Tracking Lions – SRQIST

Boyd Varty, full-time lion tracker, and author, was recently in Sarasota to speak with audiences at Ringling College and Booker High School about lessons he has learned while tracking and surviving in the South African bush veldt. Varty’s job is to track and locate lions and others of the “big five” African game animals in the wilds of his family’s South African Londolozi Game Reserve, reporting back so that the safari guests can come and photograph them. It is a life fraught with danger for the inexperienced and replete with time spent quietly observing the natural world. Varty and his family’s Londolozi Game Reserve are connected to Sarasota through Michael Klauber of Michael’s On East, who has been bringing Floridians to Africa for safaris for more than a decade now. Since 2012 they have partnered on the All Heart Fund The Good Work Foundation of South Africa, bringing modern educational opportunities to rural, South African students with limited access to schooling otherwise, all to honor the memory of a young Sarasota girl named Leanna Knopik who tragically passed in 2011. To date, the Fund has built and launched six fully functional schools in South Africa. In addition to the stirring stories told by Mr. Varty, other charitable fundraisers included an interactive dinner at Michael’s On East, a “bush dinner” under the stars at Selby Gardens and more. Boyd Varty and his father David Varty sat down with SRQ magazine to talk about how a life in the bush has brought the whole family closer together, and to discuss the idea of life experience as education.


SRQ: You took us on a lion tracking expedition with your story at the presentation today. how do you connect to your audience?  Boyd Varty: I’m trying to do a few things. The first is that I’m trying to connect people with the natural world via stories. I’m trying to be a voice for nature. And then, more importantly, I’m offering what I think of as the mythology of the tracker. I grew up around some of the best trackers in the world, and, to me, we live in a time where we have to find different ways of doing things and different ways of living—and there’s no maps. So what I’m offering to people is this. As you go looking for the thing that actually fulfills you, the skill set you will need is an ancient skill set, the skill set of the trackers. And so I feel like that is what my talk is. It is saying to people, “Wherever you are in your life, whoever you are, you are a tracker and there’s something you’re looking for and you’ll have to teach yourself to follow the trail of that thing that’s calling you.”

You d a story about being attacked and badly injured by a crocodile. Is there something about that life and death struggle that helped you come to these realizations?  Boyd:  There’s nothing like an encounter with your own mortality to really inspire you to think about how you want to live. All of us have that moment where we realize that we don’t have a lot of time here. To me, just the discovery of your authentic path and your authentic life, I can’t think of anything that could be prioritized above that. I don’t think of the natural world as a dangerous place though. I think of it as a place of presence. The animals communicate, and if you know the language, you can actually be really safe. Anytime that I got into trouble in the natural world it is because I missed something, it was not because it is an innately dangerous place. It’s actually a place where if you speak the language and you pay attention, everything is very, very honest.

David, you must’ve seen, at this point, by generations of visitors coming to the Reserve. What do people come looking for? And what do they actually find?  David Varty: In the first instance they are drawn by safari. The “big five” [the industry term for the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo]. That’s our sort of stock in trade. The second time they come, they might say, “The big five’s not that critical. We just want to be out there.” Then the time after that they come, they might say, “We want to specialize in photography.” And then the time after that we actually will put the camera down. We switch the two-way radio off. “We want go off on our own,” they say. “What if we don’t find anything?,” I ask. “It doesn’t matter.” I also think that when they think they come on safari, to use some of Boyd’s words, they discover this other feeling. It’s because of the disconnected nature of where we’ve been as a society. There’s a feeling sometimes that evokes emotions. It’s to do with a wish, a desire to return home, they are homesick, the desire to reconnect back to nature.

You seem to describe yourself as having a sense of calm “being” in an environment that a lot of people would, think of as fraught with wild danger. David: We deal with this a lot with our guests. It’s driven by ratings on T.V. What Boyd says often is absolutely true, “it’s the safest place you can imagine.” There’s no violence, there’s no man/animal conflict. That’s only on the television screens and designed to get ratings. Every week it’s a special about, you know, ”the most deadly creatures on the planet.” It’s Shark Week. But for hundr and thousands and millions of years, people lived amongst the natural world. You have to be aware in the way that you have to be aware crossing the street in New York City or Los Angeles. In the way that you have to be aware when you take your boat up off the coast in Sarasota. But if you are aware you can do things safely and you can actually belong in it. And I mean in a very deep psychological way, you can experience belonging because you experience your own presence in connection with the presence of other creatures and you experience yourself relationally rather than in isolation. And when you experience yourself relationally, that’s a very, very deep thing. To know the other life around you. And to know that it knows you. That’s a kind of thing that we’re missing. Sometimes people try extreme stuff as a search for meaning. Their lot has become so dull and so mundane and so safe that you are getting these guys doing more and more crazy things to seek the wildness in them. Sometimes the wildness is found by sitting still, not by charging down a mountain. So again, the perception that the bush is all about the macho extreme guys, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s all about peaceful, quiet.

 David, in his speech Boyd talked about how you decided to raise he and his sister on the Reserve. Do you feel you made the right choice? David: There is no substitute for being a family unit. There’s something about a family unit that can find some harmony within itself. And that doesn’t mean it’s wine and roses all the time, but to be in a common space together, to have common ground. So often the Western world drives the businessmen over that hill to try to climb a corporation and his wife over this hill trying to run a family and the children over that hill to boarding school. All different pressures and forces. It’s difficult to be in harmony with each other in that space. And further to that, I think that education [then in the 1990s] was extremely limited. Now, with the internet, it is beyond limited. We have to fundamentally change what is education. So a great decision. Never would have changed it for anything. We were lucky we found a teacher to go with us. And now she is the CEO of the Good Work Foundation. She is pretty exceptional.

It seems you were pioneers in what is typically called, “homeschooling.” David: And the crazy thing about that is that nobody ever challenges how the [modern] school came to be in the first place. It’s an archaic system. It was designed to prepare people for war. I do think it will be reengineered. The system now is not teaching the priority issues, and it’s not understanding that what the computers can do, they will soon do better than humans. So we need to stop teaching things that computers will be doing.

How are these ideas of reprioritizing education being implemented in the schools started by The Good Work Foundation? Boyd: It’s been fundamental. We were outside the system so we were able to look back into the system from the outside. We knew that the time structure was no good. We knew that there could be a much broader curriculum. We knew that the school wasn’t really delivering a worldview. We knew that education was incredibly important, but the institutionalized manner that it was being delivered was limited. And so, when we founded The Good Work Foundation, we founded it out of that mindset. It’s in the DNA of the Foundation to be disruptive.

Will there be more generations of Vartys on the Reserve? David: Yeah, from Boyd’s sister. Two grandkids, one’s 4 and the other is 2 years old. They live thirty yards from us. We live in a compound together, so our sort of tribal existence continues. It’s very profound to see the next generation arrive at another level of consciousness. My children have been among my greatest teachers, and they’ve shown us a different way from what my generation did. They are much more circumspect and I think much more wise. But what you also discover with grandchildren is it’s not a one size fits all. I’ve got two grandchildren and no ways you would give them the same education. These two are two beautiful souls, but they’re on different ends of the spectrum. And what does the school do? The school sends you down the sausage machine. Boyd: You’ve got to teach them to learn. You’ve got to teach them to adapt. You’ve got to teach them to be creative. You’ve got to teach them to think outside of the box. How do you create spaces that do that? That’s what The Good Work Foundation is all about. We want to provide access to world-class education, leading thinking in the world. Learning to learn in an environment where people can be creative. An environment that ignites possibility.