In the second century AD, Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer and cartographer, wrote of mysterious lands to the south of modern-day Somalia that contained "man-eating barbarians" and a "great snow mountain". This knowledge he must have gained from the Phoenicians, who had circumnavigated Africa by this date, or from ancient Egyptian writings telling of the great expeditions of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, whose ships had traded the Swahili Coast. Either way, Ptolemy's account stands as the first documented reports of Africa's highest mountain; Kilimanjaro.
The next thousand years brings no mention of this great mountain. As the coast of East Africa rose in prominence as a trading route after the establishment of Arab rule in the sixth century, the main hub of activity centred around the island of Zanzibar and the immediate mainland known at the time as Zinj. Here the Arabs were able to access an almost unlimited supply of ivory, gold, rhinoceros horn and an even more lucrative and mobile commodity, slaves. The great slave caravans that ventured far into the interior may well have passed close by to the mountain to collect water from the permanent streams, yet no written record survives. In fact, it was to be Chinese traders of the twelfth century who were next to record observations of a great mountain west of Zanzibar. But Kilimanjaro was largely to remain a mountain of myth and superstition throughout the centuries ... one of the great secrets of the interior of 'the dark continent'.
It was actually the desire to find the source of the Nile that drove British explorers and geographers to first head inland towards the mysterious mountain around 1840 onwards. To them Kilimanjaro was simply a tall tale told by the Arab traders of Zanzibar, nobody really believed that there could be a snow-capped mountain on the equator. This scepticism seemed well founded when British geographer William Cooley reported back to London that there was indeed "a large ridge called Kirimanjara" and that it was in fact "strewn with red pebbles". Sounds like he might have been in the wrong place!
In 1844, at the instigation of the London based Church Missionary Society, Johann Ludwig Krapf, a Doctor of Divinity and his wife Rosine arrived in Zanzibar. Krapf had a dream to link the west and east coasts of Africa by a chain of Christian missionaries, but it wasn't long before he discovered these high ambitions conceived in the parlours of Europe were not going to be so easy to realize in the field. In March of that year, they moved to Mombasa, where Krapf was to suffer a major test of his faith when his wife died of malaria within days of giving birth. The child died also. Krapf was plunged into depression and suffered alone for two years until the arrival of Swiss missionary, Johann Rebmann, whose fresh enthusiasm was finally able to re-kindled Krapf's ambition desire to link the two coasts. On 16th October 1847, Rebmann, with the help of eight tribesmen and Bwana Kheri, a caravan leader, set off for the mountain of Kasigau, where they hoped to establish the first of mission posts.
The journey went well and they returned to Mombasa on the 27th of the same month. Along the way, they had heard the stories of the great mountain "Kilimansharo", whose head was above the clouds and "topped with silver", around whose feet lived the mountain's people, the fearsome Jagga (now Chagga). Krapf immediately sought permission from the governor of Mombasa for an expedition to Jagga. His official reason was to find areas suitable for mission stations, but the legendary mountain was becoming of increasing interest to the two missionaries. Disregarding warnings about the 'spirits of the mountain', on the 27th April 1848, Rebmann and Bwana Kheri set off for Jagga and within just two weeks was standing on the great steppe of East Africa within sight of Kilimanjaro ... the first European to set eyes on the mountain.
In his log, he refers to "a remarkable white on the mountains of Jagga", which he could just make out through the haze. He asked his guide to explain what it was he was looking at and "he did not know but supposed it to be coldness". At that moment Rebmann realised that the legend really was true. There really were snowfields on the African equator. In April 1849, Rebmann's observations were published in the Church Missionary Intelligencier and although not properly substantiated until twelve years later, this remains the first confirmed report of Mount Kilimanjaro.