"Trip to Massawa" by Ralph R. Reinhold

I remember getting to the Asmara station early in the morning…Perhaps a little after 6. A friend drove us to the station in his 1930 vintage FIAT Topolino. The sounds and sights were fascinating…even for a veteran Kagnewite of 8 months. Signs were in Italian, Arabic and Amaharic. Asmara in the early 1960s was quite cosmopolitan. It had an Eritrean population of about 100,000. In addition to this, there were about 30,000 Italians, 6,000 Americans (if you include those living on Kagnew Station) and a few thousand other foreigners.

The station crowd waiting for the morning littorina represented this cross section…Eritrean (in those days we called them Ethiopian) men in their spotless white tunics and pants; Eritrean woman with white scarves and dresses; a Moslem man dressed as a Bedouin; a woman dressed from head to toe in black…probably from the Afar regions; an Ethiopian police officer dressed in khaki with spats, bush hat, bandoleers, and the inevitable Enfield rifle; two Italian girls barely older than my 19 years…one was blond and the other brunette; a mid-teen, light skinned Ethiopian boy dressed in European clothing… Possibly, he was a caffelatte…of mixed European and Ethiopian descent; an Italian businessman, a middle-aged male of undetermined European origin; and of course my friend and me…two GIs. Somewhere unseen was the driver. When he showed, he was dressed in a near military uniform.

That morning, the rail yard next to the station was near empty. I remember a coach or two. I think there was a goods wagon. There were at least two cars that were coupled together as I have a slide of their links and buffers. I remember little else about the yards…other than a tiny turntable was there.

Soon after he arrived, we were able to get on board the littorina. I remembered that the interior of the littorina was painted chromic green. However, the color slides I have seen recently indicate that it probably was a darker and purer green than that. The seats were brown with a reddish tinge. At each end was an engine and transmission with a driver's seat to one side. At the center was a water closet on one side and baggage area on the other. The seats for littorina consisted of sets of two bench seats facing each other, which were arranged with four booth like areas between the wc/baggage area and driver at each end. Each booth, in theory could probably seat four people. At my then weight of 59 kilograms, each bench was slightly too wide for one person and too narrow for two people.

For much of the journey, the policeman stood in the baggage area so that he could watch for shiftas. My friend and I took one booth near the driver on the opposite side of the car. Across the aisle was the Afar woman and another Muslim group. The two Italian girls took the booth kitty-corner from us. The remaining booth on our end was filled with Eritreans. I can't remember how many, but I think there were two women and a man. The teenager scooted about the car. I am not quite sure where he sat. He looked over the drivers shoulder some of the way and sat in the driver's seat at the other end for some other portion of the trip.

A few minutes before the scheduled departure time, the driver started the engine on our end. He revved it a few times and then let it return to idle. Although it sounded like a diesel, it smelled like a gasoline engine. Finally, at the scheduled departure time, the driver ground the transmission into gear…beeped the horn and started forward. It shuddered and jerked as it started as if to protest having to go down the mountain one more time as it had daily for the last 25 years. My friend and I chatted much of the way. I took several rolls of film. I found out years later that we were not supposed to photograph the railroad. Few were of the kind that a railroad photographer would hold great pride. Nevertheless, they showed a good representation of view during the trip.

The first kilometer or so was like a rail trip anywhere. Houses and light industry were along side the tracks. There were a few at grade crossings where we held up traffic. Then, it moved into a lightly forested area, which was still a lush green from the rainy season, and it went into a cut through a hill. Finally, it opened into the first valley. At the right hand side of the littorina, the mountain rolled down perhaps 500 meters to the valley floor. The left-hand side saw cactus and near straight up ranging up to 50 meters at one point. During much of this part of the trip, the tracks trailed below the Asmara to Massawa highway. At about 10 kilometers, they passed under the highway and burst into a new valley. Almost immediately after bursting into the valley, it sharply turned to the right. This curve shows up in several pictures of the Eritrean Railway which are on the World Wide Web. Not long after this curve, we passed by a closed station. It had a name similar to Abu Dabbi. From there, the tracks wondered from one valley wall to another.

Littorina's path danced with an abandoned cableway which also lead from Asmara to Massawa. Up until the early 1960s, the official name of the line was The Eritrean Railway and Cableway. The cableway had been abandoned since at least when the British left in 1952. The first meeting with the cableway which I remember was just before we got to Nefasit.

The most dramatic moment of the trip was when we rounded the mountain and looked down the Asmara Escarpment upon Nefasit. The view was breath taking. Looking at Nefasit with a steam train waiting for us was like looking down on someone's model railroad. As the line wound back and forth down the mountain, Nefasit became more and more real. We stopped at the station for a few minutes. As I remember it, an Eritrean couple from the other end of the car got off and a few men got on. While those leaving had Eritrean clothing, those getting on had European.

From Nefasit, the tracks meandered back and forth through a valley. This fertile valley approaching Ghinda was beautiful by anyone's standards. The orchards near Ghinda might be in the Mediterranean or in Southern California. The highway bridges were concrete truss structures that could have spanned the Mississippi (or I guess the Po).

In Ghinda, the train stopped for quite some time. I bought a kilo of tangerines. I could tell that they had been picked that morning because the leaves were still fresh and not wilted. It cost either a quarter US or Ethiopian. I cannot remember which. At any rate, they were delicious and my friend and I made sure they did not last until we made it to Massawa. We each bought an ice cold Coca-Cola and watched the Italian girls chatter and gesture. I think they were watching us as much as we were watching them…they were just more discrete about it.

Soon after Ghinda, we followed a dry riverbed. Along side the riverbed were about a half dozen camels. They appeared feral as no people were near. Here, the inside of the littorina was still cool from setting in Asmara over night. I remember Asmara as having an ideal climate. It was about 18°C at night and 29° in the day. You never really needed heat or air conditioning.

Soon, we hit the flats. This is a region of about 20 kilometers is slightly more hilly than Kansas. There are less than a dozen acacia per square kilometer and little other vegetation. Here the vegetation took on more of a brownish tinge than we had been seeing.

Within a half-hour of hitting the flats, the windows started opening as the inside of the car was rapidly approaching the 60° outside. Perhaps two kilometers from the Massawa station, the littorina driver stopped so that my friend and I could walk to the CIAAO Hotel. Although we called it a hotel, it probably was technically a pensione. This building had been prefabricated in Italy and shipped to Massawa for assembly before the war. In the early 1960s, it was used as a US Army Rest Center. It had ceiling fans that were quite exotic at the time. Army Special Services showed movies on the veranda at night. There was a sea water swimming pool. While the restaurant or club portion was air-conditioned and there were room air conditioners in the rooms, the halls and the central bathrooms were not. One strange thing to me was that while there were private sinks and showers, there were no private toilets.

Reconstructing a train trip from memories of over 37 years is not an easy task. Some things about the trip are strong. Others are absent. I made two trips on littorine from Asmara to Massawa. One was in November of 1961. The other was the following July or August. Only once did I make the return trip on littorina. The other time, I rode back in someone's pre-World War II small FIAT…I think it too was a Topolino.


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved