The International Steam Pages

The Darjeeling of Africa 2002

The first organised tour group visited Eritrea in December 2000 and found about half of the Massawa - Asmara section restored. In November 2002 there were two more, I joined the second one (run by the LCGB). The first very pleasant surprise on arrival was to discover that restoration of the top half of the railway was being given a high priority with the line now open 12km east of Asmara as far as Arbaroba, 442.55 having recently been transported by road from Ghinda to work trains. Through working between Massawa and Asmara is now scheduled for February 2003, it will not be long delayed beyond that if at all. This 950mm gauge railway is quite simply one of the wonders of the mountain railway world and ranks alongside my previous visits to such gems as Ootie and Darjeeling in India. The pictures can only begin to convey the splendid scenery. For some more background information you can read some data I posted a while ago including a full (original) locomotive list. The October 1997 list is given in Mike Cunningham's report, reading below you will notice some changes in status. Click here for an official  document on the rehabilitation of the railway.

The report is divided into five sections:

For over 60 pictures of Eritrean Railways in the 1950s and 1960s, you need a copy of our CD-ROM 'Safari Steam'. One of the highlights of the tour for me was showing a pre-production version of it to railway staff and meeting one of the railwaymen shown in a 1967 picture....

I can confidently predict that, just as Burma was THE destination in the late 1990s, Eritrea will see many visitors in the next few years. As in my other recent reports, the images are from my digital camera, the 'master shots' are all on slide....

Eritrea probably has the oldest loco crews in the world but also probably the most enthusiastic. Nothing was too much, day after long day..... 

The railway is considered a national asset and its rehabilitation is celebrated in this banknote.....

The coal burning Mallets worked almost without a problem - only on the last day did a blown superheater element cut short what had already been a very successful session.

All line working is by these 442 Mallets, this is 442.55, built by Ansaldo:


Note the Fascist reference (XVI years) on the plate.

It is a coal burner as evidenced by the colour of my T-shirt at the end of the day and the burning ashes when the fire is raked out, made worse by the fact that the coal is that left over from 20 years ago...:

Eritrea is 'camel country', they are everywhere both wild and domesticated, this one was on duty at Demas.

On the face of it (apart from some unsurprising dereliction) the railway had hardly changed in nearly 50 years, the most obvious alteration was that the rolling stock had had a revised paint scheme, but the station at Asmara was just as I had seen it in old photographs.

This is the bridge which started it all for me, immortalised in Charles Small's book, Far Wheels, with Shegerini in the background. I never believed I would be able to repeat it....

Overall my experiences were almost entirely positive. Apart from the railway staff who did their best to satisfy their customers (and almost completely succeeded), special thanks are due to Adrian Palmer of the LCGB whose hard work got the tour off the ground and running and also to our guides (Ghidei and Helen) who learnt a lot about serving a party of gricers (and not for the first time Colin Miell cropped up in one of my pictures...). 

Overall the country is secure, the streets are clean and the people warm and friendly, if a little reserved. Conventional tourism is only in its infancy, Asmara is already quite a sophisticated (but small) capital but a city tour does not take long. Apart from some decaying 'Art Deco' buildings (especially cinemas) which are being restored, the Roman Catholic cathedral completed in 1917 is the most conspicuous landmark. The view from the top of the bell tower is splendid. Outside Asmara, life is very hard and facilities limited, many years of war ensure that. It is hardly surrounded by friends, the time to visit Eritrea is definitely NOW. 

The British War Cemetry on the Massawa Road is an obligatory stop. Among the graves is a section of Muslims, some insensitively accompanied by a solitary Hindu. Fortunately, at the moment, this is one country (with a 50:50 Muslim/Christian population) where religious tolerance is not only preached but actively practiced.

The only negative experiences centred on the boorish behaviour of two members of the tour group (themselves recognised tour leaders from the Netherlands and Germany) who, despite putting in a lot of hard work organising the runpasts, 'threw their rattle out of the pram' whenever members of the tour ignored their 'orders' at them. Far worse was their occasional temper tantrum / rudeness directed towards railway staff who were sometimes unable to complete their orders at the drop of a hat. They should certainly have been experienced enough to know better and remember that we were the guests of the Eritrean Railway and the country as a whole.... I won't be joining one of their tours (or they mine!). 

Finally the following is taken from official government propaganda on Africa's greatest threat......

Rob Dickinson