This is the flip side of a nation that you could be forgiven for thinking is defined by war. Our erudite guides spend days showing us some of the more moving cemeteries; the stunning art deco crypts for the Italians, the immaculately maintained walled monument to fallen British soldiers, and finally the so-called Tank Graveyard on the outskirts of town. The latter, a towering wall constructed from a stockpile of CCCP tanks, amphibious vehicles and US land cruisers, winds around the five-acre plot. It has the compelling if sinister power of an art installation at the Venice Biennale.
Amid the wreckage of a Russian armoured personnel carrier, someone has created a home. Cactus flowers sprout from the twisted metal carcass, and a pyramid of teff is being harvested for injera (flatbread), the dietary staple. There is a rudimentary bedroom arranged behind the gearbox and a little library of books on the dashboard — a human touch that poignantly undercuts the symbolic brutality of the place.
A litter of pups play with a flap of old goatskin, and the homeowner, the proud caretaker of the ponies cantering across the wasteland beyond, hopes, he says, that we will return next year, when he will be in better shape to offer us coffee.
Such generous-spirited, self-reliant resourcefulness is a striking Eritrean characteristic that we experience, memorably, on the country’s old steam train, which takes us out of the city on, surely, one of the great train journeys of the world.
We leave the city on a chilly morning, huffing slowly down through groves of eucalyptus, rattling around mist-filled gorges on an elaborate system of winding tracks, viaducts and tunnels. A girl roasts coffee beans over embers in the carriage on her recycled olive-oil-drum-turned-stove. Children wave from the terraced escarpment, where they coax a harvest of sorghum out of the rubble in green swatches. Built by the Italians in the 1920s, the train was resurrected lately by former rail workers coming out of retirement for free. They repurposed the tracks that were used to strengthen bunkers and trenches during the war.
At Embatcala, where the track currently ends, we disembark to find our car, and the British ambassador, out on his weekend constitutional, waving us off cheerily as he hikes back to the capital in the wake of the train.
The Tank Graveyard on the outskirts of Asmara © Don McCullin
Ensconced now in the air-conditioned 4x4, eardrums popping, we drop 2,500m down off the Asmara escarpment through the acacia-studded Green Belt, dotted with beehives, into a different climate and landscape altogether. The tarmac runs out and the hot breath of the Red Sea sends ripples over the desert dunes and rivulets of sweat down our necks.
If Asmara feels like a hybrid of Africa and Europe, Massawa, the ancient trading hub and main deep-sea port of the Red Sea coast, is the imagined treasure trove of Arabia — here the promise of pearls, ivory and ostrich feathers bartered for precious salt, there the waft of scented spices, frankincense and myrrh traded on the sagging decks of the dhows and houris, since the time of the Queen of Sheba and the Axumite empire of the second century AD.
It was always a melting pot of people: traders, slaves and slavers, fishermen and invaders from successive Persian, Roman, Turk, Egyptian and Italian incursions. They stamped their individual styles on the pediments, arcades, staircases and porticoes of the once-grand palaces, bazaar and warehouses.
After paying a visit to the covered market for supplies, we leave the city in the direction of Wadilo, travelling north along the coast towards the Red Sea Hills of Sudan. We are driving off the map, bumping over gravel and sand, following the slow-swaying caravan of camels driven by the turbaned Rashaida. One of the nine tribes of Eritrea, they migrated here from Saudi Arabia 150 years ago in the last famine and move up and down the Red Sea coast with their herds of goats and camels, following the rains. We spend the next few days with them, at the oasis where they herd their flocks and in their makeshift camps along the dunes.
A traditional Rashaida dance on a beach on the Red Sea coast © Don McCullin
At the first encampment, we follow willingly as the Rashaida beckon us inside. Cardamom coffee is being brewed in an open-sided shelter made of woven goat hair, strung between poles over a pile of carpets that are laid out between the salt flats and a metallic sea. Nearby, our camp cook Michele works his magic on a two-ring stove, transforming a goat that we bartered long and hard for into supper.
We share the slow-baked, spice-scented knuckles with Ahmed, the Rashaida head honcho, his four wives and his 23 children. The babies, who have never eaten meat before, clutch the juicy chunks between their fists like rattles, unsure of what to do.
Then, in honour of the feast, our hosts spontaneously perform a traditional dance with swords and sticks on the beach, which shimmers, mirage-like, into the distance as far as Sudan, 600km away. Egrets and herons stalk the shallows, where stingrays try to bury themselves in the sand. An airborne pelican patrols the shoreline like a comedy-sketch policeman skimming over a tideline electrified with hermit crabs on the move. A horizon so wide and empty you can trace the curvature of the Earth can make you lose your bearings. Only the sound of the muezzin from distant Wekiro tethers you to the place.
A villager from the Rashaida people, one of the nine tribes of Eritrea, takes the livestock to drink from the well © Don McCullin
But if Wekiro is remote, then the Dahlaks, where we are bound next, are literally off the charts — about half of the 200 islands, some no larger than sandspits, are nameless, unmarked on Google Maps; only a handful are inhabited. We board a large, robust skiff to carry us across the jade-coloured sea, empty but for a lone battered dhow with a bandana-clad crew, whom we spot on their deck praying in the direction of Mecca.
When they draw up alongside to exchange a couple of groupers for cans of Coke, I suggest they look like pirates. Our captain bats such glib observations sternly aside. “At sea,” he proclaims, “we are one, we share life.” So we share our food and anchorage with them on the white cuff of coral reef encircling an island called Dorghulla, which is deserted.