Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book review: "No Picnic on Mount Kenya"

The story of "No Picnic on Mount Kenya" can be summarized pretty quickly. Three Italians, held as prisoners of war in Africa during World War II, escape their camp solely to try to climb the highest peak in Kenya. After the climb, they return to camp.

That simple summary, however, masks the details. And it is the details of this true story that bring it alive.

By 1943, Felice Benuzzi and his fellow Italians had been POWs of the British for some two years and they were bored out of their minds (true, if boredom is  your biggest problem as a prisoner of war, consider yourself lucky).

Benuzzi, who had climbed in the Alps before the war, cast his eyes on the distant Mount Kenya and its towering peak named Batian, and conjured up a crazy idea: Go climb it.

"Standing in the ranks at morning roll-call and seeing Batian beckoning me with its shimmering glaciers, I sometimes felt like running away on the spot, to seek and to meet adventure halfway," Benuzzi writes.

Recruiting two others to come with him wasn't easy because you can't exactly broadcast in a POW camp that you're planning to escape. Possible partners were scouted, secretive meetings arranged and whispered plans exchanged. The best-laid plans went awry. One partner was abruptly transferred to another camp shortly before the escape; Benuzzi had to scramble for  replacement.

Climbing equipment isn't exactly commonly available in a POW camp, so the men ingeniously made their own out of scraps of metal, strips of cloth, and random nails. Climbing guidebooks and Internet access weren't easily found either, so the prisoners had get bits and pieces of information about their intended climb from brief mentions in old magazines, and were delighted to find a simple drawing of the mountain on a tin of meat.

In the telling, Benuzzi maintains an understated sense of humor and an eye for detail. On the mountain he describes an approaching current of mist: "Fragments of cloud would reach the rock at our feet only burst and dissolve like a pricked soap bubble."

In all, the escape, climb and return took 18 days. They may be the only POWs in history to sneak back into a prison camp.

Benuzzi describes each step carefully you'll feel like you're along for the trip but for my money, he goes into more detail than is necessary. You may find, as I did, that you can skim through some parts.

Still, it is overall an enjoyable journey and well-told account. I'm glad they got bored.

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