Eritrea: Mallets to Asmara

Sunset with 440 008

Italian Flair in Africa

Eritrea: 13.12. – 22.12.2012
Keren and Qohaito: 08.12. – 13.12.2012

Coming events cast their shadows ... The operators of the mines near Asmara and Bisha long for a transport solution to get their ore concentrates to the harbour of Massawa. The new cement factory in Massawa must bring its products inland and has asked for rail transport. The railway needs to act to meet the demand. It’s crystal clear that railway events like we’ve planned for December 2012 will have an expiry date. No-one is able to tell you when it will be, but there is no doubt that we can’t run such charter trains forever. In early 2012 the government decided to upgrade the line from Massawa to Asmara, to modern standards. What this means to railway photographers is clear …

Video (3:16 min)

Der General Manager der Eisenbahn, Amanuel Ghebreselassie, erläutert die Pläne der Staatsbahn Eritreas, die das Ende unserer Art von Sonderzügen einläuten.

The General Manager of Eritrea's railway, Amanuel Ghebreselassie, is explaining the future of its railway.

As we’ve encouraged them to overhaul several two axle freight cars over the last few years, it’s now possible to offer a big variety of authentic trains. This time we’re putting the focus on the very attractive central section around Ghinda. Of course, the whole length of the railway between Massawa and Asmara is spectacular, but you need to keep in mind that it’s close to impossible to get every position and every situation within the few days we’ll stay in Eritrea. Rest assured that we’ll offer many good opportunities for exciting photos and videos.

Again we’ll avoid artificial train compositions and empty passenger trains looking like ghost trains. Our train will look authentic and the passenger train will have passengers aboard. In the harbour we’ll arrange a small loading spectacle again. The extra costs are covered by the tour price. Our impressions and pictures will show a living railway. Be prepared for a unique experience in the Eritrean mountains!

The viaduct at Shegereni - 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, one Krupp diesel loco and two diesel railcars (one from 1935) have been put back into working order. However, the Littorina railcar is not serviceable at the moment. These vintage machines are sometimes operated by similarly well aged railwaymen 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!

We’ve planned the tour around the flight dates of Lufthansa, but if you like to save money Egypt Air will be your airline.

Asmara: Kathedrale

Keren: camels on their way to the fire wood market






Date Extra Itinerary
  08.12 Free day in Asmara (Flying by Lufthansa you’ll arrive December 7th in the night, by Egypt Air, December 9th in the early morning)
  09.12. In the morning we’ll travel to Keren on the old embankment of the railway. In Keren we’ll visit the abandoned railway station. Hotel in Keren
  10.12. In the morning we’ll visit the Monday-only camel market, feeling much like 13th century Arabia! In the afternoon we’ll walk down a part of the line with a remarkable war history. Hotel in Keren.
  11.12. In the morning we’ll return by charter bus to Asmara. Afternoon visit to some of the Art Deco buildings of the fascinating city of Asmara. Hotel in Asmara.
  12.12. In the early morning we’ll leave Asmara and head to the ruins of Qohaito, remains built originally by the Egyptian Pharaohs – but even more exciting is the stunning countryside. Looking down from the edge of the plateau on to clouds in the valley below is an unforgettable experience. In the afternoon we’ll return to Asmara.
  13.12. Visit to the recycling market, a unique experience. Almost nothing is scrapped in Eritrea, everything has a second life! In the afternoon we’ll visit the Italian and Jewish cemeteries as well as the Cathedral of Asmara.
13.12.   The Flight can be booked by FarRail Tours. Meeting in Asmara at the airport in the late evening.
14.12.   In the early morning we’ll board a mixed train, hauled by a class 442 Mallet which will bring us from Asmara to Ghinda. Between Arbaroba and Lessa we’ll take a few pictures of our train in breathtaking countryside. In Ghinda we’ll drop the passenger coach and return as a freight train uphill to Embatkala and beyond. From there our train will roll back to Ghinda while we go by charter bus back to Asmara.
15.12.   We’ll go back by charter bus to Ghinda. We board our mixed train there and will roll down to Massawa. The afternoon is reserved for a visit to the harbour (depends on the permit). A freight train will shunt for our group in the harbour. One of the main shots, a train leaving the harbour island to the mainland, will be arranged as well. If permitted again we’ll arrange some night shots in the harbour. Hotel in Massawa.
16.12.   In the morning we’ll explore the – despite being partly destroyed during the independence war – fascinating harbour city of Massawa. In the afternoon we’ll board our train in the direction of Mai Atal. Our train will stay overnight there while we’ll stay another night in Massawa.
17.12.   In the morning we’ll head by charter bus to Mai Atal where we’ll board our train. Over scenic arch bridges and through the first tunnel in a wild countryside we’ll reach Damas. From there we continue through a very scenic Valley around Bareza to Ghinda. We expect to reach Ghinda at dawn. By charter bus we’ll continue to Asmara (some 90 mins). Hotel in Asmara.
18.12.   In the morning we’ll visit the workshop of Asmara, a travel through time! We’ll also see 440 008 being fired for our afternoon train. With the small mallet we’ll go down to Shegereni and a bit beyond to start the final and spectacular ascent to Asmara. Hotel in Asmara
19.12.   Early in the morning we’ll return to Ghinda where our locomotives should have recovered from the steep ascent from the sea. The railway around Ghinda offers so many good positions that we will spend the morning here. Around noon we’ll reach Nefasit. In the afternoon light we’ll continue to Arbaroba. From here we’ll take our charter buses back to Asmara, hotel in Asmara.
20.12.   With our charter buses we’ll return to Arbaroba. Aboard a freight train we’ll roll down in the direction of Lessa and then return steep uphill to Arbaroba. Back here we’ll meet another train: a pure passenger train. Dozens of local passengers will board this train. Double headed we’ll go uphill to Asmara. Our passengers will stay on our train until Shegereni to make it look like an authentic train. In the evening we’ll reach Asmara. Night shots at the depot of Asmara with two 442s and 440 008. Hotel in Asmara.
21.12.   In the morning we’ll have another charter train with 440 008. We’ll roll down to tunnel 25 and use the nice morning light to return over one of the most spectacular sections of the line to Asmara.In the afternoon, visit to the very nice Art Déco city of Asmara. We’ll see some of the main buildings of this unique city. Our hotel is booked until our flight leaves in the night.
22.12.   Arrival in Europe


near Shegereni: Devil's gate

Line description

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 runs through slightly flatter country but this part hasn’t been rebuilt yet.

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 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. 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.

night in the harbour of Massawa

leaving the harbour of Massawa

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.

We’ll not place any train lamps on the buffer beam of our locomotives because this wouldn’t be authentic. If you check historical pictures you’ll find out that the Italian locomotives almost never carried any lamps, only the German built locomotives used to have them. But, there is not a single German steam locomotive available. After a long search we found some original head lamps. Although they might not look nice for the taste of some Europeans we’ll place them sometimes on the buffer beam of a locomotive.

Nefasit will be covered in clouds soon, a train escapes



Eritrea is a country which has only recently gained independence. 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 a good standard (matching 2 or 3 star hotels in western Europe) and are clean.

The mosque of Nefasit

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, just recently, refurbished. Wireless Internet is available in the Lobby. Because we can’t offer a buffet-style dinner here, we didn’t include the dinner for this hotel. Instead we reduced the extra price for staying in this nice hotel to 230 Pounds (plus single supplement except when you’re travelling with your partner).

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 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. Our hotel in Massawa, the Dhalak Hotel, has air conditioning.


Under 2,000 m height 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. If you see some foreign tourists wearing short trousers it should not be copied. Short trousers indicate that you don’t care for their culture and you’re somewhat arrogant.

The electricity supply (220 Volts) is reasonably dependable; often you will need an adapter 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. In Asmara and Massawa there is internet access.

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 and dinner are planned in our hotel (except early morning departures) while lunch is a small snack which will be served in the train. Cold drinks can also be bought in the train for very reasonable prices.

Asmara: Imperio cinema & pharmacy

Keren: checking the camels

We’re expecting these locomotives to be serviceable:

We can’t guarantee that a certain locomotive is serviceable in December 2012 but we can guarantee there will be sufficient locomotives to haul all planned trains with steam.

The railwaymen have already entertained several groups of railway enthusiasts and know what we want and how we want it. Now they even get 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 a railway and with engines that are only used every few weeks. Serious 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 people’s fun if, for example, an injector doesn’t behave itself. The quality of their coal is doubtful and we may need some extra breaks to raise steam pressure. 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.

Tunnel 13/14 above Lessa

Devil's Gate



Mallets to Asmara 25 to 35 participants £1,820
13.12.2012 – 22.12.2012 Single room surcharge £235
Registration Deadline: 12.08.2012
Keren and Qohaito 10 to 12 participants £820
09.12.2012 – 12.12.2012 Single room surcharge £160
Registration Deadline: 12.08.2012

The price includes:

Not included:



As a service to our UK-based clients FarRail Tours accepts and will continue to accept payments made out in Pounds Sterling until further notice. However, please note that all prices quoted in Pounds Sterling are indicative only and are subject to change without prior notice. This measure was taken by FarRail Tours because of 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.


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