Born in Sri Lanka and educated in England, Sir Christopher Ondaatje was a successful financier and publisher in Canada before reinventing himself as an adventurer and author.
"In the 1970s I read Fawn Brodie's book The Devil Drives, which is the biography of Sir Richard Burton, and it literally turned my life," he told Traveller magazine in 2010. "I realised that was the life I should have led and the one I wanted to lead – but I couldn't because I was hacking my way through the jungles of finance."
It took a face-to-face encounter with a female leopard in the Serengeti to force the change. Within days of the sighting he sold up in Canada, returned to England and began what he calls his real life, one where adventure and writing are the driving forces.
He has since written books on his hero Burton, on the celebrated author Ernest Hemingway and on his childhood home of Sri Lanka. And he may well be the only person alive to have retraced all the Victorian explorers' journeys – including an expedition to find the source of the Nile.
Another pivotal moment in Africa occurred while he was camping in Uganda in 1996, the night President Mobuto was overthrown by the rebel Laurent Kabila in Zaire. "It was an extraordinary night, and how I survived I've no idea ... We didn't know what was happening but there were hundreds and hundreds of people storming across the Zaire border and into Uganda, and there were gun shots and shouts."
The event sparked the start of the philanthropic life for which Ondaatje is just as well known as he is for his books. He is a life patron of the National Portrait Gallery and in 2000 paid out nearly £3 million to help build its new ‘Ondaatje Wing'. A year later he donated £1.5 million to the Royal Geographical Society for a lecture theatre and archive. He's also given a hefty £1.2 million to his old school, Blundell's, in Devon; over $1.25 million to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia; a further $1 million for a new South Asian gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum; and £100,000 to the Tate Britain to save a painting by Van Dyck.
He supports dozens of charities to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds each year, sponsors an annual award at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and funds the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize, awarded for writing that delivers ‘the best sense of space'.
Sir Christopher Ondaatje was awarded a CBE in June 2000 and a knighthood in June 2003.
Sir Christopher Ondaatje is the author of:
- Olympic victory: The story behind the Canadian Bob-Sled Club's incredible victory at the 1964 Winter Olympic Games (1967)
- The Prime Ministers of Canada, 1867-1967 (1968)
- Leopard in the Afternoon - An Africa Tenting Safari (1989)
- The Man-eater of Punanai - a Journey of Discovery to the Jungles of Old Ceylon (1992)
- Sindh Revisited: A Journey in the Footsteps of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1996)
- Journey to the Source of the Nile (1999)
- Hemingway in Africa: The Last Safari (2004)
- Woolf in Ceylon: An Imperial Journey in the Shadow of Leonard Woolf, 1904-1911 (2005)
- The Power of Paper: A History, a Financial Adventure and a Warning (2007)
- The Glenthorne Cat and other amazing leopard stories (2008)
- The Last Colonial: Curious Adventures & Stories from a Vanishing World (2011)