I am admittedly nothing but a wannabe when it comes to Africa, green-eyed and dependent on David Attenborough, “Nature” on PBS, and my luckier friends to take me to the vast and deep wildlife riches of that continent. Boyd Varty’s title sounded perfect for me, though I’d never heard of Londolozi Game Reserve as such. The blurb on the back spoke of “a memoir of growing up,” and indeed the book opens with an 11-year-old Varty and his father, Dave, lying on a termite mound with their guns trained on a herd of impalas and discovering that they are being explored by a black mamba snake. I could identify with Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible, and I was eager to dive on in.
In no time, however, the talk turned to plants and animals that have never been the subjects of TV documentaries, apparently the “extra” players for which I need either a glossary or at least a brief description. I didn’t figure out for a third or maybe half the book what a francolin was (apparently a chicken-like bird) and having finished, I still have no frame of reference for many of the trees mentioned. I don’t know how to pronounce the name of the local tribe, the Shangaans, who are essential to the running of Londolozi and to much of Boyd’s skill in the bush. I have fallen out of the picture and been reduced to a spectator.
To be fair, that back blurb and the Introduction that contains the story of the mamba on the termite mound both warn that this is Boyd Varty’s life story, and not a wildlife documentary. They mention something about having to leave the cathedral that was Londolozi and come back to it. But when I approach a memoir of growing up, I hope to emerge with a coherent sense of how the writer’s life came together. To get that from this book, I would need to draw up an outline. Even then, I’m not sure I could figure it out. In one chapter, Boyd is 14 and assisting his Uncle John, who apparently made many of the wildlife documentaries I have enjoyed. In the next, or in the middle of that one, he’s 5 and being taken on his first hunt. Then the account describes a change in the Reserve or a family decision that was made three years back, even though it wasn’t mentioned in the anecdote that took place at that time. And each story is set up with such extensive detail that it’s hard to remember where it’s going, let alone where it fits in the larger story.
These are fascinating anecdotes, for the most part, but readers are left almost entirely on our own to make a story of them. By the time we get to the traumatic experiences that sent Boyd Varty away from Londolozi – spiritually, emotionally, and physically – we still don’t have a clear idea who he is. He refers to being sheltered in “village life,” but he’s told us of wild plane rides over the bush, river rafting, outsmarting elephants, and innumerable adventures in Land Rovers. And to be frank, the traumas do not seem as peculiar to the life of a Varty as they need to be. Boyd acknowledges that most of them are shared with the other members of his family, and yet none of them is compelled to leave Londolozi to deal with them. Boyd grew to maturity through the transition from apartheid to democratic South Africa, and a few of what are meant to be pivotal experiences grow from that time. But again, other than fully understandable Post Traumatic Stress, I am not given enough of what it meant to Varty in his own transition to maturity to have learned from it.
I have not read the books that Boyd’s parents wrote about Londolozi, his mother Shan’s coauthored and illustrated I Speak of Africa (1997, Londolozi Pub) and his father Dave’s 2009 (Penguin Global) Full Circle. Boyd mentions them both, and that Nelson Mandela wrote a foreword to Shan’s book, though its Amazon listing doesn’t mention that. But the writing of the books does not feature in Boyd’s story. I get no sense of the family’s life and dynamic, except that they profess their love for each other, that they share the kinds of adventures that we in other parts of the world can imagine happening only in Africa, and that their lives are bound to and perhaps by the family’s history on the land.
It feels almost as if, despite having traveled to France, India, and the U.S., in addition to most of the countries in southern Africa, and met people from essentially everyplace else, Boyd Varty doesn’t have any real understanding of how unusual his life at Londolozi was. Or maybe he’s leaving out most of what seems to have been just like life elsewhere. I can’t tell, but that difference was what I wanted him to show me. I’ve seen very little that I can’t get in wildlife documentaries, and I don’t have a sense of who Boyd Varty is or how he got that way. And that’s a disappointment.