Philanthropist, author, businessman, adventurer and Olympic medal winner Sir Christopher Ondaatje on his incredible life
Is The Last Colonial the autobiography you have when you’re not having an autobiography?
There are 27 stories in the book. They are not necessarily autobiographical, but taken all together reveal part of my life that you will never get anywhere else. Some of them are from when I was a young boy. We were wealthy and then we were destitute. Others are about how you survive and what you do to survive. Or going to a new country with no money. It's about taking the risks and having the adventures.
I got the feeling that re-establishing your family’s position was very important to you.
I tried hard to get my family back on its feet. Being the eldest child, you have a kind of responsibility. I had a responsibility to my parents, to my sisters and my brother. You don’t talk about it, you just do what you can. But really, it’s a case of whether you have ambition and when that ambition is instilled in you. I was always hungry – hungry! – to put my family back on the map. As I’ve said, I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and rich is better.
You were born in Sri Lanka. You went to school in the UK. You emigrated to Canada. Did this upbringing instill in you a sense of adventure?
I led a wild, carefree life in Sri Lanka. And then I was sent to a public school in England. I was this thin, sallow person with a shock of thick black hair and I had to toughen up. In many ways I built a cocoon around myself, to protect myself. The same thing happened in London. And the same thing happened in Canada.
By the time I was 22, when I went to Canada, I had this worldly education that most people didn’t have. Where are you going to get that from unless you experience it? It’s not that I was brought up that way, it’s just who I became.
In 1988 you went on safari in Tanzania. That seems to have had a huge impact on you and on your life.
Basically I was fed up with the financial business. I remember doing a financing in Europe and travelling around for eight days and going back to Canada and looking at myself, at my face, in the mirror the next morning and there was this grey, almost green, tired exhausted face and I remember saying to myself, ‘You’re not that damned smart you know.’ So I just got off the train. I went with my wife on safari in Tanzania.
It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. For three and a half weeks we chased this leopard. It was nothing to do with finance. It was about wildlife and it was about being free in the middle of nowhere and not having any of the responsibility. I wasn’t being bugged by shareholders, or company directors. I said to my wife, “I’m chucking it all in!”
By December of 1988, I’d sold my companies and came to England and worked with the Royal Geographical Society. I got the chance to do the things I wanted to do. To emulate guys like Sir Richard Burton and his journeys to the source of the Nile and to the Sind, Hemingway in Africa. I had these five books I really wanted to write so I settled down and said, “This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”
The Royal Geographical Society sponsored my journey to the source of the Nile and Lord Selborne wrote the introduction to my book about the trip. It was the start of another life. I reinvented myself. And do you know what? If I’d stuck to that old financial life I’d be dead now.
Leopards seem to be a bit of a motif throughout this part of your life. What is it about leopards that draws you to them?
Leopards are secretive. They’re predators. They live very easily with human beings but you don’t understand them. You don’t know what they are going to do. They are also very difficult to see.
When I do something I have to have some sort of goal. On that first trip to Tanzania my goal was to search for this elusive leopard. I learned how to do it and now I can take you on safari, and so long as there are some leopards, I can show you them. I know what to look for, the sausage trees with their tale hanging down, the different silhouettes of branches against the sky.
Now when I go to Africa I’m always looking for a leopard. You see all these other wonderful things, lion kills and all the birds in the world. If you look for leopards, if you are hunting for a leopard, you will pretty much see everything else as well.
It has been said that you’ve retraced more Victorian adventurers than any other living person.
I’m certainly the only person who has done all the Victorian Explorer’s journeys to the source of the Nile! I didn’t do Stanley’s journey down the Congo, which I’d love to do, but towards the Nile, and all that stuff around the Kagera and the Semliki rivers, I have done them all. And very thoroughly too! That's how I was able to write the book, Journey to the source of the Nile.
Why is there so much controversy about the source of the Nile?
When I first did the journey to the source of the Nile, I went to the Royal Geographical Society to see if they had any maps of Burton’s journey and they really didn’t have very much. So most of the research I had to do myself. I read everything that Burton had written, that Stanley had written, the stuff that had been written about them as well. If you read all those books they differ. They differ quite a lot. They differ in their opinions, in what they claim in their discoveries.
So when I actually did the journey to the source of the Nile, I followed their maps. I followed Burton’s to start with, which I shouldn’t have done, because it’s a mess. I actually traced Burton’s footsteps and the way he had drawn it on his map and it was a disaster. He’s the worst cartographer in the world. He got lost all of the time.
John Hanning Speke says he discovered that Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile, but it isn’t. If you work your way around Lake Victoria, you'll find the mighty Kagera River. There's no spring in Lake Victoria. It’s fed by the Kagera River, which drains the Burundi highlands.
Lake Victoria is not the source of the Nile. It is one of the two great reservoirs, the other being Lake Albert. And Lake Albert is fed by the Semliki River. The Semliki River drains the Ruwenzori mountains.
Thanks to modern geography I could follow these sources with much more knowledge and accuracy than these guys did. They’re wonderful, wonderful achievements but were trying to claim a prize. The fame, the glory, the place in history. But none of them were absolutely accurate.
What would you say your proudest achievement was from a travel perspective?
Discovering the source of the Nile is what I am proudest of. But it’s an achievement that won’t ever be really accepted. Britain is very proud that an Englishman, John Hanning Speke, discovered that Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile. But he's wrong. It isn’t. The Kalgeri River, if anything, is the true source of the Nile. It’s much further south. Herodotus was far more correct than the Victorian explorers. Herodotus said, "This mighty river fed by two mighty lakes.”
I tried to sell the television rights in England but I couldn’t. Germany bought it and did a one-hour special because they never believed England did discover the source of the Nile. France did a three-part, three-hour series on it because they didn’t really believe that this was the answer to the great geographical prize either.
In 1996 you were in the Semliki forest when Kabila overthrew Mobutu in the former Zaire. You’ve said that if you’d been found it could have been a very dangerous situation.
Oh, I’d be dead. We'd camped in this little clearing in the Semliki forest, 50 yards from the road. I was in this tiny plastic tent, trying to sleep and there was this tremendous commotion on the road. Later I found out, that was the day Laurent Kabila started his movement to overthrow Mobuto in Zaire. I was in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.
So I prayed. And I remember making a deal with God that if I got out alive I'd try and do something worthwhile in the world. I survived and the day I came back I phoned Charles Saumarez Smith, the director of the National Portrait Gallery and helped fund a new wing for the gallery that almost doubled its size overnight.
I won’t say that was the turning point of my life, but it changed me from this rather selfish person to the person I am today where I try to do things for other people, not just myself.
If one of your grandchildren wanted to follow in your footsteps, would you encourage them?
Definitely! I would encourage them to go to Africa because I think it’s easier. I think the Middle East is a bit more dangerous. I would just hope that they’d ask me to take them or me with them!
The world has changed though. And it's changing fast. You just can't do some of the journeys in this book, The Last Colonial. You can’t do Sind now. I had a chief and driver and two men with machine guns that the Sind government gave me because they wanted me to write my book, Sind Revisited. I went with my wife to Syria, just over a year ago. You can’t do that now. The streets of Damascus were crowded. Now, they’re empty. You could probably do the journeys to the source of the Nile.
The one thing I would say is that they have a goal. Don’t do it for nothing. Do it because you’re going to come back with something. The journey to the source of the Nile was a fantastic thing for me because I wrote a book about it and it sold 70,000 copies. I really accomplished something.
But to answer your question, certainly, I would encourage anyone in my family, don’t just sit there, do it. It will make you.
Sir Christopher Ondaatje will be in conversation with Romesh Gunesekera at the DSC South Asian Literature Festival on 21 October at 6.30pm at The British Library. His new autobiographical collection, The Last Colonial, is available in hardback from Thames and Hudson.
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