Why go there? Cos it's there...
Seriously tho, why Eritrea? And why yet another trikeless tour?
First things first, Eritrea was sans trike cos I'm recuperating from cardiac surgery (coronary artery bypass graft to be precise) and while things are going well, I'm not quite ready to jump on the trike and pedal off into the mountains of Africa. Maybe next year, enshallah
But to the important stuff, why Eritrea?
It's just another piece in the jigsaw that's why, another facet of northern Africa to be explored. Do I need any other reason? Well, how about a passion for cycling then? The rest of Africa may well be football (soccer) crazy but Eritrea is cycling crazy! What better place for a cyclist to travel?
Asmara, Keren and Massawa in a few weeks in early Febuary 2011. Unfortunately places like the Danakil were out-of-bounds
And the cycling?
Well, you reckon you're polka dot material? King of the mountain and all that? You should check out the ride profile of the Giro d' Eritrea to see what a mountain ride is...
Every day squads of riders tackle a 50ish k training ride that drops (and obviously then climbs back up) some 2000 metres or so, it's punishing in a car, my legs ache just thinking about riding it!
I made do with some gentle cycling around Asmara on a hired bike, avoiding the main drag (again, out-of-bounds, no bikes allowed on the main streets)
Getting ready to go:
Visa: Just about everyone needs a visa and while it was a relatively painless process, mailing of the usual application form, photos and passport to the Consulate here in Oz, it was a totally "African" experience, with lots of phone calls (mostly about stuff that was already written on the application) and weird stuff around the bank transfer of the visa fee
Vaccinations: Cos I'd been in Sudan recently all my shots were OK, including Yellow Fever. While Eritrea doesn't actually lie within the 'Yellow Fever zone', I was asked for my Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when entering other countries after being in Eritrea
While not really anything to do with vaccination, there is an issue with Malaria. Much of Eritrea is relatively high (2000 m or more) and there's some talk that that's too high for Malaria, but Malaria is endemic in Eritrea and so you might want to take precautions - be careful with doxycycline tho, with the nice blue skies and sunshine in Eritrea you may well end up very sunburnt even on the mildest of days
You have to fly in... all the land borders - Djiboutui, Ethiopia and Sudan - are closed and/or, yes, you guessed it, out-of-bounds to foreigners! Even flying is a bit problematic, there's a Lufthansa flight from Europe (and a flight from Saudi but that's not fabulously useful for most of us) and a recent local start-up called Nasair flys limited international routes but the most useful flights are via Cairo or Saan'a making the journey a bit of an epic
Once you're there:
Accommodation: I found some really really interesting places to stay, all relatively inexpesive, all clean and all with at least intermittent hot water. Yes, this all sounds really condescending doesn't it? Out of Asmara there's not a lot of choice but again the hotels were relatively good
There are bed + breakfast type places everywhere
Food: A brief period of Italian colonisation has left indelible traces... excellent coffee and basic 'Italian' food is available everywhere, some is really top-notch - the capretto for example is basic but lip smackingly good! - and some is just stodgy spaghetti type stuff. Indigenous food is pretty basic and filling, you'd best get accustomed to the greyish coloured, slightly sourish injera 'bread', it's ubiquitous (and better than it sounds)
Good - no, great - coffee is available on almost every corner as are pastries, both sweet + savoury. Plenty of local softdrinks, including relatively expensive Coca-Cola. Bottled water is available, cheaply, everywhere
Asmara beer is likewise available, cheaply, everywhere, while wine - drinkable but nothing to write home about
Money: You'll have to complete a declaration form at the airport when you enter, it's easy enough to miss doing so, but if you do, you're in deep shit... and just be aware that whatever cash you have will be counted when you leave and those counting will count every single dollar/euro or whatever you have and if it doesn't add up, you'll get searched/grilled!
Changing money is easy enough but changing travellers cheques is much harder but that's the case everywhere isn't it?
Permits: To go anywhere outside Asmara you'll need a Travel Permit from the Ministry of Tourism. Didn't actually see very many checks/control points and my permit was only asked for once but some of the (very few) other 'tourists' that I met had different experiences
I was refused permission to go to Dankalia, Qohaito and Nakfa. The reason? None given
Roads: The major roads I travelled on outside Asmara were pretty good tho there were some pretty rugged pavements and almost universally nothing in the way of verges. Plenty of signage in English and overall it seemed fairly good. Many roads had a 50km per hour speed limit posted
It seemed like whatever direction I took, the road involved steep gradients, hairpin bends and sheer drops... and around Asmara at least, there were invariably squads of road cyclists powering up the incredibly steep climbs
Traffic: Maybe cos there's not an awful lot of it, traffic was amazingly orderly; lane markings and/or traffic lights were more than simply 'advisory'. Even taxis weren't as anarchic as usual!
The most frequently asked questions:
By folk outside Eritrea: Is it safe for an - insert your nationality - to go to Eritrea?
Same old, same old... But in addition to the usual 'terrorist' haven stereotype of over-fevered imaginations, there is also a perception of Eritrea as a 'failed' state. While not all is well in Eritrea, which after a promising start as a newly independent nation has morphed into something of a pariah, the 'North Korea' of Africa:
º tho frequently promised (and even scheduled) an election has never been held
º political parties (other than the ruling PFDJ) aren't allowed
º all non-government media was closed down in 2001
º Amnesty International says critics of the government have been held without trial
º there has been almost continual fighting with one or another neigbouring countries
º a high proportion of Eritreans are in the army rather than the workforce
º it's been claimed that almost ¾ of Eritreans receive food aid
I again found warm and hospitable people everywhere; as Lonley Planet says, it's one of Africa's most peaceful, secure and welcoming places
By folk inside Eritrea: Step away from the bench
Not actually a question, but still what the?
Well it's a refrain from an obscure Australian 'reality' television show (My Kitchen Rules) that was on high rotation on satellite television in Eritrea... Small world and all that