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Gold Medal

2011 Winner - Sir Christopher Ondaatje

Sir Christopher Ondaatje (left) is awarded the 2011 Gold Medal by RCGS President John Geiger (right). (Photo: David Trattles)

Explorer and patron of geography receives Gold Medal
During the 1970s and 1980s, Sir Christopher Ondaatje led something of a double life. At work, he was well known as a crack investment analyst whose boutique firm, Loewen Ondaatje McCutcheon, earned millions for its clients. Away from the canyons of Bay Street, however, Ondaatje — who in November received The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Gold Medal, its most prestigious award — yearned for something more. He began reading voraciously about the exploits of the legendary British explorer Sir Richard Burton. By 1988, Ondaatje had decided to extract himself from the rat race, and in his words, he “chucked” his career.

“If you study their writings, their claims are different,” Ondaatje says. “If you do what I have done, which is follow the Burton-Speke journey, the significance is that what you read and what they have written and what they claim aren’t necessarily the whole truth.”

In 1996, accompanied by four Tanzanian guides, Ondaatje embarked on a roughly 100-day, 10,000-kilometre voyage by Land Rover, following Burton and Speke’s route up the Nile to their ultimate discovery of a vast body of fresh water that would be dubbed Lake Victoria. Burton, Ondaatje explains, stopped there, declaring it the source of the Nile. But the lake is not spring-fed, and Ondaatje, like Speke, pressed on, passing Murchison Falls (also known as Kabalega Falls) and making his way toward Lake Albert, the smaller of the two “reservoirs” feeding the Nile and first identified, as Ondaatje points out, by Herodotus more than 2,000 years earlier. “The Nile,” he says, “flows out of Albert, through the desert and on to the Mediterranean. Herodotus, in my opinion, was closer to the truth.”

The aim of that expedition, described in Ondaatje’s 1998 book Journey to the Source of the Nile, was to test the claims of the Victorian explorers against his own experiences in the same challenging terrain. “What Sir Christopher has done is revisit important exploration sites and expose them to a very bright light,” observes Society president John Geiger. He points out that Ondaatje has received the Gold Medal for both his own work and his patronage of the discipline of geography. “He’s an immensely important figure globally.”

Ondaatje’s latest book, The Last Colonial: Curious Adventures & Stories from a Vanishing World, is a collection of intriguing and offbeat outtakes from his journeys and other experiences, as well as short essays on figures like Ernest Hemingway and Burton himself. Published in 2011, the volume also revisits one of Ondaatje’s favourite literary motifs: the leopard.

At 78, Ondaatje not only continues to write but also remains peripatetic and intensely inquisitive. He explains that he still relishes an opportunity to explore the most ancient regions of the Middle East, many of which are inaccessible due to civil unrest. But Ondaatje is determined because, in his view, seeing is believing. “You can’t change history. Do the journey, open your eyes. The more you know, the more you will discover.”

— John Lorinc

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is pleased to announce that it has awarded the Gold Medal, its most prestigious award, to Sir Christopher Ondaatje in recognition of his long abiding support for geography. 

Through his travels and his writing, Ondaatje has contributed to a greater understanding of the world and of the relationship between and among peoples and lands. Adventurer, author and philanthropist, Sir Christopher Ondaatje has played an abiding role in furthering the geographic literacy of Canadians and the Society is proud and pleased to acknowledge his incomparable contribution.

The Gold Medal ceremony took place prior to a reception that was hosted by the Society at Massey College, Toronto, ON, on November 17, 2011, to celebrate the publication of Sir Christopher’s latest book, The Last Colonial.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is among Canada’s largest, bilingual, not-for-profit educational organizations. The Society is dedicated to imparting a broader knowledge and deeper appreciation of Canada — its people and places, its natural and cultural heritage and its environmental, social and economic challenges.

Sir Christopher Ondaatje

Sir Christopher Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, educated in England and built a successful career in finance and publishing in Canada. In the early nineties he sold all his business interests and returned to writing where he himself has broken new ground as a respected book reviewer and a writer of thought-provoking books dealing with significant biographical, historical and geographical events.

Since 1995 Ondaatje has devoted his time to travelling, writing, and administering The Ondaatje Foundation. He is a life patron of the National Portrait Gallery where the Ondaatje Wing is named after him. The Ondaatje Theatre at The Royal Geographical Society, and The Ondaatje Prize at both The Royal Society of Literature and The Royal Society of Portrait Painters are other major benefactions. He was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in June 2000, and awarded a Knighthood in the Queen’s honours list, June 2003.

The Last Colonial (Thames and London, 2011)

This is an autobiography in essays that conjures up a truly unique portrait of a world that is fast disappearing. Christopher Ondaatje is a true child of the British Empire. Born in Ceylon in 1933 and brought up on a tea plantation, he was sent as a teenager to boarding school in England. But soon after Ceylon was granted its independence in 1948, his family found themselves destitute, and the young Ondaatje left school and got a job. From these beginnings there followed a series of commercial triumphs until 1988 when he abruptly abandoned high finance at the peak of his career and reinvented himself as an explorer and an author, focusing mainly on the colonial period. It is the curious encounters behind these often precarious adventures that make up this book. The stories tell of Ondaatje’s childhood days, his early life in Canada, his fascination with inexplicable events and local superstitions, and sometimes perilous travels researching his acclaimed biographies. Illustrated throughout with original images by Ana Maria Pacheco, “The Last Colonial” lives up to the romance of its tantalizing title.

For more information, please contact:

Lori Marcantonio
Director of Advancement
Royal Canadian Geographical Society
[email protected]
613-745-4629 ext. 138

Slideshow: An evening with Sir Christopher Ondaatje


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