By Marcia Allen, Technical Services & Collections Manager
What seems to be a simple memoir of a youth spent in Africa is so much more. Boyd Varty’s “Cathedral of the Wild” recounts some incredible tales of encounters with wild animals and a sometimes harsh environment, but that’s just the beginning of this beautiful book. Readers willing to venture into this story have lots of surprises in store.
The story takes place in Londolozi Game Preserve in South Africa, in what the author’s ancestors envisioned in 1926 as a hunting compound. Over the years, Varty’s parents and uncle restored a wetland and brought back populations of elephants, Cape buffalo, leopards, etc., thus creating a very successful game preserve. Varty and his younger sister, Bron, grew up amidst splendid wildlife populations, but they also learned a healthy respect for the ever-present dangers that wildlife can pose. The book, for example, opens with a horrifying encounter that he and his father shared with a deadly black mamba.
What kind of parenting was the norm of Varty’s childhood? His unconventional parents insisted on treating the children as adults. They did not accept prejudice of any kind, and encouraged the children to explore and “to read” the emotions that wildlife exhibited. This allowed the children exposure to animals that others see only in zoos. Varty’s Uncle John was also a major influence. Something of a loner, as well as an excellent wildlife photographer, he had a pet lioness that was badly injured when she intervened to protect him. Uncle John encouraged the children to believe they could get themselves out of any dangerous situation by observing and by reacting with coolness, and he lived by those precepts himself.
Of course, there were also other more serious concerns at play. Though the game preserve was immune from prejudice, the rest of Africa was not. Varty recalls some shocking experiences with violence and hatred that made post-apartheid South Africa of the 1990s a war zone. This harsh lesson came to him personally in Johannesburg on a family trip in 2001 when gunmen burst into the family lodgings demanding money and treasure. The gunmen soon departed with the family’s house and car keys and without injuring anyone, but this close brush with violence left the author with lasting emotional scars.
That horrendous experience was later followed by an equally traumatic mistake. Varty and a friend were dangling their legs in a shallow stream while resting one day when the author was grabbed by a crocodile. While the attacked lasted mere seconds, the injury was gruesome. Varty’s trip to critical care resulted in some 340 stitches to his leg and countless rounds of antibiotics to ward off infection. The experience made what had previously been a full and adventurous life something dangerous and uncertain.
Other forces also burdened Varty. Family members died because of accidents or serious illness, and a business venture to bring tigers to the preserve spiraled into a morass of litigation that went on for years. Though Varty was a young man in his early twenties, he found himself unable to overcome bitterness and fear.
Thus began a quest for some kind of peace and enlightenment. Varty traveled the world and met some unusual characters, but didn’t really find what he was looking for until a stay in the deserts of Arizona convinced him that he had to confront his unhappiness before he could heal.
So, what is this amazing book? As you can see, it’s a stunning adventure story, filled with the kinds of exploits that children love. It’s also a cultural study of South Africa during a time of great flux and deplorable inhumanity. And it’s a journey of self-discovery for one man trained from childhood to face adversity without bending. Should you decide to read this book, you will be gratified by the author’s journey and his courageous steps to improve the lives of others. You’ll come away feeling better about the world. What more can one ask from a good book?