It’s hard to know whether to call Boyd Varty’s Cathedral of the Wild a memoir, a true adventure story or a self-help book. All I know is that it made me cry with its hard-won truths about human and animal nature, distilled by Varty from his experiences living on Londolozi, the game reserve his family runs in South Africa.
Londolozi began in 1926 when Varty’s great-grandfather bought the land to use as a hunting destination; when the land passed to Varty’s father and uncle, they began transforming it into a game conservation area. During South Africa’s apartheid era, Londolozi stood out as a place of unity and respect for all people, and it was where Nelson Mandela went to recuperate in 1990 after his imprisonment. It continues to operate today as a safari destination.
The campfire stories Varty recounts of a childhood in the bush are by turns hilarious and harrowing. There’s the deadly black mamba snake slithering over young Boyd’s legs; he’s pounced on by an overenthusiastic young lion; he learns to drive a Land Rover at age 10 while his Uncle John shoots video footage of a charging elephant: experiences that taught Boyd how to keep calm and carry on in a crisis.
The biggest threat to Varty’s family, however, comes not from wild animals but from desperate humans. A violent home invasion in Johannesburg traumatizes the family profoundly and prompts 18-year-old Boyd to leave Africa in search of healing. His quest takes him from Australia to India to the South American rain forest and finally, to a Native-American healing ceremony in Arizona. There he reconnects with his family’s core work: bringing urbanized and hurting people back to a relationship with animals and nature.
Returning to Africa is a journey home for Varty, a path he continues to walk today with his family at the Londolozi game reserve. Reading this book takes the reader on a similar journey, reminding us that our true home is in nature. Both funny and deeply moving, this book belongs on the shelf of everyone who seeks healing in wilderness.