If you grew up dreaming of living on an African wildlife reserve (I know that was certainly one of my own fantasies), you might be downright jealous as you read through Boyd Varty’s memoir, "Cathedral of the Wild: An African Journey Home." Varty’s earliest memories are of spending time around the campfire under a blanket of stars, and trekking around his family’s South African property looking for, and finding, elephants, cheetahs and antelopes — and learning to avoid hippos. Varty’s childhood, for most of today’s indoor-oriented kids, borders on fairytale-dom.
But of course, while growing up on Londolozi Private Game Reserve sounds magical, it could also be a challenge for a kid to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Walking three or four hours was a lot for a 6-year-old, but there was no whining or complaining about being tired or asking for food. I’d done it once and received the most withering look from my father. I learned that I didn’t have to have my needs gratified just because they arose,” writes Varty, in a passage that describes pretty much the opposite of most current parenting practices.
But Varty’s book isn’t just about the his own story; he gives a fascinating account of the history of Londolozi Private Game Reserve — he is the fourth generation of his family on the land: the reserve was founded by his father, but the land was bought by Varty's great-grandfather, and originally used as a hunting camp, though animals haven't been hunted there for many years.
In fact, Varty is the first generation not to hunt big game on his land (he did hunt antelopes growing up with his dad). He writes, “My great-grandfather, grandfather, father and uncle as some point all tested themselves in the pursuit of a lion. I am the first in the line not to hunt one, something of which I’m personally proud. I don’t think I would be able to bear the horror of killing something so magnificent.”
The transition from hunting land to game reserve wasn't an obvious one — Varty's father inherited the land when he was only 15 and just wanted a way to be able to keep it. A combination of love of the land, finding the right scientist to help them and an open mindset resulted in one of the first reserves in South Africa to protect animals instead of hunt them — but not until after they had restored the land, which had been overgrazed by cattle for some time. It wasn't until restoration, and time, and a lot of scraping by that the wild animals returned to the land that is Londolozi now. (That's where Varty Sr. really lucked out — finding the holistic and forward-thinking scientist who was able to understand how to bring the land back to life.)
“Dad and Uncle John’s plan was to create an ‘economy of wildlife’ — to make economically feasible for people to make their livings not by destroying the land by raising cattle and sheep on it, but by conserving the land, encouraging wildlife to spread across it, and helping everyone living there to enjoy its benefits. A game reserve would return the land to its natural state,” Varty writes.
It's fascinating to hear about all the particulars of growing up, living, and working at a place that is, for many people, a life goal to get to. From the way they negotiate living amongst giant (and hungry) wild animals that don't have much respect for gardening goals, to solving personnel problems, to how much is learned from the local Shangaan people that the Varty family works with, it's all interesting and well-written in a breezy, fun way.
But beyond the wonderful tales, there is a spiritual aspect to everything that Varty writes about, and an incredible love and respect for the land that he is now responsible for. Throughout the book, there are nuggets of wisdom that seem to come from someone much older than Varty. These lines are just an example: "They say that spiritual experience creates the illusion that we're connected to everything. I've always felt that a spiritual experience is dropping the illusion that we're not. Growing up in Londolozi nourished that sense in me from my earliest years," writes Varty.
There's plenty more to Varty's story, including some difficult personal challenges which are healed through his connection to nature and to Londolozi, but I won't divulge the details here (no spoilers!); the heart of the book is about all the love Varty has for Londolozi and the animals and people who coexist there.
If you're interested in more, the TED video below gives a sneak peek of some of the territory the book covers, plus a bonus story of what Vary learned from Nelson Mandela, who spent time at Londolozi right after he was released from prison and before he returned to public life.
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