“I'm inclined to think that we don't need safe spaces. We need to find out how to go beyond safe spaces with more awareness. A safety mindset allows you to go where life is - beyond the world's definition of safe and into the alive. But not naively, wisely." -Boyd Varty
Track Your Life by Boyd Varty
Track Your Life is a mesmerising podcast from South African wildlife activist and author Boyd Varty. It is a beautiful record of his experience spending 40 days and 40 nights on the Londolozi Game Reserve. The following is a transcript of Boyd’s thoughts about safety in the wild, deconstructing his morning run through treacherous terrain. It has been reproduced with his kind permission.
If you’d like to know more about Boyd’s adventures, visit: https://boydvarty.com/
As someone who has guided many people into nature, I think that safety occurs in three phases. The first phase - and probably the most important - is a mindset and an awareness that you live in long before a dangerous situation. It's a voice that is always whispering inside of you. It says: “forward thinking, route planning, risk assessment, contingencies, knowing the terrain, local knowledge”. It's always whispering.
The second phase of safety is actually how you handle the dangerous situation itself, should one arise. The third phase is the safety itself - which is a result of the first two phases - hence, ‘Safety Third’.
Mostly, the first phase is done well - a safety mindset - will mitigate the need for the second and arrive you straight at Safety Third.
What's on my mind today as I set out is that, in my experience, overcast conditions can mean hippos out of the water feeding- which is something they don't do when the sun is out and it's hot.
“Experience, local knowledge”.
I'm aware that in a few sections where the brush thickens I must change my pace and walk.
“Adapt to the terrain. Forward thinking.”
I plan a route and choose a time of day and terrain that would avoid elephants.
With all of this done right, I have the opportunity to run for hours. It's beautiful. Silent. Aware.
I run on white sand fault crest, strewn with silver leaf terminalia Alia and grey stemmed merula trees. I run past herds of zebra and impala. Sweat is pouring off me. I run past a warthog wallowing in a puddle. There is a great joy to being out alone. The reserve is so empty of people right now.
Almost as I'm thinking that I see Frank Hubesi from the landcare team of the reserve driving an old Landrover and from a distance he calls to me in shangaan language.
“Hello there friend! You staying alone out in the bush?”
I call back, “I'm meeting with spirit”. Frank seems to understand.
I run through the heat with a clear mind. It's as if a great energy current has come up under me. My attention to safety is obviously not just for me, but it's also for the animals. I run past a herd of kudu and for a moment they run with me. I turn my head to the side and one bull is framed, high-horned on a termite mound, while the others bound alongside me.
I'm learning that running can also be mindful: Breath, Footfall. Breath, Footfall. Breath Footfall.
I think of the idea that we live inside the mind of God. Am I then running through the mind of a wild God?
In fact, as I think about this, I realise that safety in the bush - whether alone or guiding others - has been a place where I have practiced mindfulness for years without knowing it.
Now I approach a thicker area.
I know there is a waterhole nearby.
Suddenly an ox picker - which is birds that sit on big game - alarm and fly up out of some thick shade some 50 yards ahead of me. The birds alert me well in advance and I’m able to indeed avoid a sleeping hippo.
I quickly check the wind.
“Understanding the environment”.
I quickly assess my escape routes.
I become aware of natural barriers I could use for cover.
None of this is done with fear; it's natural to me.
I learned from great guides and trackers the way of what I would call ‘slow, deliberate awareness’; assessment and then action.
In great guides, the reaction to danger is paradoxical: instant, yet through presence deliberate and ordered.
I’m realising that I need to take this to other parts of my life.
The hippo stood up, alerted by the alarms of the birds. It cocks its head to listen. It's not yet aware of me only that the birds have startled. I stand still for a moment.
The hippo, then calm, walks off deeper into the thicket. I move to give the animal a wide berth. The highest form of martial arts is always the avoidance of conflict. In this way animals are truly black belts. Out here, conflict is often a last resort - used only when boundaries have been in some way fundamentally crossed.
As I come back to the camp I'm careful not to drop into the mindset of “oh well, I'm back in camp now I'm fine”. I remain alert. The idea of the camp is just that - an idea. In fact in Africa, most of the dangerous encounters and injuries happen when people are in camp.
My run has been made safe through awareness. Through practice. Through the safety mindset.
The safety mindset is so different from the ‘need to be safe’. Safety is a mindset, and that is also so different from the need to be safe.
I suspect in life we have forgotten the first and been a bit overrun by the second. I'm inclined to think that we don't need safe spaces. We need to find out how to go beyond safe spaces with more awareness. A safety mindset allows you to go where life is - beyond the world's definition of safe and into the alive. But not naively, wisely.
In the camp I'm just careful. I'm careful reaching into the woodpile. I take care for scorpions that might come out of a log that's in the fire. I'm mindful that I'm living in a tree and that's also where snakes live. There is no fear in it, just awareness and understanding.
And if I'm honest with myself I can't say that for other places in my life. There are definitely places where there is still fear instead of awareness and understanding. The wild has a way; if you know it, it's so honest and clear. Out here it makes such perfect sense to me. But there are places inside of me that I know less well. I should imagine that there are wildernesses in all of our lives.
How can we go deeper into them, creating more safety as we go and developing a safety mindset? Awareness. Learning the terrain. Asking for local knowledge. Taking time to develop experience. Going slowly. Learning its ways.
My friend Josh Wadeskin has a way of transferring high levels of competency from one area of his life into other areas. It's as if he understands the dynamics of competence itself. This is what I must now do: transfer my safety mindset in the wilderness to uncharted places in other parts of my life - relationships, new endeavors, creative projects, life transitions, new beginnings. There's so much I have to learn, but I have a way I know.
I think there is an art form to creating safety in the uncharted. I know people who do this. All of my mentors have had an uncanny ability to create safety around them but also transformation.
How do I become that person through all dimensions of my life?
How could you?
Not needing to be safe, but willing to go with an open alertness and guidance into the place beyond safety, where life happens safely.
This is where I must go...
Boyd Varty is a South Africa wildlife and literacy activist and the author of the memoir Cathedral of the Wild. Born to a family of conservationists, Boyd grew up on Londolozi Game Reserve in the South African wilderness, a place where man and nature strive for balance, where perils exist alongside wonders. Founded more than 90 years ago as a hunting ground, Londolozi was transformed into a nature reserve beginning in 1973 by Varty’s father and uncle, visionaries of the restoration movement. But it wasn’t just a sanctuary for the animals; it was also a place for ravaged land to flourish again and for the human spirit to be restored. When Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of imprisonment, he came to the reserve to recover.
Since childhood, Boyd shared his home with lions, leopards, snakes, and elephants and has spent his life in apprenticeship to the wisdom of nature. Boyd survived a harrowing black mamba encounter, a debilitating bout with malaria, even a vicious crocodile attack, but his biggest challenge was a personal crisis of purpose. As a university student, he studied psychology and ecology, supplementing his education by learning martial arts in Thailand, hiking through the jungles of the Amazon, and apprenticing to a renowned tracker from the Shangaan tribe deepening his intimate knowledge of the natural world. Boyd grew up speaking the local language and learning the true meaning of coexistence between people and with nature.
If you’d like to know more about Boyd’s adventures, visit: https://boydvarty.com/