An off-the-map adventure in Eritrea
Catherine Fairweather and Don McCullin take a remote journey that could offer a model for post-pandemic African travel
The capital city of Asmara, conceived as Mussolini’s ‘Piccola Roma’ © Don McCullin
A church in Asmara © Don McCullin
When I circumnavigate the “keep out” fence around the Fiat station and step out on the “wings”, I can see that they double as a kind of parasol and shelter for hay bales and goats below. Those once glamorous movie posters advertising the latest Sophia Loren film hang tattered outside the restored, grand art deco portico of Cinema Impero, and like the rusted Kodak camera signs above every hardware store they serve to sharpen the whiff of nostalgia and impression of a lost era that has settled on Asmara’s tree-lined streets.
“Rather than wings being clipped post-Covid, we might see growing demand for exploratory travel
There are small concessions to the modern world, at Tre Stelle at least: a small TV screen is suspended over a vintage pool table in an adjacent room, and a newsflash of Boris Johnson suddenly pops up. It reminds us of the existence of the outside world and the landmark date on which the UK officially divorces itself from the EU. The old boys of Tre Stelle seem to know who Johnson is and nod with approval. “You are now independent from Europe,” one leans in to comment. “Now you are on your own, like us, like Eritrea.”
That Eritrea has a history of being overlooked had been highlighted for me by the blank stare I received from the assistant in the travel section of a main London branch of Waterstones. “Where exactly?” she responded, when I asked for a recent and, as it turns out, non-existent guide book on the country.
But, with UN sanctions lifted and a Unesco preservation order bestowed on Asmara, followed by a peace accord between the Ethiopian and Eritrean premiers in 2018 and a subsequent Nobel Prize for the former, there has been a renewed sense of hope. Three new daily flights from Addis Ababa brought an easing of access for foreigners and a trickle of much-needed tourist dollars. The pandemic stopped all that, of course. We were travelling before the country’s borders closed in late March, since when they have remained shut. According to official figures there have been no Covid-related deaths.
Our journey would take us from Asmara, at 2,325m above sea level, down to the coast, where we would travel north alongside the Rashaida tribe, before setting sail for the Dahlak archipelago. While currently off-limits, it is the kind of super-remote, off-grid itinerary, with a deep immersion in local culture and community, that some see as a model for low-volume, high-value post-pandemic tourism — and a stark alternative to ever-more luxurious safari lodges. “Rather than horizons contracting and wings being clipped post-Covid, we think we might see a growing demand for genuinely off-the-beaten track exploratory travel,” says Will Jones, the founder of Journeys by Design, the tour operator that organised our trip. “Of course, the numbers of people travelling will be reduced, but the scope for them contributing to remote communities could be even greater.”
Jones is planning to cut the number of departures it runs each year to a third of previous levels but with a focus on experiences not found in any brochure or website, and with a significant financial contribution to support conservation and community projects. He says he is already mainly working on departures scheduled for 2021 and 2022. “We are finding that clients are planning further ahead to confidently leap frog the Covid period, then wanting to spend more time on the ground to understand the destination in a more considered fashion.”
We stock up for our expedition in the city’s vibrant markets, buying Keren oranges and acacia honey, and frankincense to scent the bonfires. Before government security men succeed in separating my photographer husband Don McCullin from his camera at the lentil market, I haul him off to the terrace of the best Italian in town, The Spaghetti House, for penne all’arrabbiata and a bottle of Ethiopian cabernet. It tastes of communion wine.
Don, who was last in Eritrea in the 1970s covering the struggles of the ELF freedom fighters in the desert on a fruitless magazine mission with the journalist Charles Glass, is not discouraged by his altercation at the food stalls. On the contrary, he is surprised by the city’s laid-back vibe, charmed by its warmth, its crowd-free, litter-free streets.
Over coffee, we agree we can put up with the lack of hot water and the non-functioning lightbulbs at our hotel, Albergo Italia, for the pleasure of the blowsy, baroque decor of the 1890s dining room and the hotel’s archive of cloth-bound newspapers giving the latest updates on Rommel’s second world war desert campaign.
Sitting in the gentle sun of the spring afternoon, above the palm-studded Liberty Avenue conceived for military parades and the greater glory of the fascist state, we can instead enjoy the spectacle of the passeggiata, which has the young and beautiful dressing up in their wedding finery and posing for formal photographs on the steps of the opulent 1930s Asmara Theatre opposite.
The steam train that Catherine and Don took to Embatcala: ‘Surely one of the great train journeys of the world’ © Don McCullin
This is the flip side of a nation that you could be forgiven for thinking is defined by war. Our erudite guides spend days showing us some of the more moving cemeteries; the stunning art deco crypts for the Italians, the immaculately maintained walled monument to fallen British soldiers, and finally the so-called Tank Graveyard on the outskirts of town. The latter, a towering wall constructed from a stockpile of CCCP tanks, amphibious vehicles and US land cruisers, winds around the five-acre plot. It has the compelling if sinister power of an art installation at the Venice Biennale.
Catherine Fairweather and Don McCullin were guests of Journeys by Design. It offers a two-week private trip from $9,750 per person, with an additional $5,000 contribution per group to Wild Philanthropy to fund conservation and community projects. The itinerary includes a private mobile camp with the Rashaida and on the Dahlak Islands and is privately guided throughout by Will Jones, founder of Journeys by Design.
Eritrea’s borders remain closed. The UK Foreign Office also advises against travel within 25km of the country’s land borders (with some exceptions)