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Last Tango in Tanga Plunting in African mountains.

By Mark Nicholson

Mark trying to reach a Busy Lizzie (Impatiens walleriana) in the Usambaras

I recently returned from two plant hunting (what we call “plunting”) trips in East Africa. The first was on Mt. Kenya, which is always fun because the forest is alive with large animals, particularly buffaloes, which are always in the mood to spoil your day when they are suddenly disturbed. Despite the mountain being a relatively well-known National Park, the adjoining forest has rich plant diversity and new species are undoubtedly yet to be discovered there.

My companion was a meticulous landscape architect from Johannesburg. His ancestry is interesting, being a Pretorius on his father’s side and a Nieuwoudt on his mother’s. He was somewhat reticent to admit that his grandfather was a Minister in the Malan-led Afrikaner Government following the Second World War, which was the instigator of apartheid. Our conversations reminded me of an interview with John Vorster’s grandson on the BBC a few months ago. Vorster was prime minister of apartheid South Africa from 1966 to 1978 and then its president for another eight months. Young Vorster joined the African National Congress, informed his father and was told never to darken their stoep again. Yet at Oxford University, he was ostracized by all the anti-apartheid groups based solely on his name. Sometimes it is difficult to win in life.

The second much longer trip was to the Usambara mountains of Tanzania where a Dutch friend, Kees, and I were searching for wild strains of Busy Lizzies (Impatiens), of which there are many beautiful species in this part of the world. The species of interest is Impatiens walleriana, which grows by mountain streams and even in tea plantations in the highlands. This species is one of the main species used in the multi-million dollar Busy-Lizzy market in the western world. We collect seed, propagate them in a nearby botanic garden and then send the seed to breeders in the Netherlands for testing for disease resistance.

I mentioned in an earlier article George Bernard Shaw’s quote about the British and the Americans being two people separated by a common language. That certainly applies to Kenya and Tanzania. Sadly, Swahili is gradually being replaced by English among the educated in Kenya whereas Tanzanian Swahili is a rich, beautiful and highly complex language. From around 1880, Tanzania was a German colony known as German East Africa until it was ceded to the British in 1920. Yet many parts of Tanzania retain a distinctive German feel, particularly on Kilimanjaro, the Eastern Arc mountains and in the Southern Highlands.

I collected Kees off a KLM flight from Kilimanjaro Airport and we set off south. After six hours, a small road climbs up to about 2500 m (7000-8000 ft) to Kushoto in the cool West Usambaras. There are still many German colonial houses there, some of which are now hotels, and the area feels like the lower Bavarian Alps. In every bar they sell bottles of Jagermeister, a delicious herbal liqueur, which I have never seen in a bar in Kenya.

From the top of the West Usambaras one has a good view of the fast-retreating ice on Kilimanjaro.

The East Usambaras are a separate cluster of lower hills a bit further south and inland from the north Tanzania coast. They are wetter, lusher and much hotter than the Western mountains. In 1910 the Germans established what is supposed to have been the largest botanical garden in the world, called Amani (meaning ‘peace’). They cut down 3000 ha. of prime tropical forest full of endemic plants and animals and planted it up with every type of exotic plant with economic potential from all over the world.

clove leaves

Around Amani are small spice farmers growing nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom. Cinnamon and cloves (Syzygium aromaticum) are laid out to dry on mats by the roadside. Today the whole collection in Amani is a mishmash of strange plants, mostly not African. Perhaps the most striking tree is another Syzygium called Malay Apple (S. mallacense) with the most stunning flower I have ever seen. The fallen pink flowers line the paths under the tree.

Malay Apple tree blossom

Malay apple tree

Around Amani is a beautiful forest comprising part of the Eastern Arc mountains which is one of the biodiversity ‘hotspots’ in Africa.

Kees spends long periods from southern China to Patagonia hunting for new flower species of interest to horticultural companies. He is one of two friends who always end up “landing with their bum in the butter”*. In 2019 his wife and he had planned to fly to NZ to walk the Te Araroa trail. In early 2020 New Zealand was closed to all but returning residents because of Covid. Kees counts as one as he worked there from 2002 to 2008. In October 2020, in the midst of the Covid epidemic, they flew from Schiphol to Singapore in a Boeing 747 with 5 passengers. They flew on to Auckland in another jet, which comprised only of a few residents trying to get home. They were quarantined in an Auckland hotel for two weeks but immediately after they arrived, all returning residents without hotel quarantine bookings were stopped from flying as the hotels were full. Some had to wait a further two months to get a flight.

Kees and his wife set off on their walk at the beginning of November starting at Cape Regina, 580 km north of the capital, with a 150km beach walk almost devoid of other walkers. The North Island section includes a 240 km canoe section on the river Wananganui. Neither Kees nor his wife had ever been in a canoe before. Some of the hikes comprised a week on high mountains carrying their own food and camping equipment with packs weighing between 18 and 23 kg. 131 days later they arrived in Bluff near Invercargill, having covered over 3000 km. Unusually for the walk, they had almost non-stop good weather and very few other walkers were around. Many are defeated by bad weather. And impressively, they never had an argument!

To get back to Kenya from the Usambaras, one either goes back the way we came or one goes on along the coastal route. At the base of the East Usambaras lies the little coastal town of Tanga, some 150 km north of Tanzania’s largest city, Dar-es-salaam. It is a delightful and peaceful place for R&R, full of German colonial architecture, with good seafood at the Yacht Club and a warm Indian Ocean.

In November 1914, the British were determined to oust the Germans from their colonial possessions in Africa. A British Expeditionary Force anchored offshore with a view to a rapid assault on the town in order to dislodge what was initially a 400-strong, well-dug-in German contingent. The British Commander, the burly and “supremely confident” General Aitken was determined to “thrash the Bosch before Christmas”.

Tanga ranks alongside Isandlwana, Spion Kop, Majuba Hill and other battles as one of the most decisive British defeats in Africa. A motley bunch of Indian regiments (the best having already been deployed in France) arrived by sea having been thoroughly weakened by sea sickness and illness. Many had never heard a shot fired in anger. They disembarked at night for their first time onto African soil and had to wade through a mangrove swamp while the enemy raked them with machine gun fire. For four days, the battle raged until finally the British generals ordered a complete retreat back to the ships to sail on to Mombasa (part of Kenya Colony). Thousands of British Colonial troops were killed (against a handful of German officers and African schutztruppe ) and the British never again managed to force the Germans in East Africa to surrender. The Germans captured huge quantities of weapons and materiel after the battle. The German commander, General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, then ran a successful guerrilla campaign for four years against a vast British and South African army commanded by the South African general (and later prime minister) Jan Smuts. Lettow-Vorbeck was infuriated when forced to surrender in 1918 having never lost a battle.

An interesting feature of visiting war graves in Tanzania is the fact that most of the cemeteries from the First World War commemorate the colonial officers and not the many more African other ranks who gave their lives for their colonial masters. In Iringa, one side of the cemetery comprises British and South African headstones while on the other side, they are all German. Even in death, neither side were seemingly allowed to meet. Few these days are aware of the importance of the Battle of Tanga in British Colonial history. “Tanga” as one military historian observed, “stands for a fruitful lesson on how not to start a colonial campaign”.

*The Editor has lived some of his life in southern Africa and so knows this phrase, which originated there. It means to be fortunate.


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