Prison Break

1942, British-occupied Kenya: Felice Benuzzi had been a prisoner of war for the last year, and was plagued with boredom. Formerly an Italian civil servant and aspiring mountaineer, he felt drained, uninspired, demotivated. And so, he hatched a simple plan of pure adventure - to break out of camp, climb Mount Kenya, and break back into the camp again. 

A seemingly simple premise, it was a dangerous and unthinkable scheme. It filled Benuzzi with hope, a wonderful challenge that would crack his boredom. And don’t we all hate being bored? We’ll do anything to avoid the feeling - from scrolling for hours on our phones to spending copious amounts of money to keep it at bay.

Escape to Mount Kenya

Studies from Texas University show that “people will pay more to avoid boredom than other negative emotions like sadness, and will pay as much to avoid boredom as they would to experience love.”

Love was what brought Benuzzi to Africa to begin with. In 1938 he married a young Jewish woman, Stefania, days before the racial laws in Italy made it illegal. They fled together, heading for the colonies where the laws couldn't touch them. But in 1941, Italian colonel Africa fell into the hands of the British. Stefania and their daughter were detained in Ethiopia, Benuzzi was sent to Kenya.

Escape to Mount Kenya

A herd of elephants with the mountain in the distance

The camp Felice was being held in wasn’t dingy, but it was drab. The men sat there with nothing to do except worry and pace from one side of the room to the other. They had no privacy and no way of knowing how long they would be stuck here. It was this uncertainty that plagued them the most. The study on boredom says that “when people feel like they cannot escape boredom, it can have very bad consequences leading to apathy and depression.”

This is the way Benuzzi was headed. Until, one morning, he looked up. What he saw breaking through the morning clouds was the peak of Mount Kenya. Something inside of him stirred. Formed circa 3 million years ago after the opening of the East African Rift, Mount Kenya is a volcano nestled under ever-shrinking glacial blankets. It’s a stunning sight, the lower slopes covered in alpine forest, a must-visit for those visiting Kenya. Later, he would write in his letters about Mount Kenya, “for hours afterwards I remained spellbound, I had definitely fallen in love.”

If there’s anything that being trapped indoors for the past year or so has taught us, it’s that boredom can cause us to seek out distractions. We pick up new hobbies, new habits, anything to help us pass the time. Sometimes these distractions can be risky, and Benuzzi’s dream ascent was more than risky. But he had become obsessed with Mount Kenya - he had seen it in the distance and had known that he had to climb it. 

Escape to Mount Kenya

Familiar with the Julian Alps of Italy, Benuzzi had a good knowledge of mountain climbing. The puzzle of Mount Kenya was different to anything he had encountered before. He was underfed in the camp, had no access to equipment, and needed to sneak past guards. Then there were the environmental dangers. There was the chance of hypothermia, altitude sickness, not to mention that Africa’s Big 5 roamed the space between camp and peak. He’d have to do this dangerous route twice: in and out again. 

But why go through all this effort? Why not escape? Neutral Mozambique was more than 1,000 km away. The plan was an adventure for adventure's sake. Benuzzi knew he could figure it out - he had nothing but time. Every challenge between him and Mount Kenya was a creative challenge. A fun problem to tinker with until he solved it.

Escape to Mount Kenya

Giraffes on the horizon in Ol Pejeta

He made a checklist of things to do: 

  • Plan the route
  • Get in shape
  • Get equipment
  • Budget food intake

He began crafting his crampons from scrap metal lying around the camp. He made climbing rope out of nets used for bedding. He scraped labels off of cans to make maps of the mountain. Anything that he couldn’t make was bought with cigarettes.

Escape to Mount Kenya

Eight months went by before everything was ready.  It was a period of purpose and happiness for Benuzzi, but it never escaped his mind that the whole plan was crazy. In fact, it was something he was proud of - but he knew he couldn’t do it alone. He would need at least two madmen to assist him on the journey.  Luckily, the camp was not short of bored people looking for something new to do. Two fellow campmates with nothing to do, Giuàn Balletto and Enzo Barsotti, agreed to go with Benuzzi. 

One night in January of 1943, equipped with a masterfully duplicated key and some clever costumes, they were on the other side of the barbed wire, and on the way to Mount Kenya.

Escape to Mount Kenya

17 days later they returned to the prison camp, triumphant in their goal to climb the mountain. Benuzzi wouldn’t be reunited with his family for another four years, but his perspective on the world had changed for the better. 

Years later, Benuzzi would write a book about his adventures, No Picnic on Mount Kenya. He wrote, “I do not consider the five years I spent as a prisoner of war as the sweetest of my life, but I can at least bear witness to the difference between my mental state in the years ‘before Mt Kenya’ and those years ‘after Mt Kenya’ when I was busy writing these lines.”

Benuzzi’s climb of Mount Kenya was a long-term fix for the boredom that he endured, even though he was at the camp for another four years. It was long-term not because it was an incredible odyssey, but because it was something personal to him - his time on Mount Kenya became tied to his identity.

Escape to Mount Kenya

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