In The Last Wild Men of Borneo, author Carl Hoffman tells the stories of two Westerners who spent their lives in Borneo during the 1970s and 1980s, when it was still largely wild and unexplored. Their personal journies are very different, but they both become embroiled in the changing nature of this beautiful land where orangutans roamed the jungles and tribes of native Borneans lived their lives as the had done for hundreds of years, unexposed to the outside world.
Although I realised that in World War II Africa was a theatre of war I never thought the British would use their colonies on the continent as locations for prisoner of war camps. So, I was surprised when I started to read this book about Italian prisoners of war in a camp close to Mount Kenya.
Prisoners here often thought of escape. The rigour of the guarding (the camp guards were most Kenyan locals) was not exemplary so it was not too difficult to get out – the main issue was the isolation of the camp, being many hundreds of miles from a neutral haven. The combination of wild animals and the fact that white people stuck out like a sore thumb made getting to safety problematic.
In the shadow of Mount Kenya, surrounded by the forests and creatures of the savannah, life drags interminably for the inmates of POW Camp 354, captured in Africa during World War II. Confined to an endless cycle of boredom and frustration, one prisoner, Felice Benuzzi, realizes he can bear it no longer. When the clouds covering Mount Kenya part one morning to reveal its towering peaks for the first time, Benuzzi is transfixed. The tedium of camp life is broken by the beginnings of a sudden idea, an outrageous, dangerous, brilliant idea. Benuzzi who had some experience mountaineering in the Alps in Europe then started to plot an adventurous escape and climb to the summit of Mount Kenya. He persuades a couple of fellow prisoners, Dr Giovanni Balletto and Enzo Barsotti, to join him on this crazy mission, and over a period of several months, they start to collect the equipment and supplies needed. Obviously, the resources in a prisoner of war camp are limited and climbing equipment is not readily at hand, so they had to be inventive, including making their own crampons: Despite being on the equator Mount Kenya had glaciers that would need to be navigated!
The craggy peaks of Mount Kenya (Credit: Business Week)
Eventually, they are ready to go and simply walked out of the camp, so relaxed is the guarding. Once out the fun begins. They have little idea of what lies ahead of them apart from what Benuzzi had learned from reading books from previous explorers travelling to Mount Kenya. After several days of trekking through the forests that surround the base of the mountain, they reached a point below the three main peaks of Mount Kenya, Batian (5,199 metres or 17,057 feet), Nelion (5,188 m or 17,021 ft) and Point Lenana. The intrepid escapees decide to tackle the highest peak, Bastian, by the north face. Leaving Barsotti, who was not an experienced climber, at their base camp Benuzzi and Balletto set-off to climb Bastian. Little did they know, their chosen route was one of the hardest on the mountain and after reaching about 5000m they realised to press on was foolish, so they retreated back to their base. After resting up, wanting to achieve a summit Benuzzi and Balletto then climbed Point Lenana.
Having satisfied their desires and realising they were running out of supplies, the trio decided to return to the camp. So, after 18 days they broke back into the POW camp much to the surprise of the camp commander. Their punishment was 28 days of solitary confinement.
I enjoyed this book immensely. The concept of breaking out to satisfy a personal challenge to alleviate the mundane day-to-day existence of prison life and then return having completed the challenge of climbing a mountain with no gear and limited rations appeals to my sense of mischief. You might at first think ‘this not how an escape story is supposed to end.’ But this is not an escape story; it’s a story about taking an enormous risk in answer to one’s search for inner freedom. The ingenuity that has to be used to overcome the lack of mountaineering equipment is as remarkable as was the ease of actually breaking out of the camp. The author’s storytelling, and his sharp wit and observation skills, make this an easy book to read.