No Picnic on Mount Kenya: Felice Benuzzi's Daughter Reflects on her Father's Adventure
The story in a nutshell is this: As an officer of the Italian Colonial Government of Ethiopia, my father, Felice Benuzzi, was captured in 1941 and sent to various prisoner of war camps until he reached Nanyuki, P.O.W. camp 354, at the foot of Mount Kenya. He was fascinated by the mountain the moment he caught a glimpse of it in May 1942, during the rainy season, and decided to climb it. It took eight months to organize this expedition. It never was supposed to be an escape in the real sense of the word, an action "never to come back", because too many miles (over a thousand) separated him from neutral Mozambique - he knew he would raise too much interest being a white man and alone - and he could not pass for an Englishman... His reason for climbing the mountain was, in a way, far more captivating and simple: after a year of imprisonment and not knowing how many more lay ahead, he wanted freedom, he wanted to take his life back into his own hands – even if for a few days or weeks – by climbing that mountain and then returning to camp. This unusual idea gave him an objective, something to do, an adventure to go on, involving a mountain right on his doorstep! An invitation he could not refuse! He, who loved mountains so deeply.
So he organised the escape and inspired two others to join him: Giuàn Balletto, a doctor from Genova who had some mountaineering experience and Enzo Barsotti, a businessman from Lido di Camaiore (Tuscany) with NO mountain experience whatsoever! The only criteria for his selection was that "he was thought to be mad as a hatter - and mad people were what we needed!" Finally on January 24, 1943, the three escaped with next to no food, improvised equipment and, most importantly, little or no information about the mountain. They concealed themselves in the camp vegetable patch while on gardening duty, and escaped at nightfall. It took them three days to climb sufficiently high up Mount Kenya to consider themselves safe from capture. They travelled only at night and hid in the bush during daylight. From then on, their biggest dangers were not British soldiers, but nature itself: wildlife, high altitude, weather and lack of food. The escape was a success in that they did reach one of the summits of Mount Kenya – actually the lowest of all – but more importantly, the success lay in that they managed to stay alive and to make it back to camp after seventeen long days – the same way they had left – through the vegetable patch and most importantly, unnoticed. The three encountered wildlife, wild elements such as snowstorms, untold elements such as Enzo's frail health and most importantly they encountered themselves, as each pushed himself to his own limits.
Since childhood, my father had a restlessness, a compulsion to travel and to explore. He dreamt as a boy of becoming sailor and travelling the world but was rejected by the Italian navy when he eventually applied because of his bad teeth. With his parents, he went to the Dolomites on vacation; he started mountaineering with his father and spent his youth in the Julian Alps. He was an amateur mountaineer, in love with adventure.
From my own walks with my father in the mountains, I learnt to appreciate two aspects that are fundamental to mountaineering and to life in general: self-reliance and sense of proportion – a very delicate balance that either makes or breaks a person. These two concepts and a general moral integrity were most important to my father during his whole life. These aspects are found also in the book, (see points below), and to me they are the reason why the book, after so many years, continues to have success. It is a story beyond the actual incredible adventure, a story of an inner walk to freedom and consciousness.
Image: A reproduction of the label from a can of Kenylon corned beef, which was used by Felice Benuzzi and the other escapees in the absense of any other maps or navigational tools to navigate Mount Kenya during their escape.
1. Purpose in Life
From the moment my father saw Mount Kenya onwards, he had found a purpose in life again, the time vacuum and idleness of imprisonment was gone for good. My father explains at length what damage the time warp was doing to the mental and physical health of the prisoners, he dedicated a whole chapter called "The Mirage" to this. At first, the purpose was to organise an escape, then it was to reach the summit, then the purpose was to make it back to camp alive. And once back in prison and for the rest of his imprisonment, (another three long years), my father’s purpose was to write the story of the escape and live from its memories. First in Italian, and then later – and this is very uncommon in publishing traditions – he rewrote the whole book in English; he did not translate it.
As prisoners of war, the three were in "enemy" territory, but they did not escape to get back to their own country or to a "friendlier" one. They went on their adventure to enjoy freedom and regain their sense of human dignity. It was also a great opportunity to come to know an environment so foreign to the three of them. What strikes me most is that the three of them shared the same values.
I will mention only two of the many instances described in the book where their morals were held to a very high standard. Firstly, they resisted the temptation of getting out of camp by bribing one of their African guards, because they considered it a dishonourable means of escape. Secondly, on Point Lenana, they made out an iron hut in the distance, which indicated to them that there was a standard route to climb Batian (the highest peak on the mountain). They decided unanimously not to occupy the iron hut for multiple reasons: one of them being that the hut could be locked and they would have to force it open. This violence would be similar to burglary and they did not want to stain their adventure with a crime. They preferred to face starvation…
3. Blissful Ignorance:
The three companions lacked the most basic information regarding wildlife and the mountain. It is mind-boggling today and a hard concept to understand in our over-informed culture where everything is at our fingertips and can be easily googled! Instead, they were ignorant about many crucial issues regarding their adventure:
- Ignorant about the tropical African wilderness.
- Ignorant about the distances they had to walk and the climate they had to face.
- Ignorant about the mountain: no idea about access, possible shelters, the history of the mountain and its main routes of ascent. No idea that the mountain being on the equator "behaved" both as a winter and or summer mountain, depending on which side you tackled it
The idea of climbing Mount Kenya for the simple pleasure of doing so was just my father’s idea of fun. Even in such extreme of circumstances. What he sought was to LIVE the adventure and ever after, he lived each moment of his life to the maximum, because he realised that living was an adventure in itself.
The book was written both in English and Italian by my father and published after the war. It has since been translated in various editions into French, Spanish, German, Swedish and Korean.
Two biographies have been published about my father: one written in Italian called Point Lenana by Wu Ming and Roberto Santachiara, published in 2013 by Einaudi, and an English biography called The Heart and the Abyss, written by Rory Steele, an Australian diplomat, and published in 2016 by Connor Court.