No Picnic on Mount Kenya

by Dee McLachlan

Most stories of war are about one side trying to kill the other side. So this Anzac Day morning I present a different story.

Having been a keen mountain climber in my youth, I remember reading a fascinating book — based on a true story during the Second World War, entitled “No Picnic on Mount Kenya.”

An Italian, Felice Benuzzi, was detained by the British at POW 354 Camp near Nanyuki, Kenya. Beyond the barbed wire and guard towers he could see Mount Kenya rising above the African plains. The mountain is the second highest peak in Africa and is 5,199 meters (17,058 ft) above sea level.

The tedium of the British camp led to an inspiration — to break out and climb the mountain.

He approached a fellow prisoner who happened to be a professional mountaineer back in Italy — but the expert told him he was crazy, especially as they had no snow and ice equipment. He also had no map or details of the climb on the mountain.

Despite this warning, Felice enlisted a doctor and a sailor and they began months of preparation. With Dr. Giovanni (‘Giuàn’) Balletto and Vincenzo (‘Enzo’) Barsotti, they saved what food they could from the rations, and found a map — a “sketch” on the label of an Oxo food tin.

They began to gather as much equipment as they could. They hoarded chocolate, dried fruit, and crackers from the food parcels. They fashioned ice axes from hammers stolen from a workshop, and built ice crampons (for their boots) from sardine tins and pieces salvaged from the trash. Felice undid the netting of a bunk bed and twisted it into a quarter-inch, 35-foot-long rope.

And then in January 1943 they escaped. Enzo became ill, but they continued day after day on through rough terrain teaming with wildlife (such as rhino and elephants) until they reached the mountain.

Felice and the doctor began their ascent — not quite reaching the summit. They were ill-equipped for snow and ice climbing — and were also suffering from thirst and hunger.

(L) Felice Benuzzi  with the doctor (I think)

After an eventful 18-day expedition on the mountain, they returned to the POW camp on the 10 February, 1943.

Much to the astonishment of the British camp commandant, the three adventurers broke back into Camp 354. As a reward, they each received 28 days in solitary confinement. It was commuted to 7 days — the British commander acknowledging their “sporting effort”.

A commenter (Tom Reeves) on Goodreads writes:

“This adventure is so unique, daring, crazy and magical. I loved the madness involved in the whole idea. This is truly an excellent account of the desire for adventure, especially that of the absurdness of it all. The story makes me smile every time I think of it, and it has left me with a longing for reckless, blind adventuring.”

Such is the human spirit.

And interestingly, I found this picture of Felice in Australia. He joined the Italian Diplomatic Service in 1948, serving in Paris, Karachi, West Berlin, Brisbane, and Canberra.

Felice Benuzzi on Mount Barney, Queensland, 18 September 1954

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Comments

  1. What a waste of time.
    The Italian prisoners of war (3) on my father in law’s farm distilled some pretty good stuff, said my f-i-l.

    • However, the Japanese at nearby Cowra, decided to continue being what they were. (Ref: the Cowra break out)

  2. A great story, Dee, of some really adventurous fellows. Almost as good a story as the famous “Great Escape”.

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