Twenty minutes north of Tanga town, there’s a very small sign on the left side of the road: “Department of Antiquities – Amboni Caves”. The rough sandy track winds through scrub and low-hanging tulip trees, through the yards of several small houses, and dead ends in the thick copse of fig trees.
The caves are considered the “jewel in Tanga’s crown” – in fact, the only formal tourist destination. But there’s never anyone there. You will have the guide and the deep, creepy limestone caves to yourself. The system has never been fully explored, and so stories abound of its extent, which could be hundreds of miles or only a few.
In my book, Shame, I refer to the tale of a couple who went missing when trying to find their dog. This is one of many you will hear on the 30-minute, torchlight-only tour. You may want to bring your own incense and rosewater (and prayers) to make an offering at the small pagan shrine near the entrance. Outside, there is a small gift shop selling the usual trinkets. Please tip the guide. His salary is a pittance.
Any taxi will take you. If you go by bike, ride up to the Bombo Hospital, take a right, poke around the sandy lanes behind the Popatlal School, and you will find this quiet, overgrown place.
During colonial times, the graveyard was reserved exclusively for Europeans and is thus a testimony of the white experience in equatorial Africa: graves for numerous infants, women who died in childbirth, men who succumbed to malaria. One section is given over to the British soldiers, mostly from the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, who died in the appallingly executed 1914 Battle of Tanga. (The German soldiers who died are in another graveyard; the Indian regiment has been altogether forgotten.)
The graveyard holds one great mystery: seven crew members of an American plane that went down off the Tanga coast in 1956 are buried here. I have never found out their story, not a trace of it. Who were they? Why were they buried here, not repatriated? My writer’s imagination runs to the salubrious: 1950s Africa and the cold war. Were they American spies?
The best way to see the town’s lovely, eclectic architecture costs less than 50p. Rent one of the heavy Chinese bikes from Mikey at the central market and simply peddle off. He won’t expect you back until 4pm.
South of town, along the maze of sandy tracks of the Ras Kazone Peninsula, you will find fabulous Art Deco mansions, some crumbling, some lovingly maintained, testifying to the Tanga’s glory days of sisal. Close to the sea, these stand side-by-side with the imposing colonial houses of the higher ranking members of the British Empire. The regimented civil service meant that lower ranks had incrementally smaller houses, further and further away from the ocean view.
The original Bombo Hospital, just off the main drag to Ras Kazone, looms like a castle in a Grimms fairy tale. Built by the Germans (when it was their colony, 1889-1918), the hospital has long since fallen into disrepair, a home for swallows and swifts. Stand in the empty halls, amid the creepers, and quote Shelley’s Ozymandias.
In town, examples of much older Arab-influenced buildings abound: ornate mahogany balconies, four-foot walls, coloured-glass windows and heavy, dark doors, courtyards where cats slink in the deep shade. If you get hot with all the biking, look for the shade of a mango tree: likely, there will be someone selling cups of hot, sweet espresso and slices of delicious kashata, a kind of peanut fudge.
Once a grand port serving China and Arabia with slaves, ivory and spices, Pangani has fallen under the spell of heat and fast-growing vegetation: you might think you have stepped onto the set for Sleeping Beauty. For the past two centuries, the world has passed Pangani by.
The ferry crossing the town’s namesake river has only one functioning engine, so it pirouettes slowly across the current. There is nothing to see, hardly anywhere to eat, but you can wander quietly among the ancient, crumbling ruins and under the looming fig trees.
The town is rumoured to be a smugglers' haven, and it’s easy to imagine canoes scuttling up and down river at night ferrying contraband: cheap electronics from Dubai coming in, plundered hardwoods and gems going out. The town lies 50km south of Tanga; half-way, there are two excellent small hotels with beaches, great food, and camping: the Peponi Beach Resort and the Pangani Beach Resort.
The battle, fought between 2 and 5 November, 1914, was a fiasco – for the Brits. The many, glaring mistakes – abysmal planning, under-trained Indian troops, gross arrogance – exposed endemic problems in the British War Office.
Sadly, those in command chose not to pay the slightest heed, and went on the repeat the errors of Tanga in Europe for four more years. General Arthur Aitken, known for his pomposity, ordered four companies of men ashore from British craft, selecting the least favourable landing: the thick mangrove swamps and high cliffs of Ras Kazone, and this at low tide. In the mangroves, the men were set upon by bees, and many of the Indian troops drowned. The sad farce ended with more than 800 British casualties.
When Aitken retreated, he left behind 455 rifles, 500,000 pounds of ammunition, medical supplies and other equipment: a great boost to the poorly resourced Germans. Anderson’s book will take you to the landing spots, as well as key positions briefly occupied by the British: most of the old houses are still standing, though one is occupied by goats.
Melanie Finn's latest novel, Shame, is set in Tanga and Switzerland and can be ordered on Amazon now. She is also the director of the Natron Healthcare Project, bringing healthcare to rural Masai communities in northern Tanzania.
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