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Journal Entry:

Wednesday, November 28, 2001 10:25:45

Central Africa 2001: 8 - Eritrea

Tuesday, November 27, 2001 - Michael was there to take us to the airport again, and once again the whole check in, immigration and customs routine only took about 10 minutes. From the hotel lobby, we were sitting in the departure lounge in half an hour.

This time we are flying a new local airline called Regional Air, which is affiliated with British Air. They actually assigned seats, but it was not entirely necessary as there were only about 20 people on a quite new Boeing 737. We boarded and took off before the scheduled time, as the government was closing the Nairobi airport for two hours from 11 AM for their air force to do some sort of practicing.

The flight to Khartoum, Sudan was very smooth. The city was a big surprise to both Tim and I. We had visions of adobe type construction, which certainly was in existence in the suburbs, but the main part of the city is large with many modern buildings. The airport seemed up to scratch as well. After we took off again we could see where the Blue Nile merges with the White Nile River just outside of the city, forming the Nile River.

The airport at Asmara, Eritrea was beautifully done in marble, and spotlessly clean. We were greeted by friendly and efficient immigration and customs officials. After I filled out the paperwork to declare my computer and video camera - a necessity here - we took a cab to the nearby, brand new Inter-Continental Hotel. At the airport, there were a number of UN jet aircraft, and in the hotel parking lot about 90% of the vehicles were new UN four wheel drives. By the look of them none had ever been off the pavement. There was a big contingent of Italians staying at the hotel, including soldiers - their special rate is $110 per night - it starts to give one an idea of how these agencies can blow money! Loads of them were in the expensive restaurants at night running up the expense accounts as well.

There was also a Chinese delegation here - they are building a huge new hospital. I guess their expense account was less generous, as they sat in the lobby and smoked.

We hired a taxi and drove around the city and the immediate outskirts. It is a pretty city, with paved, tree lined streets and a lot of new buildings. Construction here is very substantial, and for the first time since coming to Africa I was cold. The average temperature here runs around 17 degrees due to the 7,500 foot altitude. This is likely why the buildings have to be better built as well - they would have to be heated, as I am told that in winter it is pretty cold.

In the morning the same taxi driver picked us up and we headed out to the Red Sea coast, and the Port of Massawa. The first 60 km were completed by negotiating one switchback after another as we dropped down the escarpment to the coastal plains. Once down, the temperature rose to uncomfortably hot levels, and the land turned to arid desert, with only scrub brush vegetation. The drive down took about three hours.

We went by a beach resort, where people were wading out about half a kilometre before the water was up to their waist. There was little wave action, and the water was very warm and crystal clear.

From there we drove to the City of Massawa, which is located on an island joined to the mainland by a causeway. Massawa was bombed to rubble in 1988-89, and there are still a lot of business and residential buildings that are bombed out hulks. A large mosque had taken a hit right through the dome, and was a mess. On the other hand there is a lot of new construction and many new, modern buildings - the city appears to be fully functional.

On the way back we stopped in the town of Ghinda for a lunch of goat, homemade chips and salad. It was interesting to sit and watch the parade of people go by in their traditional garb. It seems most people here were herders of goats, cattle, donkeys or camels. All the herders carry a distinctive wooden staff curved at the end. The people throughout the country have been very friendly, with a ready wave and smile.

After climbing a fair way up the escarpment, we headed off on an 80 km side trip to see the city of Decamhare. This is where independence fighters held out for three years against the Ethiopians. The road wound through mountains, interspersed with large fertile valleys where papaya, oranges, tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables are grown.

One major thing we noticed here in huge contracts to many of the other places we have been in Africa was the cleanliness. City streets are swept regularly, and the sides of the roads are completely litter free. The driver told us that people have such pride in their country that they go out from villages picking up any litter they find on a regular basis. Women are also paid 50 Nakfa (about $US 3.70) per day to clear the cement drainage ditches along the roads, and to pick up trash. In addition to the money they are given rations of imported wheat for their services.

For a considerable distance the road paralleled a new railway line, which had track in place along about half it's length and the bridges and tunnels in place for the rest of the distance. It is being built by private companies to connect Asmara with Massawa, and will be a spectacular ride when it is finished!

Apparently, during the war for independence the country was virtually stripped of trees. It has been extensively replanted, and there are now forests. It is against the law to cut any tree without a permit from the department of agriculture.

Eritrean people usually speak four languages, Italian, Arabic, English and Tighrina, the local language. Road signs and signs on businesses are usually in two languages, Tighrina characters (which look like a cross between Arabic and Chinese) and English. The people are industrious, and seem very determined to make their small country work. The 50% of the population who are Muslims get along with the 50% who are Christians. There have been some racial problems with Muslim fundamentalists who came in from either Sudan or Yemen, however the police have dealt with them and border patrols try to ensure no more infiltrate. I'd give this country a very good chance of succeeding - optimism runs high among the people we talked to.

We have an easy day tomorrow, with a 12:25 PM flight back to Nairobi via Djibouti. Friday, the following day, we hit our last dangerous country, Burundi. The latest information we have is that the rebels are in the suburbs of Bujumbura where we will stay, and the government is trying to formalize and get signed a shaky cease fire which has been negotiated. We'll only be there one night. Meanwhile, I will try to send this from the hotel business center here in Asmara.