Few things I bet you did not know about Kilimanjaro...

I have been living at the foothills of Kilimanjaro for the more than two decades now…

This morning, while looking at the beautiful peaks of Mawenzi and Uhuru, I thought that a lot of guests, who come visiting here, never have the chance to have in depth information about the highest mountain of Africa.

So here is my story of this majestic mountain…

Well, perhaps we should start with the age… A young mountain, in geological terms… It was first born 2,500,000 years ago, as a volcano. The first crater was where the Shira Plateau is now remaining. About 1,000,000 years ago Mawenzi and Kibo were formed.

For about half a million years the three volcanos coexisted together, puffing away together. They are thought to all have reached about 4,800 mt of height. 500,000 years ago Shira went extinct, while Kibo and Mawenzi kept growing, reaching each 5,500 mt. It was then the turn of Mawenzi to go extinct, but being higher than Shira and with the mountain affected by a glaciation, an entire wall of Mawenzi, from 4,000 mt to 5,500 mt collapsed, releasing an immense amount of water which was captured in its crater. This is how the volcanic debris which are all over the plains from the Chyulu to Kilimanjaro were brought here. An area of 1,100 kmq was flooded!

One of the last eruptions occurred about 360,000 years ago, giving the mountain its actual look.

Kibo reached its highest height about 450,000 years ago, reaching nearly 6,000 mt.

Erosion took its highest peak, Uhuru, to the current height of 5,895 mt (19,340 ft).

I love that hominids lived here and that our ancestors are coming from here…Even if most of us do not know it, Kilimanjaro has been growing with our ancestors…But we of course do not know anything about the mountain from their fossils remains…

We start hearing about a mountain with snow about 45 AD, when an anonymous author wrote “Periplus of the Erythrean Sea”. There he mentions a high mountain, at the end of the World. A century later Ptolemy, a Greek great astronomer and founder of scientific cartography, wrote of a great snow mountain the region.

We do not hear about the mountain for a long while…

After the Greeks came the Arabs, who settled along “Zanzibar”, which, in their language, means the “negro coast”.  They called this the land of Zinj.

The Chinese traded with the land of Zinj in the 12th and 13th century. They mention a snow mountain West of Zanzibar.

After the Arabs came a shameful occupation by the Portuguese, which left very little behind. Vasco da Gama arrived in 1497, and their occupation lasted 200 years.

No inland expeditions and no apparent records of a mountain with snow, in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1699 the Arabs sent away the last Portuguese forces and re-established their grip on the land. What made them rich before and then was not just the ivory trade, but the slave trade.

And this brings us close to the “discovery” of Kilimanjaro. With Britain passing a Parliament Act making slave trade illegal, in 1807 and 1811, things, for slaves traders, started changing. At least on the West Coast of Africa.

Trying to exercise control on this part of the World, the British established a diplomatic mission in Zanzibar in 1841.

In urge to solve the riddle of Africa, scholars were discussing geography from Great Britain, with much debate and without having had ever set foot in Africa! Nobody believed Ptolemy was right and all the interior in the African maps was terra incognita, unknown territory.

Armchair geographers were busy arguing, explorers were trying to solve the riddle. As the Arabs were getting more inland for their awful trade, more reports were getting available.

And then explorers were setting off to solve the mysteries of terra incognita. But their first expeditions, in 1820's and 1830's all failed miserably.
So it was not an explorer to first get close to Kilimanjaro. It was a priest...

A very determined German, Johann Ludwig Krapf, a Doctor of Divinity from Tubingen, was associated with the London based Church Missionary Society.

In 1844 Krapf arrives in Zanzibar, with his wife Rosine. In March they move to Mombasa. Rosine was pregnant, delivered a baby girl on July 6th and by the 9th both mother and daughter were dead. Killed by malaria.

Krapf does not give up and establishes his mission, translating in Kiswahili the entire New Testament. But along the Coast all tribes were more interested in either their business or in the Muslim religion, so Krapf decides to go inland.

He heard of a tribe called the Wakamba and wanted to reach them. And beyond them the Galla, who Krapf knew for his earlier experience in Abyssinia. He wanted to reach them from the South.

A Swiss, John Rebmann, was sent to assist Krapf. On 25th August 1845 Krapf and Rebmann left Mombasa to reach the Wanika village of Rabbai Mpia, their new home. Plans to reach more tribes are made.

In October 1847 Rebmann starts an historical inland journey to reach the Taita, a tribe 150 km inland. This might be called the beginning of European scramble for Africa. Krapf is too ill to join. The plan is to reach a place called Jagga, where, according to a caravan leader named Bwana Kheri, “the high mountain Kilimansharo was visible”.

During this first trip to Kasigau, in the Taita Hills, the mountain did not show itself…

On 27th April 1848 Rebmann, Bwana Kheri and eight tribesmen set foot for Jagga, looking for a mountain which they heard was crowned with white matter and full of djins…

Going beyond Kasigau, on the morning of the 11th of May 1848, Rebmann notes: “the mountains of Jagga gradually rose more distinctly to my site. At about 10 o’clock I observed something remarkably white on the top of a high mountain… the most delightful recognition took place in my mind of an old well-known European guest called snow”.

This is the first time a European saw the mountain. It had been there for 2,500,000 years, our ancestors came from here, but we make a fuzz about Rebmann “discovering” Kilimanjaro… Western silly cultural arrogance…

The beautiful and almost sarcastic consequences of this recorded sight are the fights of the armchair cartographers in Europe and particularly in London, with Charles Beke affirming the source of the Nile is at the equator from this big mountain and William Desborough Cooley, author of so many treaties on the geography of inner Africa –written without having set foot in the Continent! – denying the existence of a snow capped mountain. And the World believed Cooley… 12 years passed before more evidence convinced various eminent gentlemen to concede the accuracy of Rebmann’s report, but Colley never conceded…

Burton and Speke went inland searching for the Mountains of the Moon and the source of the Nile. Their route missed Kilimanjaro, and when Speke "discovered Lake Victoria, the ultimate source of the Nile, without reporting of any snow capped mountain, this added reasons to doubt Rebmann’s report.

Livingstone explorations also missed the mountain. A geologist, Richard Thornton, for whom Livingstone had no sympathy, accompanied him. Dismissed by Livingstone with no pay, Thornton went on exploring the Zambezi region for 20 months!

In 1861 Thornton meets in Zanzibar a Hanoverian aristocrat, Count von der Decken.

Together, and with 50 porters, including the Baron’s Italian man-servant and Thornton personal slave (!!!), they leave Mombasa on 29th June 1861. They take a direct route to the Taita. Surviving a confrontation with 200 warriors (and paying compensation for the botanical specimens they had collected) they finally see the mountain on 14th July 1861. Thornton writes in his diary: the mountain “shone out beautifully for a few minutes showing streaks of snow running down its sides at the bottom of numerous ravines to nearly the base of the upper cone”.

They stayed for 19 days at foothills of the mountain, failing to get permission by the chiefs to climb it and halted by the total reluctance of their porters to attempt such a climb. They reached about 2,500 mt. altitude, calculating the heights of the peaks. Back then they recorded the snow was covering the last 3,000 ft. (900 mt.) of the mountain.

While I write this from the porch of my tent and see practically no snow on the majestic Kilimanjaro, I sigh in soreness, thinking what damage we, humans, have managed to cause in just 155 years…Precisely to the land we all come from...

In 1863 Baron Carl Claus von der Decken was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his contributions to the geographical knowledge of inner Africa (while Cooley was still dismissing the Baron’s report). In October 1865 the Baron was murdered at Bardera (Somalia), while attempting to reach Mount Kenya from the Juba river. He was 33 years old.

Baron Carl Claus von der Decken


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