At 5,199 metres, Mount Kenya is the second highest mountain in Africa after Kilimanjaro. It is, however, far more interesting than Kili. It took until nearly the end of the nineteenth century for explorers to even persuade the outside world that such a mountain could exist. When the German missionary Johann Rebmann first reported the existence of mountain peaks covered in snow on the equator, he was ridiculed. European geographers insisted that he had mistaken for snow chalky rocks or earth on the summit of the mountain. It was not until the Scottish explorer Joseph Thomson reported back to the Royal Geographical Society that he had seen with his own eyes 'a gleaming snow-white peak with sparkling facets, which scintillated with the superb beauty of a colossal diamond' that the mountain's existence was at last admitted in Europe.
To the Kikuyu people of the Mount Kenya region, however, the existence of the mountain had never been in doubt. They call it 'Kirinyanga', and in Kikuyu indigenous belief it is the home of their supreme creator, Ngai. Many Kikuyu people today still build their homes with the doors facing the mountain. The Maasai people who live around Mount Kenya also traditionally believe it to be the home of their divine ancestors, and the three peaks of the mountain are named after legendary Maasai medicine men - Batain, Nelion and Lenana. It is after the mountain that the modern day state of Kenya is named.
The first successful climb of Mount Kenya by a European was made by Sir Halford Mackinder and Campbell Hausberg in 1899. After that it was another thirty years before British mountaineer Eric Shipton repeated the feat. During his escape, Felice Benuzzi and one of his two companions attempted to climb the most difficult peak on Kenya, Batian, via the north-west face. Unknown to them, the route they chose had never been climbed, having been rejected as impossible by Shipton just thirteen years earlier. In the event, a blizzard drove Benuzzi off the face of Batian (5199 metres) and he had to settle for conquering the summit of Lenana (4985 metres). Today, although a hard climb, Lenana can be reached without technical mountaineering skills.
On January 24th, 1943, three Italian prisoners of war escaped from their internment camp in Nanyuki, Kenya, by copying a key to the perimeter fence, hiding in vegetable gardens and then entering the thick bamboo forest under cover of darkness.
Eighteen days later, exhausted and close to starvation, the three men let themselves back into the camp and presented themselves to the British commandant. Undernourished, unarmed and with only the sketchiest of ideas of their route, they had successfully climbed Mount Kenya and planted an Italian flag on Point Lenana, one of the mountain's three summits. They were sentenced by the British to twenty-eight days solitary confinement, but released after only seven in recognition of their 'sporting effort'.
The leader of the expedition was an Italian civil servant named Felice Benuzzi. He died in 1988, but the book he wrote about his adventure, entitled No Picnic on Mount Kenya, has become a classic of mountaineering literature and is required reading for modern-day trekkers and mountaineers who tackle Mount Kenya, still regarded as one of the world's most formidable mountains.
So why did they do it? The three prisoners had discovered that true escape was impossible - the nearest neutral territory was Mozambique, hundreds of miles away across hostile terrain. But Benuzzi had caught a glimpse of the peak of Mount Kenya, glittering in the moonlight from beyond the camp fence, and as he relates 'A thought crossed my numbed mind like a flash. I shall stage a break in this awful travesty of life. I shall try to get out, to climb Mount Kenya and return here'.
Armed with ice axes made from salvaged scraps of metal, ropes made from bedframes and a picture of the mountain taken from a tin of potted meat, he and his companions did just that. Their feat, as Benuzzi said, was 'not simply a mountaineering trip with a patriotic gesture thrown in. Above all our outing had been a reaction against the sluggish life of a POW camp, an act of will amidst all that inertia'.
'In order to break the monotony of camp life, one had to start taking risks again' wrote Benuzzi in his book. The same principle can be applied equally to the safe tedium of life in the modern western world. The urge to be alone in wild spaces and to explore the unknown is one of mankind's most primal feelings, and most of us can appreciate what Benuzzi meant when he wrote of his desire to escape a life merely lived 'at the level of physiology'.
I am a 31 year old travel writer originally from London, UK. I fell in love with Africa when I was seventeen and have been returning there as often as possible ever since. By a strange twist of fate, Felice Benuzzi was my cousin. Unlike him, I have never climbed a mountain before in my life. I get blisters after walking to the bus stop and once had to be carried down from a small cliff in Cornwall after breaking the heel of my shoe.
But one day soon, I plan to climb Mount Kenya by the same route as his party and place a memorial to his achievement on Point Lenana. The climb will be a chance to honour Benuzzi and the spirit of freedom and independence which led him to attempt this seemingly impossible task - a spirit all too often lacking in our bland and unchallenging modern world. Sixty years have passed since Felice's climb, but I too feel the need to start taking risks again, and to celebrate the same sentiment he felt - 'the urge to escape a life lived at the level of physiology'
Copyright © Gemma Pitcher 2004