Eritrea: Mallets will lay idle in Asmara

Unbelievable but true, two days ago a second severe rainfall within 12 months time interrupted the line Massawa – Ghinda at several places. This time the section Nefasit – Ghinda is affected as well. That’s why the ER cancelled all planned tours until March 2014. This is bitter, especially after all visas, the coal, the flights and so on have been paid in full. It’s the biggest lost in FarRail’s history, i.e. since 2000. It’s also a big loss for the 35 who booked the tour. I’m very sorry for everyone who was booked on the tour, but I can’t run it.


Italian Flair in Africa

Steam in Eritrea: 19.11. – 30.11.2013

Keren Camel Market and the Old Railway Line: 16.11. – 20.11.2013

The Eritrean politicians messed it up! The planned rebuilding of the line to make it a general freight carrier again seems to be off the table for the foreseeable future. There was an opportunity to provide the new mines with an economical access to the seaport of Massawa, but when the politicians can't make their decisions in time, the mine operators need to - and they're now purchasing trucks. Bad for the economy of the country, but good for all who want to experience this fantastic, steam operated mountain railway in depth.

As always, the programme is completely new. On the one hand, this allows everyone who has already been there a chance to see new aspects of the country and its railway, on the other hand, we needed to adjust the tour to stay abreast of the latest changes and challenges, with new electrification poles at a few locations and the steadily declining technical shape of the rolling stock. We chose a tour date close to the end of the year because some of the photographical ideas need the sun in an angle which is only available from late November to late January. This time, for the first time in 37 years, we'll take the small Mallet, the beautiful 440, down to Massawa.

As we’ve encouraged them to overhaul several two axle freight cars over the last few years and can add an original four axle luggage van to the collection of serviceable vehicles, it’s now possible to offer a large variety of authentic trains. Again we’re putting a focus on the very attractive central section around Ghinda. Of course, the whole length of the railway between the sea port in 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.

The tour is tailored for dedicated photographers and video film makers. We'll add details to make the train look authentic. We'll run authentic looking passenger trains - which means with passengers aboard - we'll haul and travel on real freight trains which means we'll not always carry a passenger coach with us. Travelling in the freight cars is great fun because you can sit on the brake man's platform or in one of the tiny box cars, leaning out of the door. To be able to finance all the extras like loading scenes and passengers on the train, overhauling wagons and so on, we need to travel with a decent group size to keep the price affordable, despite the recent price rally in Eritrea. Photographically, as well as from your travel experience, you'll realise the difference of having authentic looking trains instead of empty fantasy trains. You'll get better pictures, for sure.

The tour is longer than our previous programmes. If you can't afford to take so many days off, or if you want to save some money and you still want to see the whole line, you can also fly out on November 22nd and take part from November 23rd.

Eritrea has some severe problems. If you watch Al Jazeera instead of, for instance BBC, you'll get a much closer insight into things going on under the surface. But travelling with our group to Eritrea will give you the feeling of a lovely, peaceful and quiet country. This was the case all the previous times we went there. Despite all technical and other problems we came back with the experience of warm hearted, welcoming people and hundreds of good photographs. This tour is made to give you the same experience, to come back home with a good feeling.

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!

Because Lufthansa try to ask for ridiculous prices we'll focus on flights with Star Alliance member Egypt Air. To Asmara Egypt Air is cheaper and flies more frequently than Lufthansa, but they sometimes change and cancel flights. You can't have it all ...



Flight to Asmara. The flight to the Eritrean capital can be booked by FarRail Tours.
Morning arrival in Asmara, transfer to a hotel and recover from the night flight. In the afternoon we'll first visit the Asmara Brewery Melotti with its Art Déco buildings and after we tasted their products we'll drive through very scenic mountain countryside down to the second largest city of Eritrea, Keren. Hotel in Keren
In the morning we’ll visit the camel and general markets of Keren, feeling much like 13th century Arabia! In the afternoon we'll visit some of the architectural highlights of Keren. The old railway station is for sure one of them. Loco shed, turn table and warehouse buildings are still in place. Keren is full of beautiful churches and mosques and a mixture of different building styles. Hotel in Keren
In the morning we’ll travel from Keren to Asmara on the old embankment of the railway. The line winds through very scenic landscapes and it's a pity that there are no hopes for seeing this line rebuilt in the near future. Hotel in Asmara
Flight to Asmara. The flight to the Eritrean capital can be booked by FarRail Tours.
Morning arrival in Asmara, transfer to a hotel and recover from the night flight. About 11.30am meeting with the "Keren-group" and lunch. In the afternoon we'll explore the wonderful city of Asmara and have a look at the most important Art Déco buildings in town. We'll also have a look inside the Cathedral. The late afternoon is reserved for the history of Eritrea: visit to the tank cemetery and afterwards to the Italian, Jewish and war cemetery (where many Brits are buried). Hotel in Asmara.
The railway spectacle starts: we'll start with shunting operation in Asmara. As we did already we'll arrange a whole ensemble of loading and unloading activities which will recall the times as Eritrean Railways were a major player in the transport logistics in the country. Livestock loading in front of historical backdrop etc. In the late morning we'll have a look into the workshop with it ancient machinery, mainly from Italy and Germany from the 1930ies. In the afternoon we'll roll down the line a bit. With a mixed train, hauled by two 442 Mallets and of course a good number of "passengers" aboard we'll storm uphill from Devil's Gate over the summit to Asmara. Arriving in Asmara with the last light will give us an impression of how it used to be when the daily passenger from Massawa reached its destination, slightly delayed but full of colourfully dressed passengers. Night shooting in the depot of Asmara with two 442 and 440 008. Hotel in Asmara
In the morning we’ll board a mixed train, hauled by a Mallet which will bring us from Asmara to Ghinda. On the way to 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 Embatkalla and beyond to tunnel 9. Whether or not we'll reach this location in daylight depends on the technical state of our locomotive and the weather. From there our train will roll back to Ghinda while we go by charter bus back to Asmara. Hotel in Asmara
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. 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. For the evening we’ll arrange some night shots in the harbour. Hotel in Massawa.
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. On the way we'll spend quite a while at the long viaduct of Moncullo. Our train will stay overnight in Mai Atal while we’ll stay another night in Massawa.
In the morning we’ll head by charter bus to Mai Atal where we’ll board our freight 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 dusk. By charter bus we’ll continue to Asmara (some 90 mins). Hotel in Asmara.
Early in the morning we’ll return to Ghinda. The railway around Ghinda offers many good positions which we'll photograph in the morning light. Around noon we’ll reach Embatkalla. In the afternoon light we’ll continue to Nefasit. From here we’ll take our charter buses back to Asmara (ca. 45 minutes), hotel in Asmara.
By charter buses we'll return to Nefasit. In the morning light we'll climb to Lessa. Here we have a break while our loco runs light engine to Arbaroba, takes water and returns. In the afternoon we'll make the second part uphill through many tunnels far away from any road access in the mountains to Arbaroba. Around Arbaroba we'll enjoy some last-light shots before we return by charter buses to our hotel in Asmara.
In the morning we'll return to Arbaroba to continue the final ascent to Asmara. After dozens of amazing photo opportunities our freight train will finally reach Asmara in the evening. Hotel in Asmara
In the early morning we'll roll down with a 442 and a pure and authentic passenger train (that means with luggage van and passengers aboard) to tunnel 25. The plentiful photographic opportunities in this winding railway section will entertain us the whole morning, until around 10.30 am when the light becomes harsh.Before we leave Asmara we'll have another close look into the fascinating city with its mild climate and lovely people. Visit to the recycling market, a unique experience. Almost nothing is scrapped in Eritrea, everything has a second life! If you still have films and flash cards - here you can fill them. Hundreds of worthwhile scenes for pictures waiting for you. Our hotel is booked until our flight leaves in the night.
Around 1.45 am transfer to the airport of Asmara and return flight. Arrival in Europe in the early afternoon.


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 first runs through slightly flatter country before a steep decent through beautiful scenery follows, but this part hasn’t been rebuilt yet. 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 or landslides.

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.

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.

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.

Keren is a fascinating city, surrounded by mountains. Only a few tourists go there, so you can see authentic African life almost everywhere. The city is rich in mosques and churches and merges several architectural styles. Some of the most interesting events are the camel, the cattle and the general market, the latter one usually held in a dry river bed. The hustle and bustle of these colourful markets is remarkable. But around midday the activities fade out and the markets disappear, leaving empty places and a dry river bed. Then comes the time where one can have a close look at the interesting buildings of the town. Keren is well worth a visit, especially once you've flown so far already. It will widen your horizon about Eritrea.

Asmara is the capital of Eritrea. Asmara is a gem (if not THE gem) of the Art Déco building period. 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!



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 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.

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 those who want to stay in the comfort of this hotel. Instead we reduced the extra price for staying in this nice hotel to 305 Pounds – plus the standard single room 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, probably 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. 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 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. 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 (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 very reasonable prices.

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.

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 40%. 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 a 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.

At the very moment I'm writing these lines there is no coal in Eritrea which could be used for our charter trains. Actually it surprises me how many others offer charter trains with coal which is not available yet. It's likely that the Eritrean state won't buy the needed coal. So we contacted coal suppliers already and hence we're sure we can deliver the necessary coal to run our trains as planned.

The line between Baresa and Massawa was partly destroyed by severe weather conditions in December 2012. The damage should be repaired by October 2013. But 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).

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/US/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 or damage. We suggest you take out a comprehensive overseas accident and health insurance policy.



Mallets to Aasmara - Italian Flair in Africa 22 to 35 participants £2,120
19.11.2013 – 30.11.2013 Single room surcharge £280
Registration Deadline: 19.07.2013
Keren Camel Market and the Old Railway Line 7 to 18 participants £540
16.11.2013 – 20.11.2013 Single room surcharge £85
Registration Deadline: 19.07.2013

Arriving in Asmara November 23rd: you'll save £365.

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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