-0 locos class 202. One of them will perform some shunting duties in the nice station of Asmara. In the afternoon we’ll visit the workshop and go for a last sunset shot over the summit with a freight train.

Time to say good by from the railways!

Our hotel is booked until about 1 am, then transfer to the airport for those who are leaving us. The cultural extension can be found here.


Flight back home, arrival in Europe around noon.


Dampf in Eritrea

Line description

Although we’ll probably (hope dies last) not see the complete line from Massawa to Asmara it is described here in full. The line runs from Massawa harbour through relatively flat coastal land, with a desert character up to Mai Atal (km 29). After Mai Atal several dry riverbeds are crossed by long stone arched viaducts before the ascent becomes noticeable. Before Ghinda (70 km, approx. 1,000m above sea level) there are the first tunnels. Then the really breathtaking part of the line starts, with many
tunnels, bends, bridges and retaining walls. The summit is reached at 2,430m above sea level between Arbaroba and Asmara (km 118). After Asmara the line first runs through slightly flatter country before a steep decent through beautiful scenery follows, but this part hasn’t been rebuilt and may never get. Most of the section Asmara - Keren is passable with four wheel drive vehicles. Beyond Keren the line is not passable by cars. Several parts are blocked by washouts, landslides or huge rocks on the embankment.

Tunnel 13/14 vor Arbaroba

Asmara is the capital of Eritrea. Asmara is a gem (if not THE gem) of the Art Déco building period. In 2017 it was added to the list of world heritage sites by the Unesco. It was built by well known Italian architects during the time that Eritrea was an Italian colony. The busy time for construction of the buildings came to an abrupt end with the invasion of British troops during World War II and construction has never since gained much ground over the Ethiopian period or after independence. Hence you'll still find the Art Déco city almost untouched from more modern influences. Asmara has more cinemas than many other cities in Africa three times larger than Asmara. All of these cinemas are landmarks of the modern art of building such locations some 70 years ago. Most of them are still in use. Coffee houses, pizza and pasta restaurants, small shops, apartment blocks and official buildings, churches and mosques, villa quarters and poorer corners, markets and the fish market and even a synagogue dominate the picture of one of the most scenic cities in Africa. Even the local brewery is built in the Art Déco style. And the beer coming from it is tasty!

Kathedrale in Asmara, Eritrea



Eritrea is facing a difficult time. In the western media you can read about the refugees from Eritrea, but you can hardly find any evidence of why so many people are leaving the country. When you travel through Eritrea you’ll find a lot of friendly, welcoming people, an infrastructure which is among the best in this part of the world, a working educating system and tasty food. But, of course, there are reasons for young people to leave the country. The military service can virtually hit anyone between 18 and 80, no matter whether male or female without children (with them you are exempted), and the duration is unpredictable and unlimited. In the economy almost everything is under the control of the government. Licences to start up your own business are hard to receive and in case of the slightest irregularity you may lose your licence. Working in a state owned company will guarantee you only a very limited income which would make even a bottle of beer a week beyond affordability. Hence educated, young people barely see any chance to build a life in Eritrea.

Having said this, you shouldn’t be concerned about lethargy or reluctance when you need something special, although they earn the same money, even if they don’t move. This amount can be so little that they rely almost entirely on the help Eritreans abroad send to their families. If they do something, but do it the wrong way, they may even lose their job or, even worse, get a national call – which everyone tries to avoid. So arranging a demanding tour can be somewhat difficult, especially since the former General Manager, Amanuel, died.

Wolken bei Asmara

Eritrea is a country which has only recently gained independence (in 1993). Before that, an independence war raged for decades. Even after that there was more fighting over the exact borders with Ethiopia. The country has not fully recovered from these long periods of war and there is widespread poverty. Unlike many other African countries this hasn’t lead to high crime. Eritrea is one of the safest countries in the whole of Africa. The locals are very friendly. Even though tourism is still in its infancy, our hotels are of an acceptably good standard (matching 2 or 3 star hotels in Europe) and are quite clean. As Eritrea is still a young country the process of getting all official processes "streamlined" is not finished yet. Visa regulations can change with short notice in advance. But so far we always got the requested visas. Some embassies require that you pick up your visa personally.

The railway, as already mentioned, was built through some difficult terrain. There are photo locations which only have room for around 15 photographers. In these cases we’ll make several run pasts until everyone has got the shot. This also means that some discipline is required. Nobody should get in the way of others, even if their location is supposedly better. If this is indeed the case other people will feel the same and the position of the shot can be altered. Our time for photography is naturally limited by the shadows of the mountains in early morning and late evening and by the harsh light at midday. We won’t waste energy trying to get useful shots in the midday sun. Our time is also limited by the technical limitations of the locomotives. They are not in the best state and we face a risk that such a loco can fail or delay our train with no chance for any kind of compensation. At least you should expect several stops on the line to raise steam pressure.

Bei Baresa

Please don’t get carried away with the scenery, we are in the mountains. One wrong step can lead to a fall that can seriously endanger your health or even your life. If you take part in this tour you do so at your own risk, particularly when getting out of the train along the line and moving through the terrain. If you aren’t up to reaching a certain photo point, for example because the wine the night before was very nice, please stay in the train! There will be other opportunities that can be reached more easily and will be just as good.

In Asmara we offer an option: if you like you can stay in a lovely four star hotel near the city centre. They have only double beds. That’s why they are only suitable for single room bookings or travellers with their partner. It’s a classical hotel from the late 19th century which was refurbished a couple of years ago. Slow wireless Internet is available in the Lobby. Their price is much higher than the other hotel we’re using. A premium of 65 US-Dollar (or equivalent) a night plus the standard single room supplement (except when you’re travelling with your partner) is required.

Albergo Italia Hotel, Eritrea

We expect temperatures of 22 to 30 degrees in Asmara and Keren and around 30 degrees in Ghinda. In Asmara the temperature can drop to some ten degrees in the early morning. Rain is rather unlikely but the area near Ghinda/Arbaroba often experiences fog, which can allow for some really atmospheric shots – or make photography impossible for a couple of hours. Sometimes hotels may have a problem with hot water supply for a shower.

Wolken über Nefasit

Below 2,000 m altitude there is a risk of malaria throughout the year. The best defence against malaria is to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes, so it’s recommended you wear long clothing in the evening. Long clothing is also a cultural necessity as half of the population is Muslim (the other half Christian). Short trousers are unsuitable for wearing in public even if it’s really hot. Short trousers are popular among the poorest of the poor when they need to do a hard job as well as by soldiers of invading western troops, nothing you should even think about copying. Also short trousers indicate that you don’t care for their culture and you’re somewhat arrogant. If you see some foreign tourists wearing short trousers you can only shake your head.

The electricity supply (220 Volts) is reasonably dependable due to generators in our hotels; often you will need an adaptor for your plugs. There is a mobile phone network available but no western company signed a roaming contract so far. That’s why you can’t use the mobile network of Eritrea. International calls are possible from our hotel in Asmara. You can also call abroad in the large towns via the telephone exchange. We can arrange a local SIM card at some extra costs (need to be negotiated as these cards are private cards from Eritreans and need to given back at the end of the tour). In Asmara and Massawa there is slooooow internet access.

Mallet-Dampf in Eritrea

You should take all the usual precautions for a stay in the tropics if you prefer a trouble free trip rather than a hospital stay. Basic rules like only eating pealed and/or cooked food and not drinking tap water should be abided by. Besides the local food, which you really should try, many Italian influences remain from the colonial time. It’s no problem getting a pizza in Asmara. Breakfast (except early morning departures) and dinner are planned in our hotel or restaurants not far from our hotels while lunch is a small snack which will be served in the train. Cold drinks can also be bought in the train for local prices which can’t be described being cheap any more. A 330 ml bottle of beer is now about 2 Dollars while drinking water has a very similar price!

We’re expecting these locomotives to be serviceable:

We can’t guarantee that a certain locomotive is serviceable but we can guarantee there will be sufficient locomotives to haul all planned trains with steam.

Mallet-Dampf in Eritrea

Mallet-Dampf in Eritrea

We know the technical state of the Littorina, the "Litorinella" and the Krupp diesel loco only too well to add one of these vehicles to our programme. The chance of using these diesels according to a plan is less than 30%. The risk of failures - if you get them out of the station of Asmara at all - is just too high. Promises to run charter trains with these are as good as a pre-election promise of an average politician to lower taxes.

The railwaymen have already entertained several groups of railway enthusiasts and know what we want and how we want it. They are even used to the high demands of a FarRail Tours charter train event. Even so, we are in Africa where time has a different meaning from that in our hurried world. We have to account for problems on the railway and with engines that are only used every few weeks. Serious delays and failures are possible. And with a temperature of 32 degrees Celsius in the shade there’s no room for frantic rushing around when solving a problem. But there will always be a solution. Don’t lose your temper or spoil other people’s fun if, for example, an injector doesn’t behave itself. The quality of their coal is doubtful and we will need some extra breaks to raise steam pressure. The technical state of the locomotives with all their steam leaks is not the best. Some of the railwaymen are not very sophisticated handling these machines either. However, even with the worst possible timekeeping you’re guaranteed many very good pictures of a great mountain landscape. In the case of technical problems with the locos we might have to cancel trains with no refund possible.

Mallet-Dampf in Eritrea

Mallet-Dampf in Eritrea

Prices changed since they introduced new banknotes (looking the same as the old ones, but the issuing date is important), there is a shortage of cash and the black marked dried out completely. The official rate is 1 Dollar = 15 Nakfa which makes everything very expensive. A proper dinner costs you easily 30 Dollars, without alcoholic beverages.

The line between Baresa and Massawa was partly destroyed by severe weather conditions in December 2012 and November 2013. The damage was repaired by January 2014. In 2016 it was again destroyed, as well as parts around Embatkala were buried under rocks and sand. You should keep in mind that weather conditions may damage a part of the line with no chance to repair the section in time (or at all). But they'll try their best and even use the army to rebuild the line in such cases in time.

Hygienic and environmental standards in Eritrea do not conform to Central European, Australian or North American expectations. Carrying some toiletries in your photo bag is hence advisable. Please bear in mind that accommodation and transportation in Eritrea falls short of EU/North American/Australian/Japanese or generally so called western safety standards. Always use common sense when crossing roads and railway tracks. FarRail Tours, the local agency or the railway cannot be held responsible and will not accept any liability whatsoever in the case of any accident, damage, delay or cancellation. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy.

Dampf in Eritrea



Mallets to Asmara 28 to 36 participants £2,440
12.01.2019 – 20.01.2019 Single room surcharge £370
Registration Deadline: 11.10.2018
Eritrea Explorer 21 to 28 participants £1,740
17.01.2019 – 27.01.2019 12 to 20 participants £2,040
  Single room surcharge £300
Registration Deadline: 11.10.2018

If you book both tours (the railway program and the cultural tour), the 18th (full day) and 19th (half day) will overlap. You should mention when registering for the tours, which tour you want to participate on these days. Please deduct £270 from the tour price when taking part in both programs.

The price includes:

Not included:

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

Steam in Eritrea


© FarRail Tours - e-mail: Bernd Seiler - zurück zu FarRail Tours
Click here to return to FarRail Tours