Cathedral of the Wild: An African Journey Home

Cathedral of the Wild: An African Journey Home

by Boyd Varty


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“This is a gorgeous, lyrical, hilarious, important book. . . . Read this and you may find yourself instinctively beginning to heal old wounds: in yourself, in others, and just maybe in the cathedral of the wild that is our true home.”—Martha Beck, author of Finding Your Own North Star

Boyd Varty had an unconventional upbringing. He grew up on Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa, a place where man and nature strive for balance, where perils exist alongside wonders. Founded more than eighty years ago as a hunting ground, Londolozi was transformed into a nature reserve beginning in 1973 by Varty’s father and uncle, visionaries of the restoration movement. But it wasn’t just a sanctuary for the animals; it was also a place for ravaged land to flourish again and for the human spirit to be restored. When Nelson Mandela was released after twenty-seven years of imprisonment, he came to the reserve to recover.
Cathedral of the Wild is Varty’s memoir of his life in this exquisite and vast refuge. At Londolozi, Varty gained the confidence that emerges from living in Africa. “We came out strong and largely unafraid of life,” he writes, “with the full knowledge of its dangers.” It was there that young Boyd and his equally adventurous sister learned to track animals, raised leopard and lion cubs, followed their larger-than-life uncle on his many adventures filming wildlife, and became one with the land. Varty survived a harrowing black mamba encounter, a debilitating bout with malaria, even a vicious crocodile attack, but his biggest challenge was a personal crisis of purpose. An intense spiritual quest takes him across the globe and back again—to reconnect with nature and “rediscover the track.”
Cathedral of the Wild is a story of transformation that inspires a great appreciation for the beauty and order of the natural world. With conviction, hope, and humor, Varty makes a passionate claim for the power of the wild to restore the human spirit.
Praise for Cathedral of the Wild
“Extremely touching . . . a book about growth and hope.”The New York Times
“It made me cry with its hard-won truths about human and animal nature. . . . Both funny and deeply moving, this book belongs on the shelf of everyone who seeks healing in wilderness.”BookPage

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400069859
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/11/2014
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,214,944
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Boyd Varty was raised on Londolozi Game Reserve in South Africa. He currently lives and works at the reserve, and his most recent projects include advocating for the restoration of an ancient elephant corridor, helping the Good Work Foundation create more learning centers in South Africa, and adventuring across the African continent on his motorbike.

Read an Excerpt


not for ants

It’s five-fifteen in the morning, and my father is waiting outside my door. As I open it, I’m struck by his size. In my late twenties, I’m now bigger than Dad, but I don’t feel it. In my mind, I still come up only to his shoulder. He has the weathered quality of a lifelong outdoorsman, his skin like tanned leather—a bit worn, but hardened by the elements.

“Bushveld morning. Best thing in the world,” he says with a smile. Dad passes me a shotgun and a handful of shells, and we casually begin our morning stroll upriver, toward the safari lodge. At this time of year, it’s best to be at it early, as by midmorning the heat will make further work impossible.

The dawn is just beginning to break into the pale blue that is precursor to the gold of the rising sun. Already the urgent cackle of the partridge-like francolin—what the bushveld locals dub “government chicken,” as they’re a ready source of dinner—can be heard from the riverbed. The air is fresh and cool, and the grass has been dampened by heavy dew that wants to crawl up my pants. The sun peeks over the horizon, catching the dew as it sparkles in the light.

The game path runs along the bank of the river and has been well worn by heavy animal traffic. Lions, leopards, elephants, and hippos use it for easy access to the river. A large, steaming, splattery pile of Cape buffalo dung is dead center.

“Whoops, look sharp here,” my father says. Also known as “Black Death,” Cape buffaloes are one of the Big Five—the most prized and deadly prey of big game hunters—all of whom reside at Londolozi Game Reserve. (The other four are lions, leopards, rhinos, and elephants.) It’s been said that buffaloes look at you like they owe you money. Armed with prodigious swooping horns, they’ve been known not just to attack but to track and ambush hunters and gore them to pieces. They can even run lions up trees. I notice a buffalo track pointing toward us; the buff has already moved past. If we were going to bump into him, it would have happened already.

“You’re losing your touch a bit,” I tell my father. “Too much time in the city, not enough time in the bush.”

“Tell me about it.” He’s smiling.

Dad looks up ahead. “The guests always say, ‘I’m going back to the real world’ when they leave. But as far as I’m concerned, this is the real world, and back where they’re going is the fake one.”

Far off, a lion starts to roar. We can hear the distant baritone boom as he winds up, the sound carrying miles in the cold winter air. The glorious rumble, however, is quickly drowned out by the cough and growl of a nearby Land Rover as someone revs the engine. Really, Land Rovers are useless first thing in the morning, until they warm up.

For a rare moment, the lodge is calm and relatively quiet. The guides, who will man the Land Rovers, are on the main deck drinking coffee, preparing to take guests out on safari. Early mornings are the best time to find animals, as they like to move in the cool of the day. Tracks from the night before are still relatively fresh, providing critical clues to their whereabouts. Soon the guests will join the rangers on the deck. This takes some time, as each guest must be escorted from their room by an armed guard, lest they bump into a lion or leopard strolling down the path. It’s quite common for animals to come right into the confines of the camp. We once found a muddy set of leopard tracks on the bar counter. The guests will arrive on the deck dressed like they’re ready for an alpine experience and be stripping down within an hour, as the sun rises. That’s August in the bush for you.

The trackers are chatting quietly in the car park, listening for that lion’s roar, a bushbuck alarm, or the sharp snap of elephants breaking branches. These signs will help them situate the day’s main viewing attractions.

I’m feeling a little sleepy, as I’ve been up most of the night repairing a two-strand electric fence that runs around the lodge to keep elephants out. Yesterday morning a young bull elephant discovered that he could use his tusks to snap the wire and gain access to the lush gardens inside, the ones the generations of women in my family have so painstakingly planted. This is a new occurrence, and as far as we can tell, only the one elephant, whom we have dubbed “Night Shift,” has worked out how to do it. Once inside, he was a gleeful vegetarian at a giant salad bar, pulling out the flowers, snacking on trees, helping himself to long drinks from the pool, and passing wind so loudly outside some guests’ room that they phoned the night receptionist and claimed a lion was growling outside their window. He also managed to terrorize some kitchen workers by charging at them as they returned from serving dinner at Tree Camp in the beat-up old Land Rover that only turns left.

The gardens are an oasis in the dry season right now, as the rains won’t arrive for another few months. We recycle gray water, filter it, and tip it onto the garden. The results are amazing. Clivias bloom a deep orange in the flower beds, and the scent of the plumbago’s tender blue clusters hangs thick in the air. The aloes are putting out their long segmented flowers of red and gold, the nectar attracting droves of sunbirds, which flaunt their red, turquoise, and bright yellow plumage. My grandmother planted the aloes, and each one stands as a little shrine to her. The gardenia trees are dropping their fruit, large thick-skinned apples that the nyalas will pick up and chew on like giant gobstoppers, their jaws working furiously beneath the bold slashes of white splashed like war paint across their faces. The flush of all this green amid the drought has also caused the ebony trees to fruit early, attracting hordes of baboons into the camp to scamper up the trunks and pick the tempting brown berries. This wouldn’t be a problem if these furry paparazzi weren’t always spying on us like we’re celebrities, not to mention breaking into the guests’ rooms, destroying our coffee and tea stations, rifling through suitcases, ripping open minibars, and occasionally stealing off with objects they’ve mistaken for food, like the one caught gorging on a tube of toothpaste. I once spotted a baboon heading off with a brassiere and a handful of cookies, perhaps to gratify some unknown fetish. Yesterday one ran off with a woman’s passport; maybe he was planning on some travel.

We’ve been in a spirited arms race with the baboons for years. We put latches on the guest room doors; in a matter of weeks they figure out how to pick them. We upgrade the latches; in a short while they’ve outwitted the new devices. The fact that the baboons know how to open doors is unnerving. There you are, innocently sitting on your couch, when you see the latch of the door slowly, slowly lower, as in a horror movie—and then in strolls a baboon!

I know which tree the baboons will be roosting in. Creeping up on it for the last three hundred yards, I pop a few rounds over the baboons’ heads as they scream and fling themselves out of the tree. They bark indignantly as they run off. My father laughs. “So this is what the Great White Hunter routine is all about!” I may have won this battle, but the baboons have the edge on us in the ongoing war. They’ll be back in time for afternoon tea, perched on the eaves and in the branches of the ebony tree growing up through the veranda, where they’ll wait impatiently for the chance to thieve a slice of mango or a crumpet.

The fine lines that separate animals and humans are blurry. In the summer afternoons we occasionally discover the baboon troop lounging around the pool. They’ve taken to having naps on the large mattress Mom put out in the shade of the knobthorn for people to loll on in the heat of the day. As I’ve walked past the baboons lying with their heads on the pillows, legs outstretched, I’ve half-expected one of them to order a cocktail.

Just at this time I sight Phillip, the butler, handyman, and all-around bard for our family, barreling across the front lawn toward the maintenance shed. As he gets closer, I notice that he’s carrying a bucket. This means the bull elephant is back in the camp, having found a new way through the electrified fence I repaired so painstakingly last night. I’m not sure how Phillip came up with the idea that the best thing to chase an elephant with is a bucket; perhaps this is a venerable Shangaan tradition. His technique is to stick his head into the bucket and use it as a sort of amplifier. He suddenly runs full bore toward the elephant, screaming into the cavern of the bucket while slapping its base. The elephant, casually destroying a tree by the maintenance shed while depositing a large pile of dung as his smoldering calling card, is completely unperturbed.

I prefer rubber bullets, and so when the elephant finally turns around and presents his ass to me, I shoot him. His hide is so thick that he is simply annoyed and lumbers out through the broken fence, into the veld. The Great White Hunter strikes again. I feel just a bit smug; I’ve spared the gardens a great stomping and our guests a fantastic ruckus. My radio crackles.

“Would the station using the shotgun please be advised that there are guests in camp,” Bronwyn reminds me from the main office. Translation into Safari Lodge Speak: Will the uninformed idiot recklessly popping off shots please stop before I take time off from my normally calm persona to kill him? My sister’s voice has a touch of acid in it, as she knows that later she will have to explain to guests why the camp looked like the beaches of Normandy this morning.

I meet my staff at seven in the old tractor shed to plan for the day. This meeting is with some members of the habitat team: a ragtag band of twelve Shangaan men and women whose job is to keep the park in tip-top order. Alien plant removal, road maintenance, firefighting, and all manner of odd jobs fall to them. In keeping with Shangaan tradition, only the men attend this meeting; later they pass along instructions to the women on the team. They’ve been issued uniforms over the years, but they wear them in unusual combinations, no man dressed the same. Their ability to create a large number of original looks given limited fashion options is unparalleled. Lucky Mkanzi has even managed to cut two eyeholes into his woolen cap to turn it into a makeshift balaclava. These Shangaan men speak barely any English, have no formal education, and are just the most wonderfully practical bunch. They are, however, easily hijacked when one of their own presents a problem that requires the group’s attention. On one occasion, Cry, the tractor driver, had shown up with one purpled eye narrowed to an angry slit.

“Why is your eye all swollen?” I’d asked. There was a long silence as Cry began to smirk, looking away. The assembled group started to chuckle. Finally Cry said, “My wife she was hitting me with a pole.” The men fell apart. This was the funniest thing that had ever happened; in Shangaan tradition, tales of women besting their men always are. Lucky laughed so hard he tumbled off a small wooden seat. This fired up another wave of hilarity.

I turn to Isaak, the induna, or chief of the team. He is the elder, which means he has standing in Shangaan tradition. In fact, Isaak is older than I am, so I respectfully tell him the day’s chores and ask him the best way to go about doing them. He relays assignments to members of the group.

This morning a few trackers join the meeting. I learn that Sandross, one of the most experienced guides, is stuck with six guests in the Sand River. They were out on an early morning game drive when a leopard wandered into the riverbed. Sandross thought the ground was more stable than it really was; before he knew it, his wheels were thoroughly wedged into the thick sand. We’ll need the tractor to pull him out, which wouldn’t normally be a problem, except that no one will go near the machine because yesterday a goshawk landed on its hood, a snake gripped in its talons. When the crew arrived, the bird flew off, leaving the snake behind—in Shangaan tradition, a sure sign of witchcraft. Shangaans are raised on stories of mythical serpentlike creatures such as the brain-sucking Mamlambo and the deadly water serpent Inkanyamba. They are particularly afraid of dangerous snakes. No one will drive the tractor until a sangoma, a Shangaan medicine man, lifts the curse.

The sangoma is going to cost me. I will have to pay his transport, buy him some food, and then get someone who has more sangoma experience to negotiate his fee; sangomas are notoriously good hustlers. I will ask Solly, who is a close friend and tracking buddy, to make the deal for me. The Land Rover is going to be stuck there till later this afternoon, so I better send someone out in another Landi to fetch Sandross and his guests.

More worms begin to wriggle out of the daily can. Robert Sithole, the skinny second-in-command, announces, “There’s a problem with the golf cart.” This is troublesome; we need the golf cart to ferry fine linens, food, liquor, and a thousand other essentials around to all the camps. Robert’s grin is a surefire way of telling me there is foul play involved.

Robert is a Shangaan. He grew up at Londolozi because his father was a chef here. He and I have loved each other from the time we played soccer together as five-year-olds. But there’s no getting around it: race relationships have a complicated and horrific history in this country. Though neither of us could care less about the color of our skin, here we are, still having to negotiate our way through the baggage of our country’s history. Even after two decades of freedom from apartheid, the fabric of South African society remains frayed. The incredible potential of its people is still crippled by those appalling ideologies. Robert and I are part of a born-free generation that is trying to move forward and yet is still shaped by problems of the past. He doesn’t want to be seen ratting out another black guy lest he be called an impimpi, or informer. We’ve developed a code for talking in groups.

“I’m sure it crashed,” says Robert.

“Sure.” I’m an unhurried shrink awaiting his patient’s next confession.

“Ya, sure,” says Robert, shaking his head.

“Which camp was it coming from?” I ask.

“Maybe Pioneer,” says Robert. “Maybe” actually means “definitely.”

“Shame it was dark last night,” I venture. This is the issue that will establish accident or violation.

“Yes, but then the moon came out,” he says. Definitely not an accident. In Safari Lodge Speak, this means that Elphas Ntuli, the only butler at Pioneer Camp, was drunk and crashed the cart. We know he was drunk because he is always drunk.

“Just make a plan,” I tell Robert. Making a plan is Robert’s forte. Later that day I will see the fancy cuisine lovingly prepared by the chefs, including smoked hams, freshly cut papaya, mango, and melon, and trays of cucumber sandwiches, being transported to Pioneer Camp in a garden wheelbarrow.

Robert continues his report. Enoch, the rubbish man, who seems to have as many different personalities as trash cans, tried to stab Dudu, one of the chefs. Something about her cheating on him. Trek, nicknamed Shrek for his unfortunate appearance, won’t go into the pool filter room because a cobra was seen there in 1968, so the pool is going a shade of green usually reserved for algae. The lady who lost her passport to the baboon yesterday is in a rage because her toilet is blocked; the bloody bull elephant who snapped the electric fence fell into the septic tank. “That elephant smell like shit!” someone cracks, and the entire meeting falls to pieces. It’s now seven-fifteen.

I move on to the main office for my second morning meeting, which is with the lodge’s more senior management—the camp managers, the general manager, and the head ranger—to plan the day and talk about any problems that have come up. Linky Nkuna, one of the stunningly beautiful camp managers, with her high cheekbones and dreadlocked hair, has a concern.

“Boyd, I know why the ice machine is broken,” she tells me.

“Why, Links?” I ask.

“I have discovered a grave in front of my camp. The ghost has been unhappy for some time,” she tells me. This ghost is apparently also responsible for the bits and pieces continually going missing, like the small bottles of gin for the minibars, the bewitching of Elphas Ntuli—hence the crashing of the golf cart—and the general destruction of any electrical appliance.

“Links, you don’t think that maybe it’s just old Henkie Muller’s wiring?” I ask. Henkie, our local electrician, is known more for the creativity of his wiring than its effectiveness.

“Hey, wena ndzi vonile spoko,” Linky reprimands me in Shangaan. Hey, you, I saw a ghost.

I sigh. Linky is adamant, and the sangoma’s coming anyway, so he may as well exorcise the ghost, too. Even if the reality is probably that drunk Elphas keeps losing things and the wiring has always been dodgy. But who am I to know for sure?

Sandross and his guests return, raving about their adventure. As they drive past, I hear a heavily accented voice saying excitedly, “Ve could not believe ziz! Ve vere imbedded und za leoparden vaz right beside us!” A misadventure often proves to be the best part of a safari. . . . True of life, too.

Tom pops his head into my office. Tom, big and bearish, has been the head ranger for three years. He and his wonderful wife, Kate, provide a calming influence in the lodge. Kate is one of the few women I know who can silence the titanic clashes of a rangers’ meeting with a stare. We have about seventeen rangers, men and women. They’ve had to master an incredible amount of training, and their job requires them to command an experience, to show guests the most amazing wildlife while keeping everyone safe. After doing this for long enough, they tend to believe their own press when guests give them high praise.

“We’ve just found the tracks of a female leopard and her cubs,” Tom tells me. “I want to send a tracking team out to find them.”

This is great news. Londolozi has been famous for its leopards since the eighties, when one female allowed Uncle John into her world and raised all her cubs in proximity to Land Rovers. She and her offspring developed a trust around the people of Londolozi. Visitors from all over the world come especially to see our famous felines, with their honey-dipped pelts stamped tip to tail with black-and-tan rosettes. A mother with a brood of cubs in tow is the ultimate prize of a photographic safari.

By now the sangoma has arrived, clad in his red straw wig, with beads around his neck, earrings made of pangolin scales, and a ceremonial wildebeest’s tail. First he rids the tractor of evil. Then he’s ready to exorcise the spirits from the ice machine. Linky has decided to turn that exorcism into a cultural experience, inviting the guests to come and watch him work. Afterward, a couple asks if they might have a reading. The sangoma agrees to “throw the bones.”

He pulls out his small reed mat and an old leather binocular case that contains the bones and teeth of various animals, along with some cowrie shells. The couple sits down opposite him, and he simply stares at them until Linky coaxes, “Put some money under the corner of the mat.” Once they’ve done this, the very financially aware spirit starts to come through. The sangoma shakes and bobs briefly, then begins to speak rapidly in a high staccato voice. Each time he pauses, the husband and wife are supposed to say Siya vuma—“We agree.” They can’t quite get their timing right, so the spirit grows agitated and the whole reading becomes a large reprimand from the spirit about not siya vuma–ing enough. The couple balks when the spirit indicates that it would like the sangoma to make tiny cuts on them with his knife so that he can rub muti, traditional medicine, into their bodies.

This ceremony is not something we would ordinarily do. We’re opposed to “cultural shows,” in which tourists are led around re-created villages where residents quickly shed their T-shirts and jeans and don various animal skins and other traditional clothing for the display. When this couple asked for a reading from the sangoma, they got the real deal, probably a bit more than they bargained for.

I’m about to check on Tom and the trackers when my radio crackles to staticky life again. “Gladys is not well,” says Trevor Lubisi, one of the butlers from Founders Camp. This is extremely bad news. Shangaans are notorious for understatement. Gladys is a sous-chef at Londolozi, a large woman, rotund and fierce. In the complex hierarchy of the kitchen, she is highly respected for both her sweet center and her fiery exterior.

I brace myself. Whatever it is, as we say in South Africa, “It’s not for ants.” This phrase is reserved for things that merit respect: the gaping wound where a lion’s claw missed an artery by millimeters; repairing the migratory patterns of a million wildebeests; a three-day trek out of a scorching desert carrying a wounded German shepherd.

I mean an actual German shepherd, not a dog. A dog—please. That’s too easy.

That’s for ants.

When I get to her, Gladys is sitting on the golf cart Elphas dinged, a blanket thrown over her. She’s very quiet, her eyes downcast.

“How are you, Gladys?” I ask.

“Not so well,” she replies.

I take the blanket off. She’s been mauled by a hippo. Her wounds are horrific; the flesh of one arm seems to have been torn almost clean away. Hippos, for all their Disney caricatures with tiny ears, stubby legs, and wide, toothy grins, are in fact among the most dangerous animals in Africa, aggressive and ferocious in certain circumstances. The biggest danger is to get between a hippo and its safe place, which is the water; it simply runs for the river, snapping its big chopper jaws at you if you’re in the way. Gladys was fetching water for her church, Trevor tells me, when she startled the hippo and got a good chomping for her sin.

We try to organize an evacuation using our air band radio to see if a plane flying over or in the area would be willing to pick Gladys up. No luck with that. It takes precious hours to organize Gladys’s care and treat her injuries. It’ll be dark all too soon, so we call the paramedic who lives in the reserve. He is ex-military and very good; he’ll get her to the hospital in his Land Rover, which has been converted into an ambulance.

I’m doing my best to bandage Gladys and note with horror that I have her fat on my hands. In these kinds of situations, I go on autopilot. Trauma isn’t an unusual event in the bush; you just have to be ready to deal with it effectively and, above all, calmly. Burns from the kitchen, a maintenance worker spat in the eyes by a venomous cobra, a woman slicing her elbow wide open after tripping over a rock—we’ve all been trained to deal with these everyday injuries. I’m lucky to have a crack team helping Gladys: John, another guide, and Hailey, the operations manager. John’s doing an especially effective job; he was trained by his mother, who used to teach first aid. We all talk continuously to Gladys, trying to calm and reassure her. Through all this she sits dead still, looking away from the wounds. The blood loss seems to be contained; I just hope the doctors will be able to repair her arm.

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Introduction xi

1 Not for Ants 3

2 Hunting and Hacking 18

3 The Rock 42

4 Friendi in the Storm 58

5 Never Panic in the Bush 67

6 Uncle John 78

7 The Flying Life 92

8 Madiba 100

9 Elephants All Around 107

10 The Crash 118

11 The Great Migration 124

12 A Londolozi of Leopards 147

13 Travels with Kate 161

14 Shake, Rattle, and Roll 175

15 A Royal Welcome 179

16 In Battalions 187

17 Gunpoint 191

18 Seeking 203

19 Dead Silence 212

20 The Vav 224

21 The Flaming Shaman 231

22 Tracking 234

23 The Medicine 244

24 The Leopards by the Watering Hole 254

25 In the Front Garden of Eden 261

26 The Om in Motion 269

Acknowledgments 279

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