about books journalism links contact2 home2
The Devil Drives

?His dress and appearance were those suggesting a released convict...a rusty black coat with a crumpled black silk stock, his throat destitute of collar, a costume which his muscular frame and immense chest made singularly and incongruously hideous, above it a countenance the most sinister I have ever seen, dark, cruel, treacherous, with eyes like a wild beast?s....?Wilfrid Blunt, describing Sir Richard Burton

?In the early 1970s, I was steeped in the world of North American finance,? says the precise, clipped voice.

?Then I read a book, called The Devil Drives, by Fawn Brody. And it changed my life.?

The tall, elegant figure turns to look for a moment at the pictures and busts arraigned on the walls around us. ?That was a biography of the Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton,? he continues, a faint colonial twang to his words. ?I was hacking my way through the jungles of finance, and I suddenly realised this was the life I would have preferred to have led.?

Christopher Ondaatje, 67, former millionaire businessman and now modern-day explorer and writer, shifts within the plush, mahogany chair, to fix me with a clear, direct gaze. ?For over quarter of a century, I have been fascinated with Sir Richard Burton, the man who was profiled in that book. And I was obsessed by his search for the source of the Nile with John Hanning Speke over 150 years ago, which contributed to his being the best-known traveller of the 19th century. I was obsessed, obsessed,? he repeats forcefully, ?by the source of the Nile for over 20 years. It was on my brain 99.9 percent of the time.?

Ondaatje?s obsession with these men and the Nile river has indeed changed his life. It led him to give up a billion dollar business empire in Canada and embark on a perilous journey into the heart of equatorial Africa - to trace the footsteps of the Victorian explorers Burton, Speke, Baker, Livingstone and Stanley - and see if Speke had, as was claimed, indeed found the true source of that mighty river.

Ondaatje might at first seem like an unlikely explorer. Raised in a Dutch colonial family in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), his father was a plantation owner, who sent his young son to be schooled in England in 1947. ?I didn?t see my father again ever,? says Ondaatje, melancholic, ?and next saw my mother when I was 17. During those five years, my family became absolutely destitute and they couldn?t pay my school fees. So I left, and on my 17th birthday ended up working in the City of London.?

In 1956, instead of becoming the assistant manager of a bank in Colombo, he says that he, ?realised the colonial game was up and I made a key decision in my life to go West. So I started a financial and banking career in Canada.?

Over the following 30 years, Ondaatje built up a hugely successful network of companies in the publishing and corporate finance sector, which he sold in 1988, ?because I was fed up with the world of finance and greed, and the uncertainty of the economic clouds. I was worried too that I wouldn?t have enough time to do all I wanted with my life.? He promptly resigned all his directorships and came to live in England, to ?be close to the Royal Geographical Society (of which he is now a council member) and to spend my life on adventure and writing.?

In 1996, Ondaatje?s passion for the Victorian explorers, and the riddle of the Nile, led him on a three-and-a-half month expedition to the great rift valley lakes of eastern and central Africa. Since Ptolemy and Hierodytus?s days in the first and second centuries, men had been trying to find the Nile?s true source. However, it was Speke who in 1858 claimed, from the summit of a hill overlooking what is now Lake Victoria, near the present day town of Mwanza, that: ?I no longer feel any doubt that the lake at my feet gave birth to that interesting river (the Nile), the source of which has been the subject of so much speculation and the object of so many explorers.?

This declaration was to win him fame and adulation, and in turn launch the fabled ?race for Africa? among the colonial powers. ?History changed forever,? Ondaatje says simply. However, Speke had concealed the true nature of his discovery from Burton, the expedition leader, and hurried to England to present his findings to the RGS - despite the fact the men had had an agreement to wait for the other before unveiling any discoveries. After a second expedition undertaken with James Augustus Grant, Speke mysteriously died in a shooting accident in 1864, the day before he was to debate the Nile discoveries with a by-now hostile Burton. ?I?ve no doubt Burton would have ripped him to shreds,? says Ondaatje. Particularly as on his second journey, Speke had ruminated on the Kagera River feeding Lake Victoria (thus making it a tributary of the Nile) in his notes, yet failing to present these findings (which might have lessened his glory).

?Speke was prepared to sacrifice people for his own personal fame and glory,? says Ondaatje, ?and he was in fact prepared to bend the truth, as Burton suspected of him and wrote he had done in claiming that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile.?

Taking four Tanzanians with him, Ondaatje decided to trace Burton and Speke?s journey from Zanzibar, noting that: ?I had become quite an expert on Burton and the other Victorian explorers by then. I had read all their books, everything that was written about them, all the places that were mentioned. What I realised was that although all these explorers had come back with a certain amount of credible information, none of it really fitted all together. Nobody had really pieced this giant jigsaw puzzle together. So it was quite understandable that their individual findings stayed. So Speke?s claim that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile stuck and it is still in history books and geography books today.?

The only way he could prove his own theories was, as he puts it, ?to go there?. So Ondaatje?s team followed Burton and Speke?s trail, ?even into blind alleys, across rivers, through marshes, through fens, bogs, forests, getting lost, places right off the map...practically all the place names on Burton?s map are not the same any more. So we had a helluva job to go through this thing, but it was an extraordinary exploration achievement for Burton and Speke. So we went where they went, slept in the same places he slept, kept to the same dry lakes they kept to, and so on?.

With him, Ondaatje took all the explorers? journals, so that, ?as we set out with their journals, we experienced much that they had, whilst reading about their experiences at the same time.?

It became clear to Ondaatje that Lake Victoria was one of the two main reservoirs which fed the Nile, but that it in turn was fed by the huge Kagera River, which drains the Burundi Highlands. But these weren?t the Nile?s only sources. Following Samuel Baker?s journey towards Lake Albert, further to the west, Ondaatje camped close to the lake?s northernmost exit point at Murchison Falls.

?The mighty Nile goes past you at an incredible rate, with an incredible noise. You would not even be able to hear me talk,? he says, animated, a clear drive behind his words. ?I camped not 15 feet away from this mighty Nile, where it goes into this narrow construction, forming a gigantic explosion of water. Above the falls, the Nile is a gigantic torrent. An amazingly powerful river. At the bottom of it, the Nile is what you think it is; the long, languid, sleepy river.?

?The great mystery was where this, the longest river in the world, where all this water comes from. And the secret of the Nile is above Murchison Falls and with the Kagera river.?

The answer lay in the fact that Lake Victoria was substantially higher than Lake Albert. The water rushes out of Lake Victoria, dips into the top of Lake Albert, then out into the Nile. ?The Victorian explorers did not know that. I didn?t know that either - but I found out.?

He then made a very hazardous journey from the top of Lake Albert, down its east coast (to where Baker originally came across the lake) towards the southern end. Baker didn?t know he was only 20 kilometres from the southern tip of the lake. ?If he had, he?d have changed history,? says Ondaatje wistfully. Baker was told that the lake stretched an enormous way south and west - only it didn?t. On his own map, he shows it as a huge expanse. ?He didn?t go that extra step, which would have changed history,? rues Ondaatje.

Baker in fact claimed that Lake Albert and Lake Victoria were the sources of the Nile: ?And why not? He was damned near the truth. These are the two mighty reservoirs of the Nile. But they are in turn fed by two rivers; the Kagera river, and the Semliki River. And they do drain the Burundi Highlands in the first case, and the Ruwenzori mountains, the famed Mountains of the Moon, in the second case.?

Attempting to climb these mountains, Ondaatje and his team were stopped by the arrival of 5,000 rebels in the local town - this was the start of the war by Laurent Kabila against Mubotu?s regime in Zaire. ?I didn?t know what was happening, it was a terrifying moment, and we were unbelievably lucky to get out.?

Changing plans, Ondaatje travelled to the southern tip of Lake Albert - where Baker had failed to go - and tracked the Semliki river as it entered the vast expanse of water. Wading through swamps, marshes and bogs, Ondaatje recalls: ?For me, it was the high point of my journey. I had been were no other explorer had been. Not Burton, not Speke, not Baker, not Livingstone, not Stanley. I knew I had crossed the line. I had in fact earned my own prize. And I am probably the only person ever to have done all their journeys. ?

He even went one step further, and on his return studied plate tectonics, to understand how these rivers and reservoirs had been formed. Shifting plates had pushed together, forcing up the mountain ranges and reversing the flow of rivers which until that moment had travelled east to west. The resulting waterflows drained into the rift valleys created by the pressures on the earth -?until they overflowed, and created the Nile just 12,500 years ago. ?Amazing,? says Ondaatje with an almost innocent wonder, as our discussion draws to a close.

?It means that Ptolemy in the second century was closer to the truth than the Victorian explorers were (Ptolemy had pictured the Mountains of the Moon in his maps). But you try telling that to a geography teacher or history teacher. It?s a very difficult thing to fool around with heroes. Speke discovered the source of the Nile and it?s Lake Victoria, and that?s the way it is.?

Like so many of his own heroes, the drive and obsession are clear in Ondaatje?s voice, the past very much alive in his work. He says that he is now living the life he always wanted to lead. ?I?ve got adventure, travel, I?ve got writing, cricket, and I?ve got art.?

There is just one more ambition: ?I want to do one more book, call it the Last Safari, trying to piece all the things I?ve done, from my early life to the last 12 years, to try and fit together this urge to achieve the unobtainable and what you have to do to get there, because preparation is everything. You have to cross the line to achieve it. The black leopard for me is the symbol, talisman, the thing that I could never get, but now late in my life I?ve seen it and would like to write about it as a symbol of things that I would like to try and do, the countries that have made me, spawned me, also the countries that have tended to destroy themselves.?

?But I?m lucky, I?m really lucky. I?ve earned my day in the sun. I?m where I want to be.?

This story originally appeared in Geographical Magazine © 2000

For more information about Christopher Ondaatje, read 'The Other Ondaatje'.

You can buy this article, and seek new commissions, either by contacting me direct or my syndication agency, www.featurewell.com


To keep in touch with new projects, columns and other regular developments, join my newsletter.