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Journey to the Source of the Nile

by Christopher Ondaatje

Christopher Ondaatje, former stockbroker and investment banker, continues to be consumed by Africa. His earlier book, Leopard in the Afternoon, grew out of a trip there in the late 1980s in search of the leopard. A personal odyssey of self-discovery that had mythic overtones, the trip caused Ondaatje to change his life, beat a retreat from Bay Street, and pursue more spiritual endeavours. He’d already made his fortune. He wanted to devote his life to publishing and the arts.

Now, almost 10 years later, Ondaatje has produced another coffee table book on deepest Africa, but this one is meatier than his first. Journey to the Source of the Nile retraces the routes of Victorian explorers Burton, Speke, Grant, Baker, Livingstone, and Stanley as they searched to discover the true source of the Nile. It wasn’t enough for Ondaatje to read of their travels; he had to see the terrain for himself, like Civil War re-enactors, without modern conveniences, just the “sights, scents, sounds – even tastes – of the explorers’ life on the trail.”

Journey to the Source of the Nile is a workmanlike account of Ondaatje’s journey, with maps, insights into the explorers, and copious historical detail. The most striking facets of the book are Ondaatje’s conclusions about the true source of the Nile and his spectacular photographs of people and landscapes. Despite the journey’s sense of adventure and its excursions into unknown, dangerous territory, at times the account becomes mired in detail, and one longs for more exuberance, a looser prose style. And, as in all good travel writing, we look for glimpses of the writer’s own inner landscape; glimpses that are just as important and riveting as the external journey itself. But those glimpses come from Ondaatje’s soul mate, Joshua, who sums up, “This has been the longest journey of my life. I have been to places where I would never have gone. I have seen people I would never have seen. And I have done things I would never have done. The Nile was our goal, and the source was our challenge. But we found much more. We found ourselves.”