Kili: On thin ice: the shrinking snows of Mount Kilimanjaro

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For thousands of years, rumours abounded of the treasures to be found in the African interior. Stories of cities built of gold and mountains made of diamonds, that excited the mind but terrified the soul: for none of these places could be reached without mighty perils and travails. Africa for many centuries was the backdrop against which the world’s oldest story – the Quest for Unspeakable Riches – could be set. Travellers passed on tall tales of miracles and wonders; merchants and mercenaries spread them along rivers, over mountains and around lakes; and sailors and traders took the rumours, embellished by long months at sea, back to cities all across the ancient world. In time it became ‘known’ that this continent was the hiding place of the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant, of the diamond mines of King Solomon, and that all of Africa’s gold came from a place called Timbuctoo.

Within this confusion of truth, half-truth and nonsense – of pygmies and cannibals and golden cities and eight-foot giants, of tribes who walked on their hands, or were ruled by a dog, or saw through a single eye in the middle of their heads – was the story of a ‘snow-capped mountain’ said to be found hundreds of miles inland, towering over the sweltering equatorial plains of Africa. Some speculated that this mountain might be the source of the waters of the Nile; others that it might be the dwelling place of djinns and magical spirits. But for many, the notion of ice so close to the equator was one of the silliest rumours of all.

Yet the people who lived in the volcanic lands of the Rift Valley had long known of this mighty gold and silver mountain, this place of coldness, and on a May morning in 1848, they took a German-Swiss missionary to see it. Writing home shortly afterwards. Johannes Rebmann described the wonders of that day:

At about ten o’clock . . . I observed something remarkably white on the top of a high mountain, and first supposed that it was a very white cloud, in which supposition my guide also confirmed me, but having gone a few more paces more I could no more rest satisfied with that explanation; and while I was asking my guide a second time whether that white thing was indeed a cloud and scarcely listening to his answer that yonder was a cloud but what that white was he did not know, but supposed it was coldness – the most delightful recognition took place in my mind, of an old well-known European guest called snow. All the strange stories we had so often heard about the gold and silver mountain Kilimandjaro in Jagga, supposed to be inaccessible on account of evil spirits, which had killed a great many of those who had attempted to ascend it, were now at once rendered intelligible to me . . . 2

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Rebmann, excited by what he had seen, and little realising the controversy his honest claim would unleash, sent his description to the Church Missionary Intelligencer where it was soon published. Europe’s response to the first substantial eyewitness account of Mount Kilimanjaro was decisive and derisive, and Redmann’s claim to have seen a snow-capped mountain just three degrees south of the equator was greeted with near universal scorn. The Englishman William Desborough Cooley – widely considered to be the foremost authority on Africa at the time, though he had never actually set foot on the continent – icily announced:

I deny altogether the existence of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro. It rests entirely on the testimony of Mr. Rebmann . . . and he ascertained it, not with his eyes, but by inference and in the visions of his imagination. 

When Rebmann’s missionary friend, Dr Krapf, wrote to confirm that he too had seen snow on a mountain towering over the plains of Africa, Cooley’s supporters postulated that the impression of ‘whiteness’ was probably just an illusion caused by the fact that the mountain was made of quartz: a mirage and mistake that even the great Dr Livingstone had made seeing a similar thing in the Zambezi Valley. 

Yet as further testimonies built up, it was William Cooley – the ‘authority’ on a continent four thousand miles from his leather armchair – who came to look like a fool. For it was not Rebmann’s “childish reasoning”, nor his “weak powers of observation”, nor his “too eager cravings for wonders” that were at fault, but rather Cooley’s stubbornly fixed ideas. The irascible and curmudgeonly Cooley went to his death refusing to believe the evidence of his fellow Europeans and denying the phenomenon of snow at the equator. But finally, some 14 years after Rebmann’s original claim, the rest of Europe came to accept what the people who lived around Kilimanjaro had long known: that there was a mountain in equatorial Africa with a snowy summit. The Maasai called it Oldoinyo Oibor, the White Mountain, and named its highest peak, NgÇje NgÇi: the House of God.

By an irony that perhaps Cooley alone would appreciate, it is possible that in the future people will again laugh at the idea of ice at the equator. For the snows of Kilimanjaro are disappearing, and in the near future – some predict by 2020, some by 2050 – the mountain’s peaks may be entirely bare.

Early descriptions of Africa from Pliny’s Summary of the Antiquities and Wonders of the World and quoted in John Reader’s Africa: Biography of a Continent (1998).
Thanks to Henry Stedman’s 2006 Kilimanjaro – the Trekking Guide to Africa’s Highest Mountain  for quotes and details of the debate between Cooley and Rebmann. The Zambezi white quartz mirage from Livingstone’s Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1868).

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