In a series of experiences between 1856 and 1877, several British-born explorers tried to unravel the mystery of the source of the Nile . This river, the longest in the world, flowed through the desert, bringing life in its floodwater every year. Where did all this water come from? The Sudd (Arabic for obstacle) a huge, papyrus-clogged swamp, thwarted earlier attempts to follow the river upstream. Richard Francis Burton, who led the 1856 expedition, pursued Ptolemy’s image of two great lakes and a mountain range (the Mountains of the Moon) from which the Nile flowed, avoiding the Sudd and heading inland from the East African coast.
Christopher Ondaatje, long fascinated with Burton and wishing to relive his 1856 African exploration, decided first to learn about Burton ’s earlier exploits in India . His book Sindh Revisited was the result. He prepared for the African journey by studying the expeditions of several Victorian travellers, for each had returned with part of the answer to the Nile ’s riddle.
In 1996, on his third trip to East Africa , with a support team of four Tanzanians, Ondaatje followed the Victorian explorers’ routes, to see for himself what they had seen. Although acutely aware that their claims of “discovering” a mountain or river were ridiculous, he quickly realized that he was indeed on a journey of discovery, and that the search for truth is often about finding new and better questions, not just answers.
Ondaatje offers new insights into the amazing lives and characters of the explorers – Richard Francis Burton, John Hanning Speke, James Augustus Grant, Samuel and Florence Baker, David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley – and evaluates their observations and conclusions in the light of modern scientific knowledge.
His trek across the Serengeti Plains to Olduvai Gorge provides the most striking revelation of all: the forces that shaped the Nile may also have triggered the evolution of the human race.
Ondaatje’s personal account and his dramatic photographs of this truly extraordinary expedition bring us closer to solving the riddle of the world’s most mysterious river.