Mount Kilimanjaro

At first many people would not believe the story of a German missionary Johannes Rebmann, who in 1848 claimed to have discovered a snow capped mountain only 200 miles from the Equator. ‘A most delightful mental recognition, not only supported by the evidence of his senses,’ was how one writer sneeringly described Rebmann’s discovery. In work published in 1852 and somewhat inappropriately entitled “Inner Africa Laid Open”. The Royal Geographical Society only accepted the existence of this mountain after visits had been made to it in 1861 and 1862 by another German, Baron Karl Von Der Decken.

mount kilimanjaro

The mountain was Kilimanjaro, now known to be the highest in Africa, which lies just on the Tanganyika (now Tanzania) side of the Kenya – Tanzania border. It is about 132 miles south of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, and can be seen from that city on a clear day. Kilimanjaro, together with Mount Kenya, about 200 miles to the north and nearly on the Equator, and Mount Meru, 25 miles due west, is part of a line of volcanic cones, its highest peak is 19,565 feet.

mount kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro, is one of the most impressive sights in the world, The surrounding plateau is only about 3,000 feet above sea level, and the base of the mountain is only about 40 miles in diameter. There are other mountains in the world which are higher, but nearly all of them are merely the highest points of extensive mountain masses, and a few have the majestic appearance of Kilimanjaro.



Kilimanjaro has two principal peaks, Kibo and Mawenzi. Kibo in the west, is the higher of the two, and is geologically younger. From below, Kibo looks like a smooth, ice-covered dome, but it is in fact a volcanic crater. Hidden below its rim is another, more recent, volcanic cone with its own small crater. Kibo is ringed with glaciers which descend to about 15,000 feet in the south-west, but hardly reach below the summit on the dry northern slopes. These glaciers are retreating rapidly because of the lack of snowfall and increased volcanic activity. It is thought they might disappear altogether in about 200 years.

Mawenzi, the eastern of the twin summits, is an older, heavily eroded crater. It rises to a height of 17,300 feet and consists of a forbidding mass of jagged cliffs and rocky pinnacles. On its eastern side is a tremendous funnel falling between 6,000 and 7,000 feet to a gorge below. Mawenzi, which has no permanent ice or snow, is joined to Kibo by a saddle 14,000 feet high.



Several attempts were made to climb Kilimanjaro in the years after Von Der Decken’s visit in 1862, but it was not until 1889 that the mountain was finally scaled by Dr Hans Meyer and Ludwig Purtscheller. This first conquest of Kilimanjaro was probably the hardest anyone will ever have to make.

Meyer and Purtscheller did not discover the convenient notch in the ice wall of the crater. This notch makes the ascent easier each year because the ice is slowly melting. They had to climb up a glacier which could only be scaled with the aid of ice-axes. Every step required some 20 strokes of the axe a terrible effort at that altitude. In addition, Meyer himself had no climbing irons, which meant that the two men were in great danger of falling some 3,000 feet with each step they took. It must have been a thrilling moment for them when they reached the rim of Kibo, looked over and saw the 600 foot deep crater. The highest point of the mountain was named Kaiser Wilhelm Point by Meyer.



Like many other large mountains, Kilimanjaro has several distinct zones of vegetation. Because of the prevailing winds, the northern side of the mountain is much drier, but as the traveller approaches from the south he leaves the arid plains behind him and comes to a region of uninhabited bush country. Shortly after this, at about 4,000 feet, he enters the fertile country of the Chagga people

mount kilimanjaro

mount kilimanjaro


The Chagga are an industrious and prosperous people who grow bananas extensively, as well as other crops, and raise a breed of pygmy cattle. Humans do not live higher than about 6,000 to 7,000 feet. Beyond this, and stretching up to about 10,000 feet, is the forest zone. Here the ground is covered by moss, and trees are twisted and decked in ferns and orchids. Wild flowers are common on the ground and hanging in clusters from the vines overhead. The spoor of elephants can be seen in this region, as well as the tracks of buck and wild pigs. There are numerous birds, butterflies and squirrels, and all around are beehives placed by the Chagga people who know that the plentiful supply of blossom will mean abundant honey. As the traveller climbs higher, he will notice that the trees become more and more twisted, and along the upper fringe of the forest giant heather grows to the colossal height of 40 feet. Above the forest is a zone of the wiry, tufty grass, marked by giant lobelias and tree-groundsel. Cattle of the Scottish Highlands might feel at home in this part of the country of mists and night frosts, were it not for the extreme altitude. Eland antelope live here, but otherwise animal life is rare. At about 13,000 feet the vegetation ceases, and the terrain consists of soft earth, changing to shifting sand, and then to ice.



There are several Chagga legends which tell how Kibo and Mawenzi were formed. Some are particularly interesting because they suggest that the Africans knew of the existence of a hollow crater at the summit. But it seems most unlikely that the local Africans could ever have climbed so high.

mount kilimanjaro

One story says that Kibo and Mawenzi were once good neighbours. One day Mawenzi‘s fire went out and he went and asked Kibo for some embers. Kibo gave him the embers, but on his way back, Mawenzi thought he would play a joke on Kibo. He threw the embers away, returned to Kibo and begged him for some more. Kibo gave them to him. But again he threw them away and returned. Having been given some more, he threw them away a third time, and returned to Kibo. The long suffering Kibo realised what has happened lost his temper. He picked up a pestle with which he had been pounding corn, and beat Mawenzi until he was black and blue. And that explains why Mawenzi is so scarred and battered. The name Mawenzi means ‘that which is scarred’, while Kibo means ‘speckled’ (from certain places it looks speckled because of the patches of rock which stick out from the ice).

To the Chagga people, Kibo is the embodiment of all that is beautiful and good, and they hate to be out of sight of the peak. Their dead are buried facing it, and the villagers gather on the Kibo side of their villages to hold their feasts and meetings.

One traveller Charles Dundas, has this to say about the mountain; ‘Whether one views it from afar, or from the adjoining hot tropical plain with the alluring scene of ice fields above, whether you stand on its fertile flanks, or on the snow line, it . . . . compels the traveller to accept it as one of the world’s wonders.’



Geographical Position: Latitude, 3.5 degrees South. Longitudes: 37.23 East

Highest Point: 19565 feet

Diameter of base: about 40 miles

Distance from Equator: about 200 miles south

Date of Discovery: 1848