‘Maybe the best meal of my whole life; the fish, this table, this moment, in this square.’ – Don McCullin, Massawa, Eritrea
A fine example of the RARE safari and road-tested by Catherine Fairweather and Don McCullin for the Financial Times in January 2020, Off the Map is a one-off journey through Eritrea, linking the capital Asmara with wild camping experiences along the Red Sea coast with the nomadic Rashaida and in the Dahlak Archipelago.
While accommodation is three-star and spartan, this is a five-star cerebral frontier journey, one which Catherine Fairweather would go on to describe it as as a model for low-volume, high-value post-pandemic adventure travel.
Before featuring in the Financial Times, it is unlikely that even the most diligent of desktop research would have unearthed the opportunity to wild camp with the Rashaida. Indeed, despite the level of interest sparked by the article, we are at the time of writing the only operator in the world to have set and struck mobile camps north of Emberemi and Wekeiro.
One of nine of Eritrea’s ethnic groups, the Rashaida – also called Bani Rasheed – are Bedouin Arab descendants of the Banu Abs of Saudi Arabia. Escaping ethnic warfare, they arrived in Eritrea in 1846, and are the only truly nomadic people left in the country. We visit them during the rains, when they make camp at Wekeiro, where we are their guests, share their food, hear their stories, and enjoy what it is to wild camp on the shores of the Red Sea. Note, the goat with rice was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
From here we stay off-google, shifting to the barren but beautiful islands of the Dahlak Archipelago. Owing to the Red Sea’s relatively high temperatures, it is thought the Dahlak’s coral is naturally more resilient than elsewhere. True or not, the underwater world is still in pristine condition, the fishing and diving among its kelp forests world class. Pushing east, we are hosted by a team consisting of the skipper, a cook and the camp manager. A simple and beautiful experience, we trade fresh fruit for kingfish with passing fishermen, and spend our time on land and sea rarely visited by outsiders.
If visiting the Rashaida and the Dahlak Archipelago is the rarest part of Off the Map, then the rest of the itinerary’s no slouch when it comes to the one-off. It includes a stay in modernist Asmara, travelling cross-country by the country’s only trainline, aboard a bona fide steam train, and finishing in Massawa for the Fenkel Liberation Day celebration. It is here in Massawa, at the inimitable Sallam Restaurant, that Don McCullin would enjoy what is quickly becoming the fish supper.
While a relatively low-risk RARE safari, Off the Map is a logistically challenging itinerary, requiring fine knowledge of a country that has for decades been closed off to all but the most adventurous of traveller. As such, it’s an itinerary that suits those after exactly this, an adventure; travellers who have an appetite for moderate discomfort; are culturally focussed; have more than likely been to Africa before; and genuinely enjoy being off-grid.
Day 1: Asmara Palace, two nights
Travel the city in a Fiat ‘bubble car’ 500, an experience that includes a tour of the city’s modernist architecture, theatre visits, and the tank graveyard. Leave the following day by steam train.
Day 3: Drive to Wekiro and the Rashaida, two nights
Wild camp includes extremely basic pop-up two-man tents. Beds are on the floor. A mess tent is provided which provides a base and a small kitchen team of two serve meals on a regular basis. There are no shower or toilet facilities at this stage. We wash in the sea and make use of the acres of open country for the toilet.
Day 5: Boat to Dur Gaam and Dur Ghella, two nights
Take the boat to to the islands – Dur Gaam and Dur Ghella. Consists of a mess tent, a kitchen and any number of sleeping tents. A beautifully simple affair, the mess tent is positioned at one end of the beach, comes with table and chairs, and serves as a most convivial setting in which to eat, share, and gaze out over the sea.
Day 7: Go east, my friend, two nights
Having found our island-legs, we push further east into the Dahlak, wild camping, baratering fruit for fish, and living the life of the castaway.
Day 9: Grand Dahlak, Massawa, one night
Returned to mainland Eritrea, we base ourselves at the massively characterful Grand Dahlak Hotel and explore Massawa, memorably described by the FT as ‘the imagined treasure trove of Arabia’.
Day 10: Algergo Italia, Asmara, 1 night
A final night at the hugely convivial local hotspot Albergo Italio, home to fabulous pizza and a beautiful rooftop garden.
A key part of the RARE safari is the positive impact it has on the destination and the wider environment.
The price for Off the Map is $9,750 per person, with an additional $5,000 environmental pledge, which goes to our charity Wild Philanthropy. Journeys by Design retains 25% of the cost of the trip, of which 5% is net profit, the rest going to salaries and operational and marketing costs. The balance of 75% is sent to an Eritrean registered destination management company, which is wholly owned by Eritreans. This way, 100% of that remaining balance stays in Eritrea.
We are in the process of identifying an at-risk ecosystem partner in Eritrea. While we are yet to find out whether it is possible, we would love to work with The National Union of Eritrean Women, one of the groups identified in the country’s first National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan as key to mobilising local communities in the name of the environment. Until then, the $5,000 environmental pledge goes to one of three core at-risk ecosystems supported by Wild Philanthropy: the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, Ntakata Forest in Tanzania, or the Enonkishu Conservancy in Kenya.
If you would like to know more about Journeys by Design’s RARE safari, Eritrea, or other RARE destinations, please do get in touch with Will Jones, Angela Sasha or Hannah Raynor.
All images © Don McCullin