Eritrea: Mallets in the mountains

Italian Flair in Africa

Eritrea: 7.3.2009 – 15.3.2009

the cacts-classic shot on the way to Asmara

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, a diesel loco and one diesel railcar have been put back into working order. These vintage machines are operated by similarly well aged railwaymen, and are used for specials on a line which can easily be compared with 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 almost 2,400m height over a distance of 100kms. There are many tunnels and stone 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 ...



As is usual, our itinerary doesn’t show every planned detail. In the itinerary you’ll find those points which are probably possible even if one loco has failed. We’ll have an experienced Eritrea tour guide aboard: Hans Hufnagel from Austria. He's visited the line numerous times since 2000.

Massawa harbour




Flight from Frankfurt with Egypt Air (Star Alliance membership pending) to the capital of Eritrea, Asmara. Flight MS 786 Frankfurt - Cairo 15.10 – 20.15 hrs, departure from London, Vienna and Paris possible as well.


Early morning continue by MS 833 Cairo departure 00.15 hrs, 04.05 hrs arrival in Asmara. In the morning we’ll visit the station and the depot of Asmara where one loco will be just fired. Late morning we’ll go to our hotel in Asmara (8.-10.3.).

In the early afternoon our first train is waiting for us at the station. With the "small“ 0-4-4-0 Mallet class 440 we’ll take a freight train down from Asmara to Arbaroba. With many runpasts and photo stops we’ll return uphill to Asmara.


In the early morning we’ll take our charter bus from Asmara to Arbaroba. There is a passenger train, hauled by a class 442 Mallet waiting for us. With many runpasts we’ll go back to Asmara.

In the early afternoon we’ll return to Arbaroba, but this time we’ll use the antique railcar, the so called Littorina, a 1936 Fiat-built nicely rounded railcar. In Arbaroba we’ll meet a mixed train, which is hauled by a double header, probably the class 440 and 442 Mallets. In the best afternoon light we’ll return to Asmara.


In the morning we’ll return to Arbaroba, where our railcar will be waiting for us. By railcar we’ll go down all the way to Massawa. Photo stops are only planned in the morning. When the sun is high in the sky we’ll not try to make any decent photograph or video. However, our charter bus will follow the railcar and you can use this instead of the railcar if you want to make pictures all along the way.

In the late afternoon we’ll meet another steam train in Massawa. The train will be shunting for our group in the harbour. Hotel in Massawa


In the early morning we’ll take the famous shot of a train coming from the harbour to Massawa city. We’ll continue straight on to the famous long stone arch viaduct near Moncullo. After we've made this shot we’ll return to Massawa by charter bus to take some time for visiting the town and having lunch. Meanwhile our train will continue to Mai Atal where we’ll board it in the early afternoon. You also can travel by train to Mai Atal, giving the lunch in Massawa a miss. In the early afternoon, all together again, we’ll continue our train ride with several runpasts from Mai Atal to Ghinda. From Ghinda to our hotel in Asmara (11.3 – 15.3.) we’ll travel by charter bus.


In the very early morning we’ll return by charter bus from Asmara to Ghinda. Passing viaducts and tunnels we’ll climb upwards to Arbaroba. In Nefasit we’ve planned a log lunch break (packed lunch) to avoid photography during daylight. From Arbaroba we’ll return by charter bus to our hotel in Asmara.


Another early morning call to get on the bus to Nafasit. On the very photogenic section Nefasit – Arbaroba with plenty of tunnels we’ll use the early morning light to make some remarkable pictures. Today we’ll use a passenger train. In the afternoon we’ll start fireworks with a double header of two of the larger mallets class 442 we’ll steam uphill from Arbaroba to Asmara with a freight train. In Asmara we arranged a small loco parade with three locomotives under steam.


By charter bus we’ll go down to Arbaroba in the morning. Here we’ll board a passenger train, hauled by the smaller Mallet class 440. We’ll use the early morning light for several more shots on the super-scenic section from Arbaroba to Asmara. In the afternoon we’ll make a city tour through Asmara. Because our return flight starts very early in the morning we've planned a rest for the late afternoon and the evening.


About 3am charter bus to the airport and return flight by Egypt Air MS 834 Asmara – Cairo 05.05 – 06.50 hrs. Connecting flight to Frankfurt by MS 785 10.35 – 14.10 hrs, or other connections to London, Vienna or Paris.


Line description

map Massawa - Asmara © Hans Hufnagel

map © Hans Hufnagel

a mixed train

The line runs from Massawa harbour through relatively flat coastal land, with a dessert character up to Mai Atal (km 29). After Mai Atal several dry riverbeds are crossed by long stone arched viaducts before the assent becomes noticeable. Just 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 runs through slightly flatter country, but this part hasn’t been rebuilt yet.

Eritran viaducts are beautiful

The railway, as already mentioned, was built through some difficult terrain. There are photo locations, which only have room for five or ten photographers. In these cases we’ll make several run pasts until everyone has got the shot. This also means that strict 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. Please take note that the trains are hired for a specific period of time. This 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.

freight train towards Asmara

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 easier and will be just as good.



Eritrea is a country which has only recently gained independence. Before that, a civil war and 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, 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 it’s infancy, our hotels are of a good standard (matching 2 or 3 star hotels in Germany) and are clean.

The line follows the road to Asmara

In March we expect temperatures of 25 degrees in Asmara and just above 30 degrees in Massawa, where it barely cools down at night, unlike Asmara where the temperature can drop to 5 to 8 degrees in the early morning. Rain is very unlikely, but the area near Ghinda often experiences fog, which can allow for some really atmospheric shots. Our hotel in Massawa has air conditioning.

climate in Eritrea

climate Eritrea

Under 2,000 m height there is a risk of malaria the entire year. The best malaria prophylaxis 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.

kamel-mode of transport

The electricity supply (220 Volts) is reasonably dependable, often you will need an adapter for your plugs. There is no mobile phone network. You can call abroad in the large towns via the telephone exchange. In Asmara and Massawa there is internet access.

For the rest 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. Basis rules like only eating pealed and/or cooked food and not drinking tap water should be abided by. Beside the local food, which you really should give a try, many Italian influences remain from the colonial time. It’s no problem getting a pizza in Asmara. You can order and buy lunch packs from our kind female attendants. Cold drinks can also be bought in the train for very reasonable prices.

a double header in the gorges

The railwaymen have already entertained several groups of railway enthusiasts and know what we want and how we want it. 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 a railway and with engines that are only used every few weeks. Heavy delays 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 peoples fun if for example an injector doesn’t behave itself. 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 probably no refund possible.

Mid 2008 the following locomotives have been serviceable:

202 in Asmara

double header

Registration period expires October 1st, 2008

Later registrations will be accepted if flights and hotels are still available and the maximum number of participants hasn’t been reached.




The prices already include tips.

Eritrea: Mallets in the mountains 20 - 35 participants
07. – 15.3.2009 Single room supplement

Minimum no. of participants: 20
Maximum no. of participants: 35

Land only: please deduct 605 GBP.

Asmara by night

The price includes:

Not included:

Above prices are based on specific bookings with the respective airlines, which have to be confirmed well in advance. Your early booking is hence appreciated.

As a service to our UK-based clients FarRail Tours accepts and will continue to accept payments made out in Pound Sterling until further notice. However, please note that from January 28, 2009, all prices quoted in Pound Sterling are indicative only and are subject to change without prior notice. This measure was taken by FarRail Tours due to the unprecedented volatility in the international foreign exchange markets and its impact on the valuation of the Pound Sterling versus other major currencies, namely the Euro as FarRail Tours' accounting currency.

a typical Eritrean viaduct

All pictures: Jörg M. Seifert


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