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10 things to do near Tanga Airport

Bordered by Kenya’s Kilimanjaro region in the north and the Indian Ocean in the east, Tanga is one of Tanzania’s last undiscovered regions. It’s untouched by mass tourism, which means that visitors are guaranteed biodiverse landscapes and authentic interactions with local residents.

Tanga has a small domestic airport, with regular flights scheduled to Arusha, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar – most international flights will go via Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest airport. 

Tanga City is serviced by “dala dalas” – minibuses that cover routes across the city. Meanwhile, to get around the region, you can use local buses. There are also regular buses between Tanga City and Arusha, Dar es Salaam and the coastal town of Pangini. 

Another way to explore the region is by hiring a car, either with or without a driver. While Tanga’s roads are in good shape, in rural areas you’ll encounter poorer road conditions.

Tanga, an off the beaten track destination in northeast Tanzania, takes in soaring mountains, pristine marine parks and towns steeped in Swahili traditions.

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Travel along the coast and you’ll discover the footprint-free shores of Sange Beach and Ushongo Beach, which stretch beyond the horizon. There are also smaller, sheltered bays and lagoons (such as Kwale Bay and Manza Bay) fringed with untouched coral reefs. Several islands lie just offshore, covered with pristine forest and speckled with ancient ruins and lonely lighthouses.

Head inland and you’ll reach the Usambara Mountains, which soar to 2,000 metres above sea level and are carpeted in lush rainforest. The mountains are part of the Eastern Arc Mountains biodiversity hotspot thanks to a wide variety of native flora and fauna, including the colourful African violets.

There are plenty of ways to explore Tanga’s great outdoors. Go kayaking or snorkelling off one of the pristine beaches. Hire a guide to take you hiking through the mountains or take a private safari in one of the region’s off-the-beaten-track national parks, Saadani and Mkomazi, where you’ll spot lions, buffaloes and elephants.

Tanga also has a unique cultural heritage and rich history. It’s a melting pot of Arabian, Indian and African culture, populated by different tribes such as the Maasai and the Wambugu. Visit the Maasai settlements in Handeni and Korowgwe to learn more about the inhabitants’ traditional way of life. Head to the capital, Tanga city, to learn more about the region’s colonial heritage.

10 things to do near Tanga airport

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. 

Arm yourself with a copy of William Boyd’s An Icecream War and Ross Anderson’s The Battle of Tanga, 1914.  Boyd will set the narrative mood; Anderson provides a brilliant blueprint of British military stupidity:  “one of the best-known events of one of the more obscure campaigns of the First World War.”  

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.

These mountains are one of the most picturesque sights in the region, with their forested slopes, wide panoramas and refreshing climate. They are dotted with colourful rural villages largely untouched by tourism.

The crumbling ruins of a mosque and around 20 large, pillared Shirazi tombs, dating back to the 14th or 15th century. They’re situated in a grove of baobabs, facing the ocean, around 20 kilometres south of Tanga City.

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