The Dangerous Side of the Mountain
Thomas Calabrese …My friend Bill Noonan was working in Milan, Italy as a male model and fitness instructor and I was living in Oceanside when he contacted me. He was thinking about signing up for an expedition that would cross the continent of Africa and asked if I wanted to join him. The journey would start in Mombasa, Kenya on the coast of the Indian Ocean and finish in Dakar, Senegal on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. It was approximately a six thousand mile expedition by vehicle that would pass through the countries of Uganda, Zaire, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic and Mali and take between two and three months to complete, depending on long we stayed at each location and other unforeseen circumstances.
I accepted Bill’s offer because I had nothing better going on at the time, withdrew my entire savings and sent a bank draft to the company in charge of the expedition. I obtained my passport, got the proper vaccinations and purchased the proper clothing and six weeks later, I left San Diego for New York. I made my connection to London’s Heathrow airport where I had a two day layover, then it was off to Nairobi and the last leg of the trip was a 274 mile flight on a small propeller aircraft to Mombasa.
I first met Bill when he was in the Coast Guard and stationed at Government Island, Oakland and I was assigned to a Marine Corps helicopter squadron at Naval Air Station, Alameda. We happened to be running the beach in Alameda at the same time and struck up a conversation, and our friendship developed from that point. When Bill was approached by a talent scout about doing some modeling, he thought it might be an interesting job so after his separation from the military, he left for Europe. A year later I also left Northern California after I separated from the Corps and moved to Carlsbad when a friend from my squadron offered me a job with his family’s health supplement business. The company was eventually bought out and I soon found myself working at a variety of low paying temporary jobs.
There would be eight people on the trek; Bill, myself, two men from England, two women from Australia and two women from Canada. Each person had their reason for being there and I figured that if they wanted me to know they would tell me. Our first meeting took place in the Nyali International Beach Hotel restaurant along the Mombasa seashore where we discussed our route and places of interest we’d like to see while looking at a large map.
The two men from England lived and worked in East Africa so they informed us of areas that were too dangerous to travel through, either because of civil unrest or dangerous terrain, but other than that we decided to keep our itinerary flexible and open to change if opportunities presented themselves along the way.
One of the places that the Australian women wanted to see was Mount Kenya before we crossed the border into Uganda, so we left the next morning for the second highest mountain in Africa, Kilimanjaro being the first, Point Lenana on Mount Kenya that rises 16,355 feet above sea level. We checked into the Mount Kenya Safari Club in the early afternoon and after a discussion with the staff at the club, the women from Canada decided not to climb the mountain because they didn’t feel that they were physically fit enough for the ordeal.
The two English men were employed by the tour company as driver and mechanic and had made the climb several times before, so they passed as well. That left four of us, the two Australian women, Rosalie and Gwen, Bill and me. We met our Kenyan guide at Shipton’s camp who suggested that the Shirimon ascent route was the best to take during the fall season because the other routes were too muddy because of the recently ended rainy season.
We made good time, in fact too good, one of the problems of climbing too quickly is altitude sickness, I was feeling pretty good when we reached McKenna’s cabin at the end of the day, but I couldn’t say the same for my three companions. The plan was to leave at four ‘o’clock the next morning so we could arrive at Point Lenana before the fog rolled up from the valley below and obscured the mountain peaks, this happened right after sunrise. I was feeling pretty good until the women started getting sick that night and after several hours of listening to them vomiting, I was feeling queasy. The guide didn’t have to wake me up when it was time to leave for I had only slept a couple of hours and I was aggravated as well.
I looked over at Bill who was lying in the cot next to me, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
He grumbled. “No, but we came this far so we might as well finish it.”
That’s the last thing I expected to hear because I knew Bill wasn’t feeling that well either so I figured he would want to go back down the mountain, but he fooled me, so now the responsibility of giving up fell on my shoulders. If Bill was going up then so was I, the women were too weak to continue.
I turned to Rosalie who was curled up in ball and moaning softly, “Rest, you’ll feel a lot better when we head back down.”
Rosalie whimpered, “I hope so.”
I wasn’t sure if she would actually feel better when we left the higher altitude, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Bill, myself and the guide left at zero four hundred hours in the pitch blackness while I cursed under my breath. I was conflicted because I didn’t know whether I was mad because I was doing this or because I considered giving up. The trail was marked, well- traveled and extremely steep so we made sure we stayed close behind the guide who had the only flashlight and any misstep could be fatal or extremely painful.
As the sun began to peek over the horizon, I could see why it was so important to leave early as the morning fog was slowly dissipating along the valley floor thousands of feet below us. As we climbed higher, it was almost as if we were walking above the clouds and the only sounds were those of our boots shuffling along the rocky trail and our labored breathing. I was mesmerized by my surroundings and while my body was physically struggling, my mind and soul experienced a sense of freedom and euphoria. My thoughts and feelings soared and I was totally in the moment, unrestrained by the simple laws of gravity and human reasoning.
By the time we reached Point Lenana, an orange globe of illumination was visible on the horizon and our timing was impeccable because the fog was now gone and the valley had been transformed into a multi -colored collage of fiery reds, various blues, deep greens, and bright yellows, each one magnified a hundred times over. The rays of sunlight touched my face with warmth and in that precise moment there was no other place in the world that I would have chosen to be.
Then in a matter of several minutes the fog encompassed us and we went from seeing to the edge of infinity, to visibility of less than ten feet. As we descended down the Naro Moru trail, I knew that this memory would be one that would stay with me for the rest of my life. By the time we returned to McKenna’s cabin sixty minutes later, I couldn’t wait to tell Rosalie and Gwen about my epiphany, but they were gone. At first, I thought they went back down the mountain on their own, but when I looked around, I saw some of their personal belongings scattered about and a wooden table that was turned over. The guide had a nervous look on his face as he stared at footprints in the dirt.
“What is going on?” I asked.
“Bandits,” He replied.
“Bandits?” Bill repeated.
“They come from the other side of the mountain and steal what they can, women can be sold for a lot of money on the black market,” The guide explained, “We haven’t had any kidnappings for a while, but it looks like they are back in business.”
Talk about a swift kick of reality to the solar plexus, my head was spinning and my stomach contracted into one big knot and I could barely get the words out, “What are we going to do?”
“Nothing we can do,” The guide replied calmly, “they are gone.”
“We can’t just leave them!” Bill protested.
“These are very dangerous men, they will kill us if we follow,” The guide warned.
I pulled Bill aside and we both knew that by the time we got down the mountain and reported the abductions, it would be hours from now. We also didn’t even know how the Kenyans handled situations like this or if they would actually do anything to rescue Rosalie and Gwen.
“I don’t know if I could live with myself if I don’t go after them,” Bill whispered.
“If we do go after them, we won’t have to worry about living,” I responded.
“We came here looking for adventure, this would be a hell of a story to tell when we get home,” Bill smiled.
“We’ll probably end up telling it to Saint Peter,” I responded.
“Always the optimist, I would have been really worried if you said the devil,” Bill smiled, “now I don’t feel so bad.”
We approached the guide and asked him to lead us to where the bandits took Rosalie and Gwen. You might have thought that we requested that he perform a swan dive off the mountain. His eyes opened wide in fear and he adamantly refused, “I have a family, I cannot let myself be killed!”
“How about if you just get us close,” I asked, “then point us in the right direction, can you at least do that?”
The guide hesitated then responded, “Not too close,”
Bill and I knew that this was the best deal that we were going to get from the guide so we took it without further debate. The only thing that we had for weapons were our hunting knives which meant we would have to get very close to take out our adversaries. Bill was a swimming instructor in the Coast Guard and even though every Marine is basically trained as an infantryman, all of my experiences after that was as a helicopter crewman. Not exactly the type of resumes, you would want from two men going into this type of hostile situation.
So back up the mountain we went, the guide moved like a scared mountain goat and I was sure that he was doing this because he wanted us to give up. It didn’t take long before my lungs were screaming for oxygen, but their pleas went unheeded in the thin air. We almost made it all the way back up to Point Lenana then took a narrow trail that led us around the peak to the other side of the mountain, then descended two thousand feet in a matter of minutes and stopped behind a rock formation.
Finally I had the opportunity to catch my breath and when I looked over at Bill, I could see that he was having the same problem. The guide waited until he thought we were capable of comprehending what he was going tell us, “This is where I leave you,” then pointed down the trail to where smoke was drifting upward, “That is their camp, good luck, you will need it,” then left without waiting for our reply.
Bill pulled out the binoculars from his pack and scanned the area then handed them to me and I took a slow and careful look at the area, “I count eight,” Bill said.
“Confirm that, but I don’t see Rosalie or Gwen.”
“We’re going have to get closer,” Bill suggested.
“We went through our packs to see what we absolutely needed, then for some unexplainable reason, we simultaneously pulled out our knives and stared at the blades for a few seconds before slipping them back into their scabbards. I took point and about every hundred yards, we stopped and looked through the binoculars again. I don’t know how long it took us to get within one hundred yards of the camp, but my arms and legs were bleeding from crawling over jagged rocks by the time we did.
We finally got a visual of Rosalie and Gwen sitting next to a tree and it didn’t look like they were tied up, maybe because the bandits figured that there was no place for them to run to. I could see that their captors were carrying automatic rifles and assumed that they were AK-47’s. Our plan was to get one of their weapons, we would still be outnumbered, but it would significantly change our odds of survival.
One of the bandits was sitting by himself so Bill and I decided that he would be our target so we crawled to within twenty feet of his location. Bill pulled out a towel from his pack and wrapped it around his left hand while I held the knife in my right hand. Our timing would have to be coordinated so when we were close enough, Bill tapped me on the arm then leaped up and punched the bandit in the back while putting his left hand over the mouth of the bandit to muffle his scream. I don’t know how many times I stabbed him in the chest, but I felt the blade go all the way in to the handle each time. We pulled him behind a rock and I grabbed his weapon and ammunition.
I whispered to Bill, “You get the girls and I’ll cover you.”
Bill knew that meant I would have to stay behind, “What are you going to do?”
“I’ll have to figure that out as I go along.”
Bill made his way to a position that was ten feet behind Rosalie and Gwen while I got ready. Another bandit came walking over, probably looking for his buddy and when he saw the bloody corpse, he started to scream so I jumped up and shot him through the head. Bill took this as his opportunity to grab the girls and start running up the trail while I fired wildly at the other six men, then followed. The surprise attack had bought us some valuable time and a little head start, but the bandits quickly regrouped and came after us. Bill and the girls were only fifty feet ahead of me and he was pushing and pulling Rosalie and Gwen up the steep the incline. I fired a few rounds then ran, stopped and repeated the process and I had no idea why I wasn’t hit because I could feel the bullets whizzing by, smell the gunpowder and even taste lead in my dry mouth. Adrenalin is a hell of a motivator, but eventually total physical and emotional exhaustion will overcome it. As I looked up the trail, I could see that Rosalie and Gwen had reached that point where they could barely take another step. Bill was doing his best to keep the girls moving, but he was nearing total collapse as well.
????I don’t why it crossed my mind, but I suddenly remembered something from my time on the rifle range at Camp Pendleton. B.R.A.S.S, which was the acronym for breathe, relax, aim, slack, squeeze, so I got down in the prone position and instead of firing wildly at our pursuers, I carefully took aim and squeezed off well-placed shots. This helped conserve my ammunition and kept the bandits pinned down. If necessity is the mother of invention then righteousness must be the father of determination and I was determined to buy Bill and the girls as much time as possible. Bill and the girls had almost reached the summit and my defensive plan was working except for one major glitch, I was down to my last magazine and once I was out of ammo, I was a goner.
I knew that sound because I had heard it a thousand times before. It was music to my ears, sweeter than a honey dipped symphony, it was the sound of helicopters! As I looked skyward, I saw two Kenyan Army helicopters coming over the ridgeline. The door gunners opened fired on the bandits and they quickly retreated and three of them were cut down by the machine gun fire. A few moments later, soldiers exited the choppers and took off in pursuit of the others. I handed the AK-47 to the officer in charge as he approached me then struggled up to the summit where Bill and the girls were sitting next to the Point Lenana monument.
“That wasn’t so bad,” Bill smiled.
“Compared to what?” I replied and collapsed to the ground, drained of all energy to remain upright.
Rosalie and Gwen were too traumatized to continue with the rest of the expedition so after an emotional farewell where we exchanged contact information, they returned to Nairobi and eventually back to Australia. We also found out that the guide had reported our predicament to a Park Ranger that he passed on his descent who then notified the nearest army unit.
The rest of the journey was anticlimactic, but it did serve a useful purpose. Every night Bill and I would sit by the campfire and write about the incident on Point Lenana and much to our surprise, we turned out to be a pretty good writing team. Bill had an uncanny knack for dialogue and I was pretty good with plot, character development and description.
By the time we reached Dakar, Senegal, we had re-written the story numerous times in several notebooks until we were both completely satisfied with the final product. I went back to Italy with Bill where we found an American exchange student who typed our handwritten version. We took her advice and put it in both screenplay and short story format and sent copies to Rosalie and Gwen and I returned to Oceanside, California.
It was three months later and I had pretty much forgotten about our story when Bill contacted me and said somebody was interested in it. As luck would have it, Rosalie’s uncle was an executive with an Australian entertainment company so Bill met me in Sydney ten days later and we signed a contact with Gold Coast Films. Not only did the studio purchase the account of the rescue, but we were both hired as writers and technical advisors. Bill is a lot more photogenic than I am and much more comfortable in front of the camera, so he auditioned to play himself and got the part. I learned everything that I could about shooting a film while we were on locations that simulated the terrain of Africa. When the movie was released, it turned out to be very successful at the box office, it wasn’t a mega blockbuster by any means, but it opened several doors for Bill and me. Over the years, we continued to collaborate on our own projects and did numerous re-writes on other screenplays. I expanded into directing and producing and Bill became a major movie and television star in Australia.
We do our very best to make sure that our busy schedules are clear on the anniversary of the rescue. It is not about where we go or even what we do, it is just about remembering what happened on an African mountaintop called Point Lenana.