If you haven’t been to Eritrea then you’re not alone – but you are missing out.
The tiny Horn of Africa state hasn’t been a country for very long. It gained independence from Ethiopia, after a protracted insurgency, in 1991, cutting its former landlord off from the Red Sea in the process.
The few visitors who have ventured to this remote corner of Africa are tempted by tales of Asmara, the country’s enigmatic capital. The Italian occupation of Eritrea from 1890 to 1941 left behind a rich and astonishingly complete legacy of Modernist architecture. If you can’t get there Edward Denison’s Asmara: Africa’s Secret Modernist City is a wonderful compendium of the wonders that await. It’ll probably make you go, by the way. That’s no bad thing.
There’s more to Eritrea than this, including excellent diving and vague archaeological sites you can have all to yourself, but Asmara was what drew me here. After a day or so of strolling around laid-back streets, sipping macchiatos in old-school cafes on Harnet Avenue and joining Asmarinos on their nightly passegiata peregrination around the city I was ready to explore further. There was another reason: I fell over in Cinema Impero while trying to make my way in pitch blackness to a seat. Two vintage Modernist seats gave way. It was time to leave town before I broke anything else.
There are two options for getting to the coast at Massawa, a bombed-out Zanzibar with a similarly timeless atmosphere. One is to club together with a load of railway enthusiasts and charter a train. The more usual one is to hop on a minibus which gets loaded with people, shopping and the odd goat for the seventy mile, 2000m descent to the coast.
It wasn’t always like this though. One other legacy of colonial rule was one of the most unusual forms of transport: the cable-car system known as the Teleferica Massaua-Asmara. This strange and very long system of cables, way-stations and goods carts was the fastest way to shift goods from the port to capital, and as you can see from this photo the odd passenger snuck on board.
The system was dismantled by British administrators of the area when the Italians w ere overwhelmed in 1941 but some traces do remain.
On the journey from Asmara to Massawa the road plunges through hairpin after hairpin, and if you can take your eyes off the road which is much easier going up than down you start to notice huge concrete blocks dotted along the route, These are the bases for the pylons that carried the cable way. Have a look at the Trainweb link at your leaisure. It is another rich source of information, reproducing a brochure produced at the time lauding the cableway, and gives you a good idea of how different the landscape would have looked with this audacious creation in operation.
This picture’s caption notes that it was taken, by John Brantley, while stationed in Eritrea at the Kagnew station in the 1940s. It’s a Wikimedia Commons image and I am indebted to him for posting it.
There have been, astonishingly, other cableways of similar long lengths. The COMILOG cableway ran between Gabon and the Republic of Congo for nearly fifty miles between 1959 and 1986. There’s fun to be had around the web finding out more.
You should visit Eritrea but you may not wish to rush. Power cuts and shortages marked my visit and those who have been more recently suggest that travel permits are widely required. It is a beautiful and friendly country but not without troubles. I didn’t do it for you by Michala Wrong is a vivid and readable history.
Cableways are cool and Eritrea is a unique place.