"John Bell, director of Desert Surveys in Egypt, asked these questions in 1927."
John Ball (called John Bell in the novel), born in England in 1872, was the director of the Egyptian Survey Department, and one of a number of desert explorers in the 1920s and 1930s. The quotes on this page of Ondaatje's novel are taken directly from Ball's article 'Problems Of The Libyan Desert', in The Geographical Journal
, Vol. 70.
This article gives an overview of Ball's activites, and the activities of other British desert explorers of the time.