Friday, June 27, 2014


Mount Kenya National Reserve had just been a way-station, and the next morning we left at 8:30 on a long drive to our next destination and our first real safari drive. But before we left, we got our first good look at Mount Kenya itself and were entranced by its rugged beauty.  

(Photo by MCE)

The peak rises from a long, massive bank to a height of 17,057 feet, which is 2,552 feet taller than Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. It doesn't look that tall, but the plinth-like ridge supporting the peak is as high as many tall mountains, and our road in the picture above was at an elevation of about 6,000 feet. Mount Kenya is the tallest mountain in the country, the source of the country's name, and the second tallest mountain in all of Africa behind Mount Kilimanjaro (19,341 feet). Like Mount Fuji and Mount Vesuvius, it is a stratovolcano, and the heavy rainfall on its slopes ultimately supplies 50% of Kenya's water.

In her book The Flame Trees of Thika, Elspeth Huxley writes:

From the veranda of our grass hut we looked over the Kikuyu ridges to Mount Kenya, which could only be seen in the early morning, and in the evenings, at certain times of the year. Unless you knew it was a mountain you would have thought it a persistent cloud, the shape of a breast, with the twin peaks, Mbatian and Nelion, blending at this distance into the semblance of a nipple. In colour it was a bluish-purple, like a grape, save for a white cap of ice and snow from which arose cold, clear little streams bringing life to the Kikuyu uplands that formed the shoulders of this great mountain, below the moorland and forest surrounding its peak.

 As we drove, the vegetation between us and the mountain changed many times:

(Photo by EDT)
 . . . as did the shape of the peak: Several African tribes cultivate farms in the fertile volcanic soil of the lower slopes or graze cattle there. They believe that when God descends from the sky, it is to live on this mountain, and therefore many of them build their houses with the doors facing the peak.

The snow and glaciers were also the dwelling-place of God, according to [our servant] 
Njombo, and if you wished to pray to God, you looked across towards the peaks and 
hoped that he would hear you; though this was possible only if you had offered a 
sacrifice. . . . (Huxley, The Flame Trees of Thika)

Europeans first saw Mount Kenya in 1850, a year after their discovery of Mount Kilimanjaro. Though many attempts were made on its summit, the first successful climb did not occur until 1899, and no one scaled the tallest peak of the formation again for the next thirty years.

(Photo by EDT)
 Every morning the mountain floated in the sky as if sketched in lightly with a 
pencil. . . . (Huxley, The Flame Trees of Thika)


On a recommendation from my husband, before our trip I read the book No Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi. In 1943, Benuzzi was an Italian prison of war in an isolated British camp near the equator at the foot of Mount Kenya. Tormented by boredom, he writes:

Nerves were near breaking point. The maddening worries about which one could do nothing, the passivity to which we were condemned, the deadly monotony of the rains and above all the communal life one was forced to lead in a small barrack with twenty-five or thirty similarly irritable people, seemed likely to drive one mad.

But then Benuzzi catches his first view of Mount Kenya, which he describes in this passage:

I was shaken out of my sleep by Umberto: "Quick. Get up. Come and look at Mount Kenya!"

"What does it look like?"

"You shall see. . . ."

"Owing to the rainy season we had so far had no opportunity of seeing anything of the mountain but the huge forest-clad pedestal. I was so anxious to see it now that I almost got entangled in my boot-laces while dressing.

"Hurry up," shouted Umberto from the door, "otherwise the peak will become covered with clouds again."

I emerged at last, stumbled a few steps in the mud and then I saw it: an ethereal mountain emerging from a tossing sea of clouds framed between two dark barracks--a massive blue-black tooth of sheer rock inlaid with azure glaciers, austere yet floating fairy-like on the near horizon. It was the first 17,000-foot peak I had ever seen.

I stood gazing until the vision disappeared among the shifting cloud banks.

For hours afterwards I remained spell-bound.

I had definitely fallen in love.

And so Benuzzi and two other men came up with a plan to escape, climb the towering mountain, and then "escape" back into camp as there was really nowhere else they could go. (They even left a note saying they would return.) The men were underfed, out of shape, and ill-equipped as climbing paraphernalia was certainly not available in their POW camp. They fashioned their gear out of whatever supplies they could garner and hide from around the camp.

Although they tried but were not able to ascend the tallest peak of the formation, against all odds they managed to summit Point Lenana, the third highest peak that is a very respectable 16,354 feet above sea level. Benuzzi writes: Together, filled by an odd feeling almost of solemnity we reached the point whence one could ascent no farther. . . A great peace hung over the broad expanse. . . . This was the climax of eight months' preparation and of two weeks of toil. It was worth both. 

On Point Lenana they planted a makeshift pole into the rocky soil and hoisted their homemade Italian flag: If anyone wonders what it meant to us to see the flag of our country flying free in the sky after not having seen it so for two long years . . . I can only say it was a grand sight indeed.

This book is a wonderful tribute to the passion, ingenuity, imagination, and courage of three amazing men.

Next up: Crossing the Equator


  1. I have often thought I would like to climb Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya. Now that I have been on game drives in Kenya and Tanzania, my only thought is: Why spend 5 to 8 days climbing one of those mountains when you could spend the same times visiting the game parks on safari? Love, loved, loved the game drives.

  2. My niece attempted the Kilimanjaro climb, stopping before sumitting (altitude sickness), so I always think of her when I read about that mountain. Thanks for the interesting quotes from the books.