Eritrea: Mallets to Asmara

Italian Flair in Africa

Steam in Eritrea: 20.10. – 28.10.2018
Keren Camel Market and the Old Railway Line: 28.10. – 01.11.2018

Dampf in Eritrea

As the last company still offering tours to Eritrea, we left the country in 2016 with very sad feelings about the future of the railway. There were big projects which would have required huge investment and, for authentic looking charter trains, it seemed to be the end of the line after we had used up the last few bits of the coal we had imported ourselves from Zimbabwe. The line was damaged by floods but they managed to rebuild some parts. Then it was damaged again and washed away with land slides doing the rest. Slowly they worked on it, facing up to the problems and eventually, in 2017, they received a large quantity of coal. The line was not yet usable, only as far as Nefasit. But now Ghinda is in reach, and so we’ve decided to run a tour before it is too late again. The political situation is stable at the moment, although this may change at any point and the railway might become be out of reach again. Hence, we don’t want to wait. Plans for this tour have been in the drawer for too 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 of 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 also be risky to take the Krupp diesel out on the line. 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% are needed to enable the 950mm gauge line to gain some 2,400mt 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 head towards Shegereni and return from there back 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 and from there we’ll start the afternoon climb through many tunnels and horseshoe curves towards Asmara


With one of their bigger Mallets, class 442, and 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 using charter buses to Asmara.


Our charter buses 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 on the 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. Then charter buses onward 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’ve 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 of class 202. One of them will perform some shunting duties in the nice station at 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 goodbye to the railways!

Our hotel is booked until about 1 am, then transfer to the airport for those who are leaving us.


For those who stay on, we’ll visit the city of Asmara, a pearl of Art Decó architecture. They have many monuments which finally found their way on to the list of the world heritage sites of Unesco in 2017. In the afternoon we’ll continue to Keren. Hotel in Keren


In the morning we’ll visit the camel and general markets of Keren, still 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, turntable and warehouse buildings are still in place. Keren is full of beautiful churches and mosques and a mixture of different building styles. We’ll also visit the war cemetery from WW II. Italian troops were beaten by British troops in 1941, the decisive battle was nearby Keren. Hotel in Keren


In the morning we’ll travel from Keren to Asmara, along the old trackbed of the railway, using 4WD vehicles. The line winds through very scenic landscape and it's a great shame that there are no hopes of seeing this line rebuilt in the near future. Hotel in Asmara


Today we’ll visit some points of interest in Asmara which are not of the architectural type. Among other locations we’ll visit the recycling market, the tank cemetery and the Italian cemetery. The afternoon is free time to explore the local cafés, restaurants and other corners of the town you’re interested in. Farewell dinner and hotel in Asmara.


We’ve booked a hotel in Asmara to relax a bit before the return flight starts in the early morning


Line description

Although we’ll almost certainly not see the complete line from Massawa to Asmara (we can but hope), it is described here in full.

Dampf in Eritrea

The line runs from Massawa harbour, on The Red Sea, through relatively flat coastal land, with a desert character, up to Mai Atal (29km). After Mai Atal, several dry riverbeds are crossed by long stone arched viaducts before the ascent becomes noticeable. Before Ghinda (70km, approx. 1,000mt 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 2,430mt above sea level between Arbaroba and Asmara (118km). Beyond 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 be. Most of the section from Asmara to Keren is passable with four wheel drive vehicles. Beyond Keren the line is not passable, even by cars. Several parts are blocked by washouts, landslides or huge rocks on the trackbed.

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 Unesco. It was built by well known Italian architects during the time that Eritrea was an Italian colony. The busy time for the construction of buildings came to an abrupt end with the invasion of British troops during World War II and construction has never since gained much ground during the Ethiopian period or since independence. Hence you'll still find the Art Déco city almost untouched by modern influences. Asmara has more cinemas than many other cities in Africa three times larger. All of these cinemas are landmarks of the 1930’s and 40’s. 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

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 markets, 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 to 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.

Mallet-Dampf in 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. Military service can almost 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 the case of a 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.

Wolken bei Asmara

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 that Eritreans abroad send back 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 previous, friendly, General Manager, Amanuel, passed away.

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’ve always received our requested visas. Some embassies require that you pick up your visa personally.

Bei Baresa

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 their 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 the very 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.

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-Dollars (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 2,000mt 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 cost (must be negotiated as these cards are private cards from Eritreans and need to be 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 adhered to. 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 for 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 cannot be described as being cheap any more. A 330 ml bottle of beer is now about 2 US-Dollars while drinking water has a very similar price!

Mallet-Dampf in Eritrea

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

We know the technical state of the Littorina, the "Litorinella" and the Krupp diesel loco only too well to risk adding 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 about 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 at 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 have 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 market dried up completely. The official rate is 1 US-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, which 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.

Hygienic and environmental standards in Eritrea do not conform to Western 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



Back to Mallets in the Mountains! 28 to 36 participants £2,440
20.10.2018 – 28.10.2018 Single room surcharge £370
Registration Deadline: 19.07.2018
Keren Camel Market and the Old Railway Line 17 to 25 participants £960
28.10.2018 – 01.11.2018 6 to 16 participants £1,140
  Single room surcharge £175
Registration Deadline: 19.07.2018

The price includes:

Not included:

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

Steam in Eritrea


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