I’m not quite sure why I chose Cathedral of the Wild: An African Journey Home by Boyd Varty from the books in the advance reading copy offerings. I love to travel but have never had much interest in safari trips. Whatever lured me to it, I am profoundly grateful.
Classified as memoir, this book is that and more. In the author’s note, Boyd Varty fittingly calls it his campfire story. The family story is set in the Londolozi Game Reserve, their home in South Africa.
In 1926, his great-grandfather and an associate established the camp as a paradise for lion hunting. His father and his Uncle John moved it into a larger plan of conservation and restoration of the land to the native animals who had once roamed its territory.
The primary part of the book tells a fascinating story of family life among the wild animals for Boyd, his parents, his Uncle John, and his sister Bronwyn. This far out from the city, they live and work among the South Africans with no sense of the apartheid that happens in the more urban areas. Instead of hunting, they run safari tours. With a sense of pride, Boyd points out that in the four generations, he is the first not to hunt a lion. Besides the living it affords them, they are able to introduce newcomers to the wild and the importance of conservation.
A sense of humor riddles its way through the book:
• We have a name for days like this. Tuesday.
• Thanks to him (Uncle John), we now know that small aircraft can’t fly with fridges strapped to the wings.
• “Luxury safari” meant guests didn’t have to bring their own food . . . A “walking safari” meant the Land Rover was broken and you got around on foot . . .”
In a coincidence, I had just read the chapter including their relationship with Nelson Mandella, whom they called by his tribal name of Madiba, when word came on the news that Mandela had died. Boyd Varty’s description of him as a humble man with a cheerful demeanor parallels the news accounts. The reserve was a place for Mandella to come and relax away from the demands of public life. Boyd was seven when the visits began and had no idea of the man’s importance.
Only as the book progresses toward the end does the political situation threaten them as they become involved in lawsuits that affect their ability to continue the conservation and introduction of people to their beloved wildlife. Coupled with grief after a couple of deaths, the family members find themselves coping with reclaiming their way back from a dark place into healing.
The safari and animals became much of the attraction of the book along with an honest picture of the lifestyle and family that ran it. I will be interested to follow and see whether they achieve the goal that ends the book of reestablishing the elephant corridor from Kruger to the high rainfall areas on the mountains. It would complete the circle back to the great-grandfather who first loved this land and its wild population.