Hiking to her Great-Uncle's plane crash on Mount Kenya
Leah Wersebe interviews Monet Izabeth about her expeditions to find her great-uncle's plane crash, who went missing in WWII.
Monet Izabeth loves to tell stories through travel. Before creating the travel series, Who Knows Where, Monet spent several years in the field, documenting stories of women and girls around the globe. She has photographed Syrian refugees in Jordan; interviewed traditional healers in Kenya; worked with LGBTQ activists in South Africa; and documented the lives of widows in Nepal. Her work has been featured on Matador Network, printed by Scholastic, shared by Thrillist and once even shown at a Jay-Z concert.
I first heard about Monet Izabet thanks to a trend on TikTok, that asked people to share their one in a million story. She shared the story of her two expeditions up Mount Kenya to find her great-uncle’s plane that crashed in WWII. I interviewed her about how and why she shared the story, the crash site discovery, and her expeditions up the mountain.
Leah: What made you start sharing this crazy story in 2020?
Monet: I had been sitting on this story since 2016. I had tons of footage, including interviews, and it just felt insurmountable to finish it. There was also a sense of pressure because my dad, Dr. Michael Eliastam, cares a lot about this story and we’re very close. My father and his family are South African, so his uncle, Air Sergeant Simon Eliastam, was stationed in Kenya for training during WWII when he went missing.
I was nervous to release the documentary I’m creating about the expeditions in case it wasn’t given a lot of attention. I was afraid that if I put it on YouTube, it might get a few views and then would quickly disappear. I wanted it to have a bigger presence than that. When the TikTok duet trend was going around, I had about 100,000 followers and the time finally felt right. I sat down and told the story about my great-uncle’s plane that crashed into Mount Kenya in WWII and the trips I took to find the plane crash site. It garnered over 2 million views in a day.
How did you hear about the crash site?
In the summer of 2016 I received a Facebook message from a stranger, informing me that my great-uncle’s plane had been found on the side of Mount Kenya. She was trying to get in touch with my father to ask him if the British Army had permission from next of kin, if there were any alive, to bring remains off the mountain. My father and I answered the message and we quickly learned the plane had been found in 2002 by a jungle logger.
The jungle logger informed the British Army who were stationed in the area and even led them back to the site. They quickly realized it was an old plane and four expeditions up the mountain to look at the crash site took place that year. On the fourth expedition, John Romain, who is considered one of the leading experts on Bristol Blenheims (this type of plane) trekked with the group. He determined the aircraft number and helped to identify the people who were on the plane. They were South Africans flying on a navigational training mission for the Royal Air Force during WWII, when they reportedly went missing. They found human remains in 2002, but buried them because they didn’t want to remove them without permission from next of kin.
What happened between 2002 and 2016?
Another South African soldier who died in the plane crash, Hendrik Lemmer, had family who keenly felt his loss for many years. They even have an empty grave and a headstone with his name on it. Rusty Hustler, Hendrik Lemmer’s kin, was working in rhino conservation in Kenya when he heard rumours about a plane crash being found on Mount Kenya. He began asking people about it whenever possible. Eventually he asked somebody from Kenya Wildlife Service whose brother was on one of the expeditions in 2002. Mr. Hustler connected with The Ebo Trust, an organization in South Africa that repatriates’ soldiers who have died abroad, and they began contacting the next of kin, including my father.
How did you end up going on these expeditions and what happened?
By sheer coincidence, I already had a trip to Kenya planned for my job at the exact same time. My father strongly encouraged me to see if I could travel with the British Army up the mountain and document the trip, so I sent a proposal to the British Army and they accepted it.
In October 2016 I travelled to Nanyuki, a town near the base of Mount Kenya, where the British Army Training Unit Kenya (BATUK) were located. We had a debriefing session, including an itinerary review and safety protocols, then started the journey early the next day.
We were traveling up the south side of Mount Kenya, which is very unlike the well-worn north side with a well-established path that people hike often. To get to the crash site, we drove approximately three hours, hiked seven-eight hours on elephant trails and made camp overnight. It was a long journey. The bamboo forest was very thick and there were a lot of steep-sided rivers. We would have to throw our packs down, climb down and then climb back up the other side.
We made the trip with very limited information about how to locate the crash site. Unfortunately, a box with all of the information about the 2002 trips was lost, so the rangers in 2016 were going off of second-hand verbal accounts and a pin in a map in the commanding officer’s office, that marked the approximate location of the crash site.
It became very obvious, very quickly, that people did not think we were going to find the plane. The week before my group went up the mountain, three rangers had travelled up the mountain and were unable to find it. We also encountered a very big issue within the first day – we couldn’t find water. It was the wet season, and everybody expected we would find water on the first day. Since we expected to find water and the crash site on the first day and found neither, the Army informed the group that we would have to get up very early the next day to begin looking for the crash site. If we didn’t find it by 11:00 a.m., we would have to turn back.
Around 10:15 a.m., we arrived in a clearing where the rangers quickly fanned out, believing this was the approximate location of the site from the map pin. By 11:00 a.m., they hadn’t found anything, so the decision was made to turn back. It was an incredibly sombre atmosphere. Everyone was incredibly apologetic to me since I was the only next of kin on the hike.
At that point, the Captain had to make a decision about how we were going to hike down the mountain. We could go right, re-trace our steps back up the mountain and meet up with a path that would take us back down the mountain. Or we could go left, create a new path, possibly taking longer, and meet the path lower down the mountain - possibly saving us time. He decided to go left.
I was walking at the back of the line and after a brief moment, the line stopped moving and the rangers at the front of the line threw their packs off and began running around. It looked like they were ripping moss off of rocks, but I shortly realized it was the plane! We literally walked into the plane crash site. I started crying. It was incredibly emotional. I had felt so removed from the enormity of it all until that moment.
You still didn’t have water though, right?
The Army decided to drop water off via helicopter so we could stay on the mountain longer. We dug at the crash site for six hours to try and find the remains. We had been told the approximate spot where the remains should be, but we were unable to locate them. After six hours, it was beginning to get dark, so we held a memorial, erected a cross (my family is Jewish, but the others were Christian as far as I know) and began the hike down. Some of the soldiers even carried a machine gun in a bamboo sling from the site.
It was a tough hike down the mountain. Many of us were very hungry as we had run out of food after breakfast. The soldiers continued to take the way that required us to carve our own path and it took much longer than we all thought it would. For context, it took seven hours to get up the mountain and it should have taken us less than seven to get down… It was twelve hours. I don’t scare easily, but this was a bit harrowing. The soldiers’ time estimates kept changing and we ended up hiking through the night with headlamps on, tripping over bramble branches. We were hungry and exhausted. I was carrying a 60 lb. pack.
What happened when you went back the next time?
I hiked up the mountain a second time in 2019. But in March 2017, my father and I went to Kenya for a small ceremony in honour of the soldiers who died in the plane crash. Headstones were erected for them in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Nanyuki and next of kin attended. We were even able to take a plane ride and fly the same flight path my great-uncle would have flown the day they crashed. It was so easy to see what probably happened. It was a clear and beautiful day until we got close to the mountain. Then weather changed and the clouds came in and I couldn’t see anything.
In October 2019, I went back to try and find the remains and gather more footage with my friend and fellow filmmaker, Naima Maleika. We had some issues on this expedition as well. We didn’t bring enough water again. Some of the rangers had to back-hike, dig a hole in the mud and let the water seep through the mudhole, so that the next day there would be fresh water. We had GPS coordinates but they were actually a bit far away from the actual plane crash, so again we didn’t find the site on the first day again.
We decided we would do the same thing as last time, wake up early and try to find the site before the turn-around time. We did end up finding the site in the morning, approximately 15 minutes before the turn-around time, and spent an hour digging to try and find the remains. We couldn’t find them again and we had to start hiking down the mountain. We made it down the mountain much quicker than the first time.
You’re going back one more time?
I am going back for a third expedition in September. We have accurate GPS coordinates for the crash site and are planning to spend two nights at the site from the get-go. That way we won’t have water and food shortage problems again. It’s been the same rangers and porters every time and they’re coming with us again, which is helpful. This will probably be the last time we try and find the remains, so I hope we’re successful.
What are you going to do with all this footage from the expeditions?
I am working on a three-part documentary. One episode for each trip up the mountain. The most important goal is to find the remains for our families. Hendrik Lemmer’s family will be able to get closure.
The first episode of Monet’s docu-series about the expeditions will appear on her Youtube channel on 21st May so keep an eye out for it then!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Leah Wersebe is a TV aficionado and a recovering 9-5 office worker. She lives in New York and has travelled to over 25 countries in search of the perfect latte. Leah has degrees in international politics, film, and wildlife conservation. She is an entertainment and travel writer and storyteller.