Eritrea 2007


This trip to Eritrea took place in March 2007 and was an more than 10 year old idea – originated from a film by the Danish adventurer Troels Kløvedal where he visited Eritrea on a sea travel up the Red Sea – in 1994, just after the war with Ethiopia ended in 1993. And now, I had considered where it was possible to travel to for just one week, and I came up with Eritrea and Iran – but my wife, Birgitte, much wanted to go along with me to Iran at some time. My good friend Lars was up to the idea and we made as much planning as possible from home so not to waste any days while there.

Some of the highlights:
- Being 2 of 5 Danes in the whole of Eritrea – and not seeing any other tourists than few who came on the same plane as us for the whole week.
- Snorkeling in the Red Sea
- The desolated landscape of Dankalia
- The hike up to the Debre Bizen monastery

3 bad things:
- People don’t allow you to take photos of them
- Coca Cola is not easily accessible
- Bureaucracy

Currency: 1$=15 Nakfa

Prices: Diesel 16 Nakfa / liter, Petrol 36 Nakfa / liter. Coffee Macchiato 3 Nakfa.

Guidebook: Lonely Planet (LP) – Ethiopia & Eritrea 3rd Ed. 2006.

Saturday 17. March 2007
Århus – Asmara
We left at 4:20 (!) – a rainy, sad and cold morning. With Cirrus airlines at 6:30 to Frankfurt and 4 hour waiting time. Onwards at 12:50 south through Croatia, Greece and followed the Nile in Egypt for a while. In Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) at 20:00 – surprised how big it was. Most people got off there. After we continued on, the lights faded outside the plane and none were seen before we arrived in Asmara. The airport was empty besides 2 other planes (one Eritrean Airlines and one UN). The hotel car waited for us and we were at the Crystal hotel at 23:00 and just had time to get a pizza before the restaurant closed. The hotel cost 50$ for a double room per night.

Sunday 18.3
Asmara, 25°
Had planned to get up early, but it was nice to sleep until 7:30. While Lars was taking a shower, I took a walk up to Harnet Avenue to get my orientation and take a few morning pictures.

Breakfast (a double espresso, toasts, and orange juice with plenty of sugar) and afterwards we followed the walking tour from Lonely Planet. Since it was Sunday, most things were closed. The tour passed the Opera House, the fascist style Ministry of Education, the Catholic cathedral and up to the Great Mosque. Here there were a lot of photo opportunities and we asked some old men for permission to take a picture, but they said no as we experienced many times later. If they spot your camera, most people hold up a hand before their face. We did take a few pictures ’under cover’. Walked around the Orthodox Cathedral (it was closed), had a macchiato on Harnet and walked southwest to where the Sandals statue had been (had been removed lately). A bit further south to the Fiat Tagliero Building (futuristic style from 1938) – it was empty and not in use for anything at the moment. Next to it is the IRGA building (neoclassic), which also looks good on photos.

A little nap before lunch at Casa degli Italiani. 180 Nakfa for lunch, beer and macchiato. The food was very good and good atmosphere. Walked past the catholic church, but it was closed. Took a taxi (100 Nakfa) to the Italian Cemetery, since we did not know where it was. But on the LP map, it is on A3 – the Kiddus Mikael Cemetery. We were the only ones there, besides a few workers and it was very photogenic and special. Mausoleums in rows, graves with plastic flowers, and in sepia colors, cracked jars of clay. Some nicely kept, others neglected.
Before sunset we took a small photo-tour again to the Cathedral. Many people in the streets at this time. One really notices the buses, which always are more than full.
Dinner at the Blue Bird (the former Blue Nile) – they didn’t have the sif sif on the menu any more - recommended by LP. We order a big plate of traditional food, of which some of the ingredients are very good, and others not so good.

Monday 19.3

Asmara, 25°
We walk to the orthodox Church headquarters a few kilometers to the south west, and after waiting a while we now understand why the books state the order to get permits: first the tourist office. We could not get our permission here without it. :-( To visit a monastery in Eritrea, one has to go here to apply and we were going to the Debre Bizen monastery 30 km from Asmara.
Walk back, and visits Africa Rent Car. They are very flexible and everything is possible. The driver will pick us up Wednesday and there is no time limit each day. We see the monster truck of a Toyota land cruiser we are going to drive. We got the license plate, which the tourist office asked for a little later.
At the Tourist Information Center we are told that Filfil is open and that we can get as far south as Ghea’elo – half a day south of Massawa. We can’t get the permit immediately, but have to come back at 16:30 – we argue that it then is too late to go to the church headquarters, and make an arrangement for 14:00.
We visit the Catholic Church and the church tower – very nice view of the city. Still difficult to get a grip of being in an altitude of 2300 meters since it looks very flat from up here.

A delicious cake and macchiato at ‘Sweet Asmara’ right opposite – very popular with good reason. Popular with chick girls who all seems to know each other.

We visit an internet café. In 15 minutes we don’t succeed in opening any of our text based webmails… Back at the Tourist Information at 14:00 – come back at 15:00. We fix the papers and pay the deposit with the car rental company and go back and get our permits. I ask how many tourist that come here each day – many they say, but I can see from today’s pile of approved applications that there were a maximum of 10 travel permits. Taxi to the church head quarters with a noble Taxi driver with a tweed jacket – whom we see a few times later in cafes and on his fixpoint on Denkel St. just around from the Tourist Information. He speaks very well English and we talk about many things on the way.
When we get there, the clerk asked if we brought a copy for him… Hmm, we have to go back a few blocks to an internet café to get a copy made of our travel permit. We filled out the application form in the morning, and we point out to the clerk that they are ours – they are in the top of a pile. But no, we need to fill out new formulas – one for him and one for us, as he states. When we are half way through, he sees that we write the same as on the formulas from the morning, and he takes to his head and realizes that we are the ones from the same morning. Very likely there had not been other tourists this day, but we westerners probably all look the same – stop! He then takes our partly filled forms and starts to paint it over with eraser-ink (or whatever it is called), methodically. It takes 5 minutes and he now has saved 2 copies he can use for another applicant – we had difficulties not to laugh.
Then 15 minutes of copying it to a formula and then another 15 minutes to get a hand written receipt of our 300 Nakfa for the permit. The permit looks nice with several stamps and signatures.
The 'best' internet café (with some waiting time) is the one at the communication center on Beleza St just off Harnet. A ‘hub’ as some locals say. It could just handle a webmail (after a few minutes of loading…)
Dinner at the Pizza & Spaghetti house. Wonderful pizza – stone oven with firewood. A glass of red wine was just as expensive as the pizza. It was popular with Italians (locals?) who were quite dissatisfied with the servants not speaking Italian, but only English – but they seemed to enjoy the food very much. Also we saw several tourists here that we had met before.

Tuesday 20.3.

We were at the main bus terminal at 7.15. Again it took some time before someone could help locating the right bus. Most did not understand the town ‘Nefasit’. One at a Massawa bus said we could take that one, but had to pay for the whole trip to Massawa (which was still only about 25 Nakfa), but he showed us the bus to Ghinda, which is a bit further down the road as Nefasit.
We were taking this bus to go for a hike up from Nefasit to the monastery of Debre Bizen on top of a small mountain, overlooking much of the region. After 45. One at a Massawa bus said we could take that one, but had to pay for the whole trip to Massawa (which was still only about 25 Nakfa), but he showed us the bus to Ghinda, which is a bit further down the road as Nefasit.
We were taking this bus to go for a hike up from Nefasit to the monastery of Debre Bizen on top of a small mountain, overlooking much of the region. After 45 minutes it was full, and left. At the checkpoint outside Asmara, all papers were examined and ours registered – the bus had to wait a few minutes extra because of that. Beautiful views over the mountains and a nice ride.
In Nefasit at 9:00. The local police officer greets us and asks us to follow him up to his station. Well, our travel permit doesn’t say ‘Nefasit’, he points out. So we can’t go up and have to go back to Asmara. We discuss for 10 minutes – that Nefasit is on the Massawa-Asmara road, and we have a permit for that we have a permit for the monastery. We explicitly mentioned to the Tourist Information that we were going here, so at this point we suspect them for forgetting it. I’m quite mad and asks for his name, but there is not much to do about it. To make matters worse, we have to wait 2½ hours to find a bus back, since most are full and only one or two can get on the bus each time it stops. It must be very tiring to take busses from Nefasit and other villages. 5 camels, 100 children carrying full water containers have passed. Strange people – none have said a ‘hello’ or asked us about anything. Everybody passes quietly by, even children.
Finally, we push forward and get a seat at 11:30 – on the same bus we took this morning. A woman only have a 100 Nakfa note which the driver cannot change – in this case it usually takes a long time to sort out, so I quickly hand her a 10 Nakfa, and the bus drives on. The woman is very surprised and even says a few words of thanks to us and we can hear there is a lot of talking in the bus.
Lunch at the Casa dela Italiana – close to the bus station and Lars needs a rest room. Again, very enjoyable.
Later we pay a visit to the Tourist Information and they are genuine surprised of our story from Nefasit. ‘But why? It says Asmara-Massawa?’ After half an hour with calling different places, including police, the find out that it is a new police station leader in Nefasit, who apparently don’t know the ‘rules’. They apologize many times and write Nefasit on our permit – which we maybe just should have done our selves. They try to convince us to go back today – you have time and can stay the night – mostly because of our other permit to the monastery that is for today. Finally (since we have other plans for tomorrow), they simply change the end date of 20.3 to 28.3. Well, so much for bureaucracy.
Went to Africa rent and ordered another car for Saturday to pick us up in Massawa – this way we would be sure to have a car out of Nefasit after the Monastery climb. We met our driver, Job. As he said: Hello, my name is Job, religion is Christian.
Passed the Bowling hall (Multi Sport Bowling) in original American style – it was being renovated. The bar next door was filled with old men – a photo of this could be the photo of the year, if someone dared. Coffee in Tre Stelle Bar. Again very local and with old men – also the local hang out for our tweed dressed taxi driver.
Call my parents and a little later Birgitte and the children – it takes some time to get through. We have fish at a fish restaurant (forgot the name).

Wednesday 21.3
Filfil – Massawa
We were picked up at 7:30. The road toward Keren is a bit difficult to describe, but I could see they had planted trees all the way along the road, and there were a few oasis now and then – but mostly mountain-desert scenery. It costs 75 Nakfa to enter Filfil. Filfil is a 20 km wide belt in the mountains. It somehow receives more rain and is therefore one of the only green places in Eritrea. There was a new asphalt road all the way. The views were fantastic all the way. Every time we stopped, the air was noisy with bird sounds.

Watch a small video:
When down, it changed from green to desert within 5 kilometers. The temperature rose to 35, lots of camels, mosques and clay cottages. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. We had a flat tire - you can hear it on this small video:

We reached the road between Asmara and Massawa at 11:00 and Massawa at 11:50. It was much faster as according to LP – probably because it has been paved since the research. Had we know this, we should have visited Keren on the way as well.

The Dahlak hotel was closed (still building), so we check in at the Red Sea Hotel (500 Nakfa).
It is hot! Really hot. We take a walk at 14:00 where shops usually open – but not in Massawa. Not a soul in the streets. We ask for a boat to Green Island for Friday at the Eritrean Diving Center – just come by Friday they say, it is not necessary to make a reservation.
We walk around Massawa Island which mostly looks like something out of a war movie. Everything is closed, except for a bar where we get a cold beer. We walk back, drink macchiato and read.
At 18:30 we check out the Internet café (better speed than in Asmara) and eat at the Selam Restaurant that is a ugly and dirty as described and the fish was as fantastic as everybody says. A restaurant where you have two choices: Medium Fish or Large Fish. 170 Nakfa for two, including bread and water. The picture here in the middle is of the 'restaurant'...

Thursday 22.3
The purpose of today’s drive was to travel into the inhospitable land of Dankalia and maybe find an Afar tribe. ‘The men still carry the famous jile (curved knife), and some file their teeth to points’ as LP writes. 
The road was paved until Foro so it went fast. At a stretch with many acacia trees we saw two ostriches close to the road. Many shepherds and camel drivers with their herds along the road. After Zula to Irfayle and around the bay, it was pretty rough driving. After Irfayle the terrain is lava fields and into the Buri peninsula the terrain again becomes flat with Acacia trees and later becomes grass plains. We again see two ostriches close to the road and asses that might (or not) be wild. We had permission to go to Ghea’elo, on the east coast of the Buri peninsula. It is a strange, deserted place – far from everything. A collection of 50 houses / huts. We walk around and have a beer while Job is fixing the spare tire, which again causes trouble. It is a problem at this point that Job doesn’t speak much English. We try to explain to him to ask for a guide for a couple of hours drive into the Buri peninsula to watch for wildlife. He mumbles something about his tire and that it is 50 kilometers away. So we give up, and drive back, after having lunch. There had been a few clouds today, so it hasn’t been too hot – but they have now evaporated. At the bay of Zula, we take a break for an hour and snorkel a bit. Too shallow to really see something, but I do see a couple of rays taking off. After that we return – most people (and animals) have disappeared from the midday heat.
Unfortunately we did not meet any Afars on our trip, but the scenery had been rewarding.

Friday 23.3
Massawa - 29°
Lars had a bit of sunstroke yesterday, but manages to eat a bit this morning and is able to join the trip to Green Island. A small island close to Massawa. Lars rented mask and fins (100 Nakfa) and the boat for 600. The boatman stayed out there from 8:30 to 13 – probably cheaper for the boat company than the petrol to go back in between. Fantastic! We were the only ones on the island except for 1½ hours where a boatful of Germans came. I snorkeled  3 x 30 minutes (at least!) and there were thousands of fish, including several shoals of fish. The corals were pristine 30 meters out – much better than I had expected. I found out that it was best to swim out where boat comes in, since the corals almost reach the surface many places. There are some tree parasols so one can relax in the shadow. The water was almost as warm as the air. Lars recreated from his sunstroke but joined on the last swim.
Back at the hotel we recreated from the strenuous day on the terrace and after the siesta we took a taxi to the salt pans on the north side of town. We agreed on 225 Nakfa and I thought it was for the Gurgussum hotel north of Massawa. He drove for 5 minutes and said it was here – it was the old salt pans which were not used any more. I would not pay 225 Nakfa for this short drive and we discussed for 10 minutes about rationing on fuel, the high fuel prices on petrol (this car ran on diesel), his sick ant. He agreed under protest to take us to the Gugurssum hotel. When we got there, he was then interested in waiting for an hour on us and to take us back for the same price, and it was impossible to get another taxi from here! We said no thank you.
I had used Google Earth to look for interesting places, and had seen some big round things and what looked like salt flats with a Lufthansa symbol. We walked up there. The round tanks, we later found out, were for shrimps and the fields around were for fish food. The money had ended at some time, so now it is deserted. While walking around we thought it was salt flats. 17:30 we were back at the Gurgyssum, which is a nice hotel with a good beach. We had fried shrimps for dinner, watching the sunset on the terrace.
Next the reception called for a taxi – for 150 Nakfa. The young driver, Solomon, spoke amazingly good English – not many do. We would recommend him, if you are in Massawa and in need of a driver: 07123308. At the hotel, there was no water in the room for 2 days. Yesterday it was a failure in the water tank, but it had been fixed. To get water in the room, the trick was to turn on the hot faucet in the tub…

Saturday 24.3
Massawa – Nefasit (Debre Bizen monastery) – Asmara
Today’s itinerary was a hike up to the Debre Bizen orthodox monastery near Nefasit. Founded in 1368.

Job picked us up 7:30. Cloudy and a few rain drops. It quickly dried up. Amazingly so many people along the road with the herds of camels, sheep and a few cow herds (Indian style). In Nefasit at 9:30 and our tall police friend with the square glasses was quickly there to inspect our permit. We quickly move on and a young man follows us, who could only say a few words in English as ‘Police?’, ‘Money?’, ‘Debre Bizen?’ – and points out that it is difficult to find the road – which it wasn’t. Start at the bus stop: 1650 m, N15’19.700/E039’03.818. Walk towards the school (east) and turn right at the first road before. Follow the path 300 meters and you get to the stone: ‘Women not to go on’. Walk up to the right – the path is the widest.
A few way points: N15’19.608/E039’03.643 – just before the stone. N15’19.511, E039’04.392 (2039 m), N15’19.468’/E039’04.553 (2165 m), N15’19.851/E039’05.092 – the eastern side of the monastery – nice view. 2422 m. The complex was bigger than we thought. It took two hours to go up and it was both easy and rewarding with views – a little hot. We had tea and a very sour injera, by a young boy in the visitor’s room, and afterwards we walked around the small village. A lot of chanting was heard and the views were spectacular. We could not see the Red Sea because of clouds below us. After leaving the complex, I planted some Joshua tree seeds (N15’19.550/E039’05.035 - 2417 m) – so if someone geo cashes here in 50-100 years and find the trees, I’ll be happy to hear about it. They are on the south side of the road. The clouds had come round the mountain, but never really thick. 1½ hour to go down with a coca cola stop (brought from home).
Watch a short video I made at Debre Bezin:

We are down 14:40 and on the last stretch up to Asmara doesn’t take long. We see a monkey right at the roadside. In Asmara we had a discussion about the cars – today was OK (though it had only run 5 kilometers per litre) – 1500 Nakfa, but the other (Wednesday and Thursday) had gone 850 kilometers and cost 8.500 Nakfa – 200 kilometers more than we had calculated. Lars acted deposit while Job and I went and changed our deposit of 500$
Macchiato at Sweet Asmara café, photographing and relaxing in Piazza Mai Cew and waiting for dinner time. At 18:00, someone whistles and everybody freezes – I mean everyone. The flag is lowered and after the whistle sounds again, people move on. Funny. We have a bit pizza and the Spaghetti and Pizza House has as the only restaurant Coca Cola (imported from some Arabian country) – and Troels Kløvedal music – and then we kind of end as we started.

Write me if this travelogue was helpful or the description is not correct:

We were going to find out why there is a landmark formed as a Lufthansa symbol near Massawa (found on Google Earth):

A hiking trip to Debre Bizen: