Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Boyd Varty (@boydvarty), the author of two books, The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life and his memoir, Cathedral of the Wild. Boyd has been featured in The New York Times, on NBC, and in other media and has taught his philosophy of “tracking your life” to individuals and companies around the world.
Boyd is a wildlife and literacy activist who has spent the last ten years refining the art of using wilderness as a place for deep introspection and personal transformation. He grew up in South Africa on Londolozi Game Reserve, a former hunting ground that was transformed into a nature preserve by Boyd’s father and uncle—both visionaries of the restoration movement. Under his family’s stewardship, the Reserve became renowned not only as a sanctuary for animals but as a place where once-ravaged land was able to flourish again and where the human spirit could be restored. When Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of imprisonment, he went to Londolozi to recover.
Boyd has a degree in psychology from the University of South Africa. He is a TED speaker and the host of the Track Your Life podcast.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Podcast Addict, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can also watch the interview on YouTube.
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO: You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED: No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss fromthe media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. I am so supremely excited about my guest today. I have been hoping to have him on for a very long time indeed. His name is Boyd Varty. You can find him on Twitter @Boydvarty, B-O-Y-D-V-A-R-T-Y. He is the author of two books, The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life and his memoir, Cathedral of the Wild. He’s been featured in The New York Times, NBC and other media, and has taught his philosophy of “tracking your life” to individuals and companies around the world. I happen to know quite a few of those individuals.
In fact, Boyd is a wildlife and literacy activist who has spent the last 10 years refining the art of using wilderness as a place for deep introspection and personal transformation. He grew up in South Africa on Londolozi Game Reserve, a former hunting ground that was transformed into a nature preserved by Boyd’s father and uncle, both visionaries of the restoration movement. Under his family’s stewardship, the Reserve became renowned not only as a sanctuary for animals, but as a place where once ravaged land was able to flourish again and where the human spirit could be restored.
When Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of imprisonment, he came to Londolozi Game Reserve to recover. Boyd has a degree in psychology from the University of South Africa. He is a TED speaker and the host of the Track Your Life Podcast as well. You can find him online at, boydvarty.com, B-O-Y-D-V-A-R-T-Y.com. On Twitter, @boydvarty, Instagram, @Boyd_ Varty. Boyd, welcome to the show, my friend,
Boyd Varty: Tim, thanks for having me, man. Great to be with you.
Tim Ferriss: It is great to see you. And I’m sad we’re not doing this in person, but I’m also happy that you can share a bit about your surroundings. So where is this conversation finding you right now?
Boyd Varty: Okay, so I’m on the Londolozi Game Reserve in the wild eastern part of South Africa. I’m sitting in my thatched cottage and I’m looking out the window. The river runs below me. And currently there is a herd of elephants that are moving down from the far Northern bank of the river to come and feed on the delicious spongy palm trees in the river. That should give you a little bit of a sense. There are two huge ebony trees that frame the house. And a couple of weeks ago, a leopard hoisted its kill into the tree next to the veranda of the house. So that should set the scene for people a little bit.
Tim Ferriss: I had a dead bird on my porch two days ago and I see a squirrel out to my right. So I feel like we’re on equal footing there. Now, a couple of things, one, I want to tell you that I don’t think I’ve told you actually, Boyd, and I’m going to pack it up front because I think that I am ashamed of not telling you earlier. So here you can see it. And for those who are watching video on YouTube, you can see it. I’ve got a copy of your book here, which you were kind enough to inscribe for me.
It’s The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life. I’ve had this for a while now, full of highlights. I read it again yesterday and this is one of only a handful of books that has a dedicated shelf in my guest bedroom at home. So in other words, when people come and visit, I have a few shelves, so you have The Gift, which is of Hafiz Poems, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. Then you have How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. Then you have Awareness by Anthony de Mello. And then you have The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life by Boyd Varty. So you have an entire shelf that people are encouraged to indulge in and take books from in my guest bedroom. I just wanted to let you know that.
Boyd Varty: Wow, I find myself in the company of my heroes there. Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. It’s a fantastic book and we’re going to dig into all sorts of stories that are in the book. Of course, many stories that I have heard and not heard in person with you, but let’s start with one that I haven’t heard, that I wanted to dig into it a little bit just as part of the genesis story. Your mom, could you tell us a little bit about your mom and then I suppose also about your dad, but specifically the “get on with it” attitude as I’ve seen you write it?
Boyd Varty: Well, my parents met when they were 15 years old. My grandfather had just died, leaving this property and the family advisors had said to my father, “Well, first thing, you’ve got to get rid of that property in the wild Eastern part of South Africa. It’s bankrupt cattle land. There’s nothing going on there. There’s some lions there that you used to hunt, but lion hunting is dangerous. Get rid of that.”
And my father stood up in the meeting of family advisors and he said, “No, we’re going to keep it. We’ll find a way to make it pay.” And very soon after that meeting, he met my mother. And with three mud huts and a broken Land Rover, they launched themselves into starting a safari business.
This was a time in the teeth of Apartheid, South Africa. There was no one coming to South Africa. If it had been an investor pitch and someone was saying, “We’re going to start a game reserve and here’s what we want you to invest in,” no one would’ve invested.
But together, out of the love that they had for each other and the passion that they had for the land, they created this amazing place. It was the love they had for each other, the passion for the land, and a real big dose of “We can keep going because this is all we have.” And so there was this incredible attitude in both of them to just push forward, pioneer, keep going, raise your kids with snakes and no electricity, bring people from all over the world to come stay in a couple of mud hats, give them an incredible time, flow this amazing energy into them, take them out into the wild for encounters.
And so it was that type of get on with it chutzpah attitude that I was raised in. And that was my mother through and through. Just unbreakable. Rub some arnica oil on it was the best we got if you got an injury. And only call a doctor if you’re bleeding profusely or you’re going to die.
Tim Ferriss: All right, so I have some follow-ups. First of all, everyone’s saying, “First thing you have to do is get rid of that land.” Dad says, ‘Nope, we’re going to keep the land.” There’s got to be some thought process behind that because of course there are tremendous consequences to that decision in terms of life trajectory. Why the decision? Why was that decision made? How was that made?
Boyd Varty: I think it’s a really good question. There’s a few parts to it. The one is that my great-grandfather had bought the land in 1926, after drinking too much gin. And he heard about these bankrupt cattle farms that were available for sale adjacent to the Kruger National Park. And he was a lion hunter and he was an adventurer and he said, “Well, we’re going to buy.”
He first came down here in June of 1926, and he set up the camp. Just rugged canvas under the trees and they would hunt lions. That’s how my grandfather then grew up. And then that’s how my father and uncle grew up. Coming down in the winter months, waking up at dawn, listening for lions to roar, and then going out to hunt lions.
And I should say with lion hunting, there’s only two outcomes. Either a lion dies or a person dies. So that gives you a little bit of a sense for the mentality of it. But through those early days of hunting, already a deep passion had started to take root in my father for the land and in my uncle. They felt connected to it. It was a place of adventure. It was already a place that was infused in meaning. So when their father died and they were teenagers and the family advisors said, “Okay, well get rid of it.” I think it’s a bit of a combination of the brilliance, the arrogance, and the stupidity of youth that just allowed them to stand up and say, “Well, we are going to keep it and we’ll make it work.”
I don’t think that there was forethought in the decision. They just knew they were grieving. They had lost their father. It was their father’s sacred place. He loved to go there. Somewhere inside of that grieving process, they knew that if they let go of the land, they would lose the memory of their father in some way. And so they held onto it and they decided, “We’ll go make it work.”
Tim Ferriss: There’s so many different branches of this tree that I can go down. I’m having trouble with the paradox of choice here. Let me try to prompt a story that will maybe speak to the “Get on with it, make it work” attitude of both of your parents. Could you please tell the story, and I’m going to give you a fragment here, a little gingerbread crumb, and see if you remember what I’m referring to. Plane ride, bird.
Boyd Varty: Okay. I think you’re referring to the White Knuckle Charter Company.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s the one.
Boyd Varty: So basically what happened is my parents, they launched the safari business and it slowly started to become successful, but they started to run into a problem as my sister and I were getting older because school started to become an issue. There was obviously nowhere to take us to school living out here. So they decided that what they would do is they would learn to fly. And then they would ferry us into the nearest town. We would attend early preschool or whatever it’s called, Monday through Wednesday. And then Wednesday we would fly back to the Reserve and we would be here through the weekend. We were basically getting three days of schooling. That seemed like enough to them at the time.
So they took up flying. And my memories of it are that when they would pick us up on a Wednesday afternoon, to be honest, they weren’t great pilots, so they were in a bit of a state.
The first 50 hours of being a pilot, there’s a lot of stress about getting it in the air and then safely getting it back on the ground. So we would arrive and they would say to us, “We’re in flying mode right now.” And flying mode meant we could not ask any questions. We had to shut up. “You kids shut up. We’re in flying mode.”
And then they had this other sort of drill that they worked out with each other, which was called pilot in command. And when they were up front there in the cockpit, the one would say, “I am now pilot in command.” And if you handed over control, you would say, “Handing over control.” And the other would say, “I am now pilot in command.” “Pilot in command handing over to pilot in command.” “I am now pilot in command.” And they had this whole drill, right?
The first crash that we were involved in, we came in to land and we had a plane, it was a little Cessna that had a quirk. And let me tell you, when it comes to aviation, you don’t want planes with quirks. You can have a quirky pickup track, but you cannot have a quirky aircraft. The quirk was that when you pulled the power, not all power cut off, it kept a little bleed of power on. So my mother was flying the plane. She came into land on the little 800 meter dirt strip. She cut the power. The plane sort of landed, but it just kept on a little too much power and we kept going. And she started to say to my father, and my sister and I are watching from the back, “In flying mode, I can’t get the power off. I can’t get the power off. I can’t get the speed off.”
And he’s saying to her, “You are pilot in command. You are pilot in command.” And she’s going, “I know, but I can’t get the speed off.” And eventually, she kicks the rudder, and the plane veers off the runway and we hit a marula tree and we stop.
That’s our first crash. And it’s one of those ones, Tim, that if you bring it up today, at dinner, [s]he will say, “Well, I couldn’t get the speed off.” And my father will say, “Well, you were pilot in command.” And immediately a fight will develop at dinner. “I know I was pilot in command, but before we hit the tree, you think you could have pulled the power.”
It’s got a little tension around it. Anyway, the worst one was, we were flying a short hop. And by this stage, my parents had launched a bigger safari company. And they had decided that when they flew, they should actually have a commercial pilot with them. And so the setup was, it’s a commercial pilot in the left hand seat. It’s my father in the right hand seat. And then there’s club seating, four seats in the back, but you sit facing each other, like you would on a train, looking at each other. So we’re flying along. And I see my mother and her friend are sitting opposite me. And they’re looking towards the cockpit. I’m looking back at them. And suddenly we just hear this outrageous sound. And wind fills the cockpit. And it’s just this incredible rushing sound. Amazing sound.
Looking at my mother and her friend next to her, it looks like Pulp Fiction. There is just blood and guts all over them. It looks like someone took a bird, put it in a blender, and made like a bird smoothie and then threw it over them. They’ve got wing on their head. They’ve got a foot on their shoulder. They are covered in blood and guts. And so I turn and I look back at the cockpit. The front window of the plane is gone. The pilot is conked out. He’s passed out in his seat. And my father is like orientating himself in the madness. And right at that moment, as my father got his bearings, I saw him grab the controls. And then he looked back at me and said, “I am pilot in command.”
Now we realize we’ve got a situation. What had happened is we had hit a stork. Direct bird strike. And the bird had come in the window. In fact, the beak of the bird had hit the pilot. The bird had hit the pilot. The beak had gone into the skin between the pilot’s skull and the skin. So he had a beak sticking out of his face and a bit of stork neck sticking out of his face. And he’s totally passed out. Meantime, my father had taken control of the plane. The woman on the back seat, screaming next to my mom, is going, “We’re all going to die. We’re all going to die.” And that’s when my mother gave her the patented mother slap. Slapped her twice and said, “We are not going to die.” And then out of nowhere, my mother reaches into her handbag and pulls out a flight call sheet.
And she starts screaming standard emergency practices to my father, “Call SOS base. Request emergency landing.” And he’s ticking off things. Now at this point, the pilot starts to wake up. He wakes up and he’s slowly gaining his bearings. And as he looks around, he has this strange dot in his vision. And as he’s looking around, the dot follows him. And he eventually puts his hand up and what it is, it’s the stork’s neck sticking out of his face. That everywhere he looks it’s in his line of sight because it’s connected to his face. And it was at that moment that he grabbed the neck and the beak of the stork and he pulled it out of his face and looked at it and then passed out again. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a head wound, but head wounds bleed nicely.
And so he’s bleeding quite intensely. It’s pandemonium back in there, but my folks have got the controls. They call the airport. My father starts the descent and eventually the pilot wakes up and he comes to and he’s all right. And he takes over control of the plane again, and we do an emergency landing.
And the funny thing about it was we were flying from the Reserve to go and catch a commercial flight. So we landed at a commercial airport and we got out covered in stork. Stork wing and stork foot and stork guts. And we walked into the terminal building and I said to my mother, “Well, what do we do now?” She said, “Just board the flight and look forward.” So we got onto the plane looking like we had been in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and just sat down next to regular folks traveling, covered in guts and blood, and just sat there and looked forward and flew to our next destination, like nothing had happened.
We grew up in a real wild way. We grew up in a pioneering way and my parents were irrepressible, I think is the word, which you have to be to run a safari business. Running a safari business, you’re out in nature and things are happening. Unexpected things are happening almost continuously. That was my wild youth, in some ways.
It was very, very orientated towards that South African wildness. And also I think that we’ve changed a lot over the years and we’ve been in our own healing journeys and our own healing journeys have changed us as a family, for sure. But for many years there, I guess we were frozen by some trauma ourselves and we were just living as wildly through it as we could.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I remember the first time, one helluva story, man. I totally forgot about boarding the next connecting flight.
Boyd Varty: Awkward, blood-covered moments.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’d be hard to get past TSA covered in viscera. Good Lord. So let’s talk about another element I believe of your childhood. You could tell me when this first enters the picture. We’re going to bounce all over the place, and please correct my pronunciation. When did the Shangaan trackers, is it Shangaan? How do you pronounce that properly?
Boyd Varty: Shangaan.
Tim Ferriss: There we go. Shangaan trackers, enter the picture in your life and who are they? You could answer that in either order.
Boyd Varty: Well, firstly, let me say something about the Shangaan people. The Shangaan people are the most wonderful people that I’ve had time to spend time with in Africa. They were a splinter tribe of the Zulu people. Basically they went on a warring party and they found themselves in Southern Mozambique. And they decided that they were actually more peaceful people. They didn’t want to be involved in the Zulu Army’s warlike ways and they broke away.
And they really pastoral people, amazing storytellers, incredible trackers, because they love to observe things and tell stories. And so from the time my father and uncle were very young and from the time that I was very young, I was lucky to spend time with some of the best Shangaan trackers in the world. Men who had grown up hunting and gathering in the region. The transition and that we went through as a family is, we grew up tracking to hunt.
Once we had our enlightenment experience and we decided we must partner with the land and we must think of the animals as our kin, we continued tracking, but it was to find animals for photographic safaris. And so from the time that I was extremely young, I was apprentice to these master Shangaan trackers.
I spent hundreds of hours learning the art form of following an animal across wild terrain and learning how to be attuned to the language of the wilderness. I was listening to your interview with Noah Feldman and he was talking about how language attunes you in a different way to a culture. And if you can think of tracking, tracking is essentially the language of the wilderness. You’re learning the signs, the sounds.
As your knowledge as a tracker deepens, it’s like you’re being let into another level. And the Shangaan people were deeply attuned to this and they taught me that from a young age. And really the success of Londolozi, one of the major success points for us is to create a bit of context for how the safari business came together, my father was 15, my uncle was 17. My mother was about 15 too, and they were going to launch the safari business. Most of the land at that time, because the cattle had overgrazed the land, it was kind of an eye-high scrub. All of the animals were here, but you didn’t really see them. And in fact, they had been hunted. So any animals you saw were trying to get away from you. And really my parents struggled to get the safari business going. And then they had a defining moment. And that was the arrival of a maverick ecologist by the name of Ken Tinley.
Ken was an amazing guy. He was a high school dropout who got admitted to a biological sciences degree because he drew a picture of a moth with such intricate detail that the dean of the faculty put him in. And he studied his biological sciences degree and then he went to live alone in Mozambique and write a dissertation. And during this time living alone, Ken had this incredible encounter with wilderness and he felt deeply attuned to it. The way he described it he said, it felt like he could feel the rivers moving through his veins. And he became aware of how the moisture traveled through the terrain and how that informed the flora and how that then informed the fauna. And he was just deeply in tune.
And he showed up next to the campfire one day where these young upstarts were trying to get the safari business going. And he said to them, “If you want this place to work, you must partner with the land. You must think of the animals as your kin. And you must make sure that the local Shangaan people are invited to participate in this restoration.”
And so they said to him, “Partner with the land, what do you mean?” And he said, “Come, I’ll show you.” And he walked them out onto the scrub-encroached land. And he said to them, “When the cattle overgraze the land, the moisture falls, but instead of penetrating the soil, it runs off in these deep erosive furrows. So what you do is you clear away the scrub. And you take that scrub and you pack it into the furrows. It’s like putting the plug back in the bath. And with that, you start to charge the grassland with moisture.” And he started to show them how to restore the micro catchments on the property. One of the first imprints of my psyche was watching the land being restored. I would go to a place where there was eye-high scrub, and then I would see the destitution as you cut it out.
And then you would go back there a year later and there would be a herd of waterbuck on it and a herd of zebra and then a rhino walking through it in the late evening. And so my first impulses, I believe, as a healer came out of watching the way that life knows how to bring itself forth. And then one day, after a day spent working on the land, my father and my uncle were driving home. And in the late afternoon light, a female leopard stepped out onto the road in front of them.
And up until that point, any leopard you saw was ears back running to get away from you. They’d been hunted, but this leopard stopped. And she turned and she looked at them and for a moment she allowed herself to be seen. And then she growled and they saw that she had this one broken canine.
And then she slipped away from there and they drove home in silence and they stopped the vehicle. And my uncle who was a rugged, aggressive, wild type guy, they sat there for a moment in silence. And he looked at my father and he said, “Whatever just happened, that’s my future.” I’ve been deeply interested in that my whole life.
To your point, what made them say, “We’re going to try and take on the creation of the safari business?” What made my great grandfather after too many gins say, “I’m going to buy.” What made my uncle say in that moment, “That’s my future.” How do we know when we know?
So what my uncle did is he teamed up with a Shangaan tracker, one of the best trackers in the area. Man by the name of Elmon Mhlongo. Elmon is actually Renias’ — in the book — brother. Incredible hunter-gatherer.
Tim Ferriss: Amazing.
Boyd Varty: Incredibly in tune.
Tim Ferriss: Just for a second before we get to Elmon, if you could just as context, because people hear tracking, good trackers, they might not realize just how far back a lineage of tracker to tracker to tracker tradition might extend.
Are we talking hundreds of years, thousands of years, tens of thousands of years? I mean, how far back does it go, right? This type of skill development and generational passing down.
Boyd Varty: This goes back to our most early origins. Some people say that tracking is in some ways the beginning of science because it’s the beginning of deduction. It’s the first time that someone looked at an abstract imprint and started to apply meaning to it. It’s an art form that has been alive. It lives inside of people because it has been passed on through generations. A tracker will teach another tracker the way. I think of it as this art form that you can’t hang on the wall, it literally has to be alive in a person to survive.
Tim Ferriss: Didn’t mean to interrupt. I just wanted to set the stage, right? Because people think, “Oh, my grandfather did this. My dad did this. I now do this, therefore we have this extensive lineage.” Which is true on some scale, but when you refer to one of these master trackers, it’s quite a different level of longevity in terms of the bloodline and the development of that skill.
Boyd Varty: Ancient, back to the back to the origins of humanity. And when you are tracking, you are connected to that entire lineage, which is an amazing feeling. What I’m doing right now, thousands of years ago, someone did this very same practice. And Elmon was just brilliant in the bush. What my uncle and him did is for the next 12 years, they woke up every morning and they went out and they tracked that leopard. Just insane drive and dedication. Sometimes they would go two weeks without seeing her. And they would be putting together the clues, they’d be following the tracks. And then it started to be that they would find her and she would allow herself to be viewed from two, 300 yards in a vehicle. And then slowly over time that space, that distance, started to close.
And eventually after a few years of this, it got to the point where they could actually drive one of these old Land Rovers in next to her. And she had developed a relationship of trust with them. A totally wild leopard and she knew that these men meant her no harm.
We called that leopard the Mother Leopard because she went on to have eight litters of cubs and all of those cubs grew up modeling their mother’s trust. And so she was the mother for two reasons. One, because she was the mother of all these cubs. And second, because really she was the mother of the birth of the safari business because word got out that there was a place in the middle of South Africa where no one wanted to go where you could go and see a wild leopard. And that allure is still alive inside of people today.
But it would’ve been absolutely impossible without the skills and the brilliance of the Shangaan trackers. To be able to go out into a vast wilderness and attune yourself to the faint tracks of where this animal had walked, to listen for alarm calls, to listen to bird language and to start to get to know her movement patterns, her territories, where she liked to den, all of that made it possible. And it wouldn’t have been possible without great trackers. And so really the legacy of Londolozi is a legacy of relationships between trackers and wild animals.
Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a name that comes up a lot in The Lion Tracker’s Guide To Life, who’s of course, a fascinating character in the book and I’m sure in real life, even more so fascinating. Renias, is that how you say this name properly?
Boyd Varty: Renias Matanjana Jampatchas Mhlongo is his official name.
Tim Ferriss: That’s exactly what I was going to say. That’s what I was going to say. I’ll stick with Renias for short. Now I want to prompt maybe as a way of describing Renias and introducing him. Question that came or a cue that came from one of our mutual friends, Josh Waitzkin. And he said, “Ask Boyd about Renias not returning to camp a few weeks ago when tracking, I think, a male lion when all the clients wanted to come back.” Could you tell this story? Are you open to that?
Boyd Varty: Yeah. Well, Renias is, firstly, one of the best trackers in the world. I would say that he’s top five. He’s deeply attuned. My definition of mastery is someone who can be themself in any situation. And really what makes Renias special is that he’s able to totally be himself wherever he goes. And I’m sure you’ve seen this in other disciplines, he’s one of those rare masters who’s able to translate the intangibles of what he knows how to do. You learn by being around him. You learn by absorbing his presence, watching how he moves, but he’s also quite good at teaching, which makes him really exceptional. Because a lot of trackers, you’ll say to them, “Well, why did you know to go down there? Why did you know to check that riverbed?” And they just sort of say, “I just knew.” Renias is able to dissect it a little bit for you. But this to me is the level of his mastery.
We ran a tracking retreat. We had some folks from all over the world who had come on one of our tracking retreats and it was day four. And we had had an exceptional time. We had found and followed animals. The night before we had slept out in the Bush and so the next morning we woke up, we found tracks of a single male lion and we began to follow. And after two or three hours, I could see that the guests who were on the retreat were tiring. They were running out of gas. They’d been keeping watch all night. And so Renias [crosstalk 00:33:08] –
Tim Ferriss: Could you explain what you mean by that, keeping watch all night? [crosstalk 00:01:11] Afraid that lions are going to eat them all night?
Boyd Varty: Yeah, on the retreat one of the nights we had slept on the ground in the open, no vehicle, no tents. And each person had been asked to keep watch. It’s this deeply archetypal experience to be awake around the fire. It definitely changes what the fire means to you, some of this ancient primordial sense of like fire safety. And each person keeps watch through the night and it’s beautiful, you’re alone, owls calling, stars above you, and this alertness alive inside of you as you keep watch for your friends.
Tim Ferriss: What are you keeping watch — sorry, not to bog the story down, but just for a second. Like if John from KPMG in Chicago, who’s never camped before, comes to a tracking retreat, I would be kind of nervous trusting John to keep me alive while I slept. So I probably wouldn’t sleep. I’m just wondering what one does when they’re keeping watch? No, you keep [crosstalk 00:34:07] the KPMG. Just came to mind.
Boyd Varty: You know what? No. John from KPMG taking contact.
Well, the thing is is that the minute you get out there and night starts to fall and some lions roar nearby and an elephant walks past your camp and comes to investigate, what’s pretty amazing, Tim, is that no one misses the gravity of the situation.
Tim Ferriss: I bet.
Boyd Varty: Something about night falling, like I watch people switch on. And I explain to them that if you fall asleep during your watch or you don’t do this properly, someone can get badly injured and so people take it very seriously. Your job on watch is to be an aware presence and you get armed with a really good torch. You listen, you tune in [crosstalk 00:34:53] —
Tim Ferriss: That’s flashlight for you Yanks [crosstalk 00:34:55] —
Boyd Varty: Flashlight.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Boyd Varty: You listen and if any animal comes, you have to be aware of its presence. And there’s an amazing thing, if you’re aware of an animal’s presence, it’s aware that you’re aware of it and that’s the critical safety piece. In all the years we’ve been doing it and we’ve slept out with many, many people, we’ve never had anyone let us down because people feel the gravity of it and something does wake up inside of them. So anyway, back to the story, we [crosstalk 00:03:22] —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Suffice to say, they didn’t sleep very well.
Boyd Varty: They didn’t sleep very well. So like 10:00 the next morning they were flagging and we decided because we’d had such a good time and we’d been so lucky with the tracking already, we were going to call it there. We were going to say, “Guys, we’re going to leave this track and we’re going to head back to the camp.” Now, Renias has been 30 years into guiding people, even more, 35 years into guiding people and then another section working as a trainer. He says, “You guys go back to camp. I can’t leave this track.”
And I’m fascinated by that moment because there are so many hundreds of guides, so many hundreds of people who say, you know what, our guests are happy, eggs Benedict back at the camp, but his mastery is that he can’t leave it. There is something laid down in front of him that he’s curious about, he’s interested and he has to know. Something in the tracker has to discover, has to find out and the scope of the years of his practice and the fact that he makes that decision to stay out there, hot, tired, without water, he needs to know, that is his art form. He needs to be in it. There’s something very special about that to me.
Tim Ferriss: Which animals are hardest to track at Londolozi? You mentioned a leopard, right? So leopard in my mind, I think of solitary animal, as I understand it. Sleeps in trees at least part of the time, as I understand it again, I have no understanding of leopards. So I’d think of them as difficult to track for a number of different reasons, but which animals that you track are easiest and which are hardest?
Boyd Varty: Oh, well, I think you’ve nailed it there. Leopard by some margin is the most difficult. One, its solitary and it walks incredibly lightly and it’s nature is solitary and secretive. It likes to operate in thick terrain. Anytime you’re seeing a leopard, the leopard is allowing you to see it, which to me has this beautiful mystery that it cloaks it in. So leopard by quite some margin would be the most difficult. And we have trackers here who become real specialists at following leopards. We used to have a tracker by the name of Richard Siwela and Siwela, he was meticulous in his dress and he was gruff and he was hard to get along with. He was rude to most people. He had that kind of — that arrogance born of being brilliant. He deserved all the arrogance he had because he was so good.
And he used to do this thing where if all the trackers have been out in the morning and they’d been following a leopard, they would come back to camp, they’d been unsuccessful. They had a last track, but they had lost it. He would go back there and it used to be my favorite thing. He would go back at 12:00 in the afternoon. He would refuse to go with anyone else. He wanted to go alone and he would slowly start to work that track. And then eventually at like 6:00 in the evening, you’d get a radio call and it would be Richard, and he would say, “I’ve located this leopard.” He would tell you where it was and then his final refrain was “Richard Siwela is number one!” And he did it so consistently. Richard Siwela was number one.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing. Technical question, 12 noon. So I would think that high noon would actually be a hard time to track because it wouldn’t cast shadows as well. But is the reason for doing that that the animals are bedded down due to the heat so that you’re able to track while they’re in one place? Why would he go out at 12 noon?
Boyd Varty: Well, one, is he showing people how good he is, because you’re right. The direct light creates a flat aspect on the ground. The light is flat and so you’re right. There’s no shadow, there’s no contrast. When the light is lower, it bounces off where the animal has stepped in a… It changes the texture on the earth. He’s going at midday because no one else wants to go out in the heat. He’s showing I go out in the heat. He’s going at midday because the light is flat and he’s saying, I go out when the light is flat. He’s going at midday because he knows that that leopard is going to be lying up somewhere and so if he can get a track, he can close the distance on it while it’s not moving. And all of those are saying, Siwela is number one.
Tim Ferriss: It’s so great. I love that. So let me ask, because people will no doubt be wondering what type of protection does one have when, say Renias goes out to track with clientele. Do you have the equivalent of a SWAT team with you, with rifles at the ready in case any danger presents itself? I think I know the answer to this, but just because I know people may have a question mark in their minds. What type of protection do you guys carry?
Boyd Varty: Yeah. So when we are tracking with clients, we will carry rifles and always, if we are running specifically tracking retreats, we will be a two-rifle operation, but really the protection is way upstream of that. In all of my years in the Bush, I’ve never had to use the rifle. The art form of tracking is what makes you safe. And when you with someone like Renias, the safety profile just becomes exceptionally safe because he’s so attuned. And so it’s a capacity to read the terrain, to make good decisions, to be attuned to the freshness of the track, where those animals will be, how we should approach different terrain, attuned to the birds, bird language.
And then where Renias is even more exceptional is that the way that an animal communicates with you is through a state of presence. If it is unhappy with you, it conveys energy through the way its body shapes and really amazing trackers are able to read that body language and almost speak back to it in the way they move their body and you can convey a very profound unspoken language. And I think of it as a language of energy or a language of presence. That is really what makes you safe if you see that animal, how you convey your intentions to it, your mood, what you do if it does become aggressive with you, how meet that and shape the sort of the unspoken conversation between you.
Tim Ferriss: I want to bring up one of the lines from The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life that — it certainly pops to mind quickly when think about this book. I’m sure it’s a line that a lot of people bring up. I know it’s a line that Josh has brought up and I’d love to just hear you explain why this is in the book and why it matters. Quote, “I don’t know where we’re going, but I know exactly how to get there.”
Boyd Varty: Oh, I love that. Don’t you?
Tim Ferriss: I love it. Absolutely. It really, if you take a moment to pause and contemplate, the implications are pretty profound. So I’d love to just hear you riff on this and why and how this ended up in the book?
Boyd Varty: Well, there were two things that Renias used to say regularly. The one,
“Hi ta kuma”: “We will get it.” And it was almost like this kind of incredible self-talk that he would have when the track was cold or the track was — we weren’t making progress. I would look at him and you’d say, ah, hita xikuma, we’re going to get this. And then often he would say too, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I know exactly how to get there.” And what he’s saying, he’s talking to the dynamic of tracking, which is… It’s an interesting, energetic dynamic. He is profoundly committed to finding that animal, but he hasn’t allowed that commitment to become a burden of some kind. He is working moment to moment on the signs that he’s getting. And you can think in a vast wilderness as trackers, we also talk about the first track, in a vast wilderness, 360 degrees of wild terrain.
All he needs is the next first track and then the next first track and then the next first track and the next first track. And he’s able to dial down the infinite possibilities of where that animal could have gone to a moment of knowing and a moment of presence and then another moment of knowing and another moment of presence. And all he needs is that next sign. So he doesn’t know where it’s going, but he knows how to get there. The next moment of presence. The next thing I know to do. And it might be a good segue there just telling you a little bit about how the tracking process changed for me over the years, but let me know —
Tim Ferriss: Let’s do it.
Boyd Varty: — if you want to go there.
Tim Ferriss: Dive in.
Boyd Varty: So I had these encounters, Tim, whereby I had a childhood following animals and learning this art form and really the dynamics and the psyche of the tracker, how a tracker approached the process of finding an animal in the middle of nowhere and then watching how consistently good trackers delivered an outcome. They found the animal they were looking for. And at that time as a young child, I thought I was learning that skill. And then through my early 20s, I had a series of pretty traumatic encounters and the result of that was that by the time I was about 23 or 24 years old, I had found myself frozen by trauma.
I was depressed. I was uncertain how to move forward and in the way trauma limits options, I felt my myself extremely limited. I did not have access to a lot of emotionality. I did not have access to different choices. I was stuck. And at that time I was very lucky to meet a woman who came on safari and she became my first mentor. And the reason I guided her was because Alex, my friend, who also features in the book, he had guided her a year before and he said to me, she’s a martial artist.
And I was very interested in martial arts, as I know you are. And so I went into the guide room and in the guide room, there was this board where every guide got their name put next to the clients who were coming in. I rubbed off someone else’s name and I put my name next to her, to guide her and that moment absolutely changed my life. Her name was Dr. Martha Beck and she arrived on the safari and we went out the first two days and she said something on the second day that I felt something in me like really moved. We were driving along and I was telling her about the restoration of the land and she said, “I really understand this and I believe the restoration of the planet will come out of a transformation in human consciousness.”
And the minute she said it, whatever my grandfather knew or my father knew, or my uncle knew when he saw that leopard, I felt that thing move inside of me, that idea struck me very dear deeply. And then on about the fourth day, I’d driven back to the camp and I’m in my safari gear, I got my rifle. I’m the guide, I’m rugged guy. I’m out there tracking lions. And she turned and she looked at me and she said, “I’m ready to talk to you.” And I was sort of taken aback. I said, “Well, what, what do you mean?” She said, “I can see what you’re carrying and I can see how stuck you are and I want you to know that I can help you and I’m here.” I don’t know if you’ve ever had one of those instances where someone sees you when you’re in one of those places, but I’ve felt myself becoming really uncertain and then I felt tears starting to come to my eyes. And then there was this moment where this woman is hugging the safari guide and just consoling me.
And she was an incredible healer and she was exceptionally adept at transformational processes. And so she started to teach me how to move through the trauma and the suffering that I was stuck in. And as that happened, my relationship to tracking started to change and I started to see this art form in a different way and I realized that I was looking for something and all of the skills and the mentality of the was highly adept to being in a transformational process. The first thing that you will have to do, if you want to go track a lion in the wild, is you will have to become super uncomfortable with unknowns.
You’ll have to give up all the ways you try to know what to do and say, I don’t know how to do this. All trackers operate using unknowns to almost bring them to life. You will need to develop your track awareness. Track awareness is teaching yourself to be attuned to a very specific set of signs, metrics but self-generated. Like when I was a kid, Renias would take me out to a game path and you would say, walk down that game path and tell me what you see. And I would come back and I would say to him, I saw a herd of impala walk there and he would say, “Heh mfana, famba uya languta futhe.”: “Young boy, go look again.” And as I was walking away, he would say, “phuza mati phela.” He’d say, “Put your head down like the way an animal drinks.” “Put your head right down against the trail and look like you drinking water, like an animal.”
And I would come back and I would say, “I can see where the herd of impala walked, but they actually walked over the tracks of a leopard. And I can see where a mouse ran across the path. And then an owl swooped down and its wing touched the ground.” And each time I walked down that path under his guidance, there was more information. And that idea became very important to me. The idea that there is information in your life, if you are looking for transformation, but you have to teach yourself to attune to it. And so, what do you need to attune to in transformational processes? Things that make you feel expensive, things that make you feel alive, letting go of your rational idea of what you should do and noticing what you move towards. Noticing what you’re curious about, noticing the people who energize you, the activities that make you feel more alive.
So I started to see through the eyes of the tracker, the first track. The first track being the next thing you know to do, letting go of where that animal might be or letting go of where you think you should be and just doing the next thing you know to do and the next thing you know to do. If you watch great trackers, they drop into what I call the following state. And it’s so beautiful, if you watch Alex and Renias in the following state. The following state could be the find almost as constant creative response to what is occurring. If the track cuts left, Alex will click and he’ll say, “I’m on the track.” If it cuts right, Renias will be on it. They’re getting a sense of the mood of the animal. They’re using their own body to attune to the way the animal is moving.
And in that way, like almost feel the animal as it’s walking out ahead of them at the same time, they are vectoring and they are getting a sense of their bearings using waypoints of marula trees up ahead. When you watch them, they’re almost having fun in it, they’re playing, they’re playing on that track. And so you will need to develop the following state in your own transformational process. How can you play? How can you be creative with not knowing what you’re trying to create or this place you’re trying to get to, but being open and willing and aware and attuned. You will almost certainly lose the track and I’m sort of saying this to see how the tracker came to me in a different way as I got into my own journey of healing.
You will lose the track. You’ll be in the middle of it thinking I’m deep in the following state, I’m right on track, and then so suddenly it’ll be gone. And you will need to build community around you of other great trackers, people who are willing to move with you, follow with you. And the core of it is really that there is something inside of you that knows. There is a part of you, you might call it your wild self. You might call it the track of your life, or as native people call it your medicine way. A part of you that beyond rational thought reacts when you become more in tune with yourself and sifting away, the layers of socialization, all the things you should do, all the things you have to do to start to be able to follow the trail of that place inside of you, became really what the core of my own journey to healing was.
And I live like that to this day as a tracker, trying to be present, resting into the unknown, attuning and trying to fall into the following state with what energizes me, makes me curious and pulls me forward.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for that. It strikes me also that a lot of people who would to try to help another start almost as a hammer looking for nails, right. They don’t listen enough first and it just strikes me that what Martha did was very much initially — demonstrated by her powers of observation, awareness, and attunement, right. And those are sort of like the core fundamental characteristics that you need to develop or resurrect before you can really prescribe anything at all, right. And the question I want to ask is actually related to the traumatic events, if you’re open to it. Would you be willing to share what happened or some of the examples of what happened in your 20s?
Boyd Varty: Yeah. Just one comment on Martha. Once we started to get onto that level with each other, when I looked at her, what I saw was a superb tracker. She understood how trauma patterns us and she incredibly adept at first tracking the pattern and then starting to support you in creating a different outcome for yourself or providing tools and options for different ways of doing it. And as I watched her work with myself and with many other people, I saw a tracker who would at first, just really observe and get to know what they were working with and be present and attuned. And that’s really what most attracted me to her work, was that I saw a tracker of processes, human processes first and foremost, and that’s probably what I was mature enough, the frame that I was able to see through at that time as a tracker. But to segue into my own experiences, my family, I would say, Tim, went through a very difficult 10-year period, a period of intense suffering.
And yet that suffering became the place where we learned to do the work and go inward and start to understand how healing process work. And so I’ve gotten to the place now where I’ve, I’ve fondly look back on those 10 years of initiation, university of suffering. But it began for me when my grandmother died, my father, he had taken the Londolozi model of care of land, care of wildlife, care of people, and he had launched it to 30 other operations around Southern Africa, which Mandela had asked him to do. And so there’d been this big sort of expansion and then in a classic kind of change of founder’s trap, he got fired from that and then very soon into that South Africa was going through a very, very difficult, and one night we were in Johannesburg and this was post elections, but there was still very — the country was still really finding its feet and there was a ton of violent crimes still happening.
And as I said, I was 18 years old and I woke up and my sister was shaking me. And immediately as I sat up, I had a gun pushed into my face. The home that we were staying in, in Johannesburg on that occasion, had been invaded and I just felt the adrenaline pumped through my system and all of my work as in healing spaces later, and I know that you’re involved in psychedelic-assisted therapy, has been to try and get a cap on the scope of where my body goes when it gets a mild trauma, because I woke up into my worst nightmare and I looked to my left and my mother’s tied up on the floor and my sister’s tied up and I know kind of stories of how these things go, the violence, the potential danger to women. And it was just like absolute red line fear.
And just to see the women in my life, my family like that. It was just shocking and then realizing that I know I can read animals, but I can’t quite read people. I mean, I can’t quite read them, they’re not as honest as animals? So I just don’t know where this is going to go and I’m sitting in this tension and eventually they took me outside, these guys who had broken into the house, and they said to me, “We’re going to kill you.” So they pulled me outside and they put a gun to my head and they basically said, “Now we’re going to kill you.” The fear was so intense and then I remember looking up the barrel at the man who was holding the gun to my head and we looked into each other’s eyes.
And in that moment, something happened, which I can’t say what happened. You might call it the peace of God that passes understanding but I think it was too big from my ego structure to hold and it collapsed. As I looked at him, all fear left me and all concern for my own bodily safety left me and I just felt a profound human connection with him. And as that happened, and there were three of these guys standing around me, as that moment happened, it was kind of this weird, the only way I can describe it is a kind of a weirdness came over everyone. It was as if everyone had become glimmered and they put the guns down and everyone just stood there, confused. And I walked back inside totally unaccosted in any way.
And I got the car keys and I walked back out and I gave them the car keys and I said, “Get in that car and leave.” And they did. It was just immensely bizarre and for years I lived with trying to work out both the terror that I felt and the fear that had flooded me, but also trying to integrate like whatever had happened in that moment. And I’m not sure that I fully understand it, but I felt like I glimpsed through the most terrifying situation, I glimpsed something. And so that was the first freezing experience that I had.
Tim Ferriss: That’s terrifying.
Boyd Varty: And then on the heels of that, and I think sometimes of Jung’s description of like, what is unconscious will be made conscious. It will manifest into your life until you become more conscious about what you’re carrying. A couple of weeks after that, literally in the same year, myself and some friends and another tracker called Solly Mhlongo, we went down to the river on the reserve and it was an extremely hot day.
And we left the people who we were guiding sort of sitting under a tree. And we began to walk upstream in the river and Solly stayed on the bank. And I was actually walking in the water and the water was knee deep, running over sand. And you could see quite clearly. And then there was a place up ahead where a tree had fallen over and its branches were in the water and it was kind of shadowy. When I think of it now, I think like if it had been a horror movie, people in the audience would’ve started saying, “Don’t go near the shadowy place!” And of course, as I walked past the shadowy place, I actually sat down just on the edge of those shadows. And my perception was that the water was too shallow for crocodiles. But of course the crocodile was in the hole and the first thing that you notice when a crocodile grabs you is just the ferocity and the pressure of the bite.
I just felt it slam onto my right leg and it tries to pull me into the deep section of the water. I throw my arm up and I grab a branch and it starts to shake me. And I see a slick of blood appear in the water. And then it gets washed downstream. While the crocodile is shaking me, I see Solly, who’s on the bank, he sees me and he sees that I’m in trouble and he immediately starts making his way towards me. Solly is also a Shangaan man, grew hunting and gathering. The croc goes to bite me a second time and I kicked and by the grace of God, my foot went down its throat and it spat me out. And I pulled myself up into the branches of the tree. And I have this memory of almost being non-local, watching myself pull myself up into the branches of the tree.
I got up into the branches and I remember looking over my shoulder and my leg from the knee down is just absolutely mangled, torn to pieces and meat hanging off. I made a pact with myself in that moment to never look at that again. And I made my way to the branches and I fell onto the bank. And I knew that I was extremely vulnerable on the bank. Crocodile, it’s an elite predator, if it thinks it can get you, and I was on the bank against the water, it’s going to grab me again.
At that point, Solly coming from the other bank arrives at the deep section of the channel. He’s seen me come out of the water. He’s seen that my leg is mangled, and he knows that in the deep channel of water between him and I is a crocodile and I can tell you that man didn’t slow down, not for one second. He plunged into the water. He waded into almost over his hips and he got to me on the bank and he grabbed me, put me on his shoulder and he carried me up onto the bank. He took his shirt off, he wrapped it around my leg. We were able to call the folks who were with us and calm them down, radio a plane that was flying over and I was able to get medivaced out and we were able to stop the bleeding so that I survived.
Those two experiences were very alive in me. And maybe this is a side point and then I’ll slow down for a while. But in the months after that, I sat many, many times with Solly, and I said to him, “Solly, why did you come in the water?” And he would look at me with disdain and he’d say, “Mfo, una nkinga ndina nkinga phela!” He said, “My brother, you’re in trouble! I’m in trouble!” And at first I thought it was some kind of like a platitude, he was playing down his actions.
But as time went on, I really understood and I came to see that in the way that Solly grew up, he grew up in a much more collective consciousness. He grew up with his tribe. He grew up hunting and gathering. He grew up in nature and he lived in a much more interconnected way than any of us live. In fact his whole psyche was not formed around individuality, his psyche was formed around a we consciousness, you and me together. A collective consciousness and to him, it was fundamental if I was in trouble, he was in trouble. And so he did not see it as any kind of heroic action. He just saw it as the most obvious natural thing to do. And that really moved me and that taught me a lot.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to come back to a number of things. First, good Lord, I’m sorry both this things happened, even though it ended up being the university of suffering. Those are two excruciating experiences to put it mildly, but just based on what you said about this collective consciousness, does the word Ubuntu or the concept of Ubuntu tie into this in any way?
Boyd Varty: Oh, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: Could you explain that for folks?
Boyd Varty: Yeah. Ubuntu is an African philosophy that says, “I am because of you,” or “People are not people without other people.” And what Ubuntu is talking to is the relational nature of life. And the point I want to make about is that, when you spend time with people where the Ubuntu consciousness is activated in them, where Ubuntu is alive in them, it is actually a kind of structuring in their very psyche. They experience things in relation, they experience each other in a relational way, and they know that knowing yourself and being yourself is about being connected to people, but also to the broader field of sentient life. And, and so what Sully was activating there was the Ubuntu consciousness and he was showing that Ubuntu consciousness comes alive in action, through courageous action in that case, but very much what he was showing me that day was how deeply ingrained it was in him the collective nature of life.
And if you could say, another way of saying it is like, and this gets really interesting and as you start to learn your own psyche, but different cultures, the psyches are structured differently, and in a more Western setting, you know, you might say that in a society where the individual self is disconnected from the greater interconnectivity of life, the search for meaning is reduced to a constant state of comparison. So people will always on some level be saying, “How am I doing in comparison?” and so many people are living with that without even knowing that that’s how they are trying to orientate themselves. Whereas if you grew up in Africa or if you grew up in nature, you grew up relationally. So it’s not comparative. It’s more like I’m learning about myself through my encounter with the world.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to maybe awkwardly tie a number of things together here when you and I, I think it was when we first spent time together. I can’t remember. Maybe it was the first time we spoke, but you were just coming off of living in a tree, if I remember correctly.
Boyd Varty: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: If you are open to talking about that. And if not, we can certainly cut it later, but since we’re talking about it, how many days were you in this tree?
Boyd Varty: So I was 40 days and 40 nights in the tree. I went into the tree, you know, if you read all the mystical traditions, including, I think your man Hafiz on your bookshelf, but in all the mystical traditions, there seems to be a time when the mystics are drawn to be alone in nature. And, you know, Jesus went for 40 days and 40 nights, the Buddha went to the Grove. There are accounts of it all along the way and so I wanted to go and have that experience myself. And I’m not saying I’m a mystic, but my question was, why did all of the mystics go to be in total solitude in nature? And so with a lockdown in the world, suddenly I had six weeks where I could go and do that, you know, go and sit in that question and see what answers came to me during that time.
The first was that initially there was a tremendous anxiety. You know, the first couple of days, I had a lot of thoughts around, you know, I’m going to be away, I’m going to miss something I’m not attending to, and then after three days that all dropped. I know the Aboriginal people have this amazing saying that “modern culture is three days deep.” And after three days I felt myself go into a different state of consciousness. I just realized it doesn’t matter and then I started to attune myself to the natural world. And a few things happened, the one is that a big insight was that where your attention goes, your life goes, and if you are constantly putting your attention on living things, this more aliveness in your own life. That was one.
The second was that if you spend time in nature in the same spot, over a period of time, it starts to become incredibly personal. So it’s not just a bird or that antelope, it’s that bird that roosts in that bush and flies down the river bed in the morning and back up the southern bank. And then it feeds for grubs in this tree. And as you start to become more personally attuned to each animal, you start to see that there’s a pattern to their movement. And in fact, then you start to find yourself orientated inside of a series of interlocking intelligences — that is really what the natural world is. And then at some point you realize that I’m not observing this, this intelligence that I’m watching unfold around me, I am fundamentally a part of this and it stops being a mental construct and you start to feel yourself inside of that intelligence.
And that’s a very, very deep experience, or at least it was for me. I think that that is why at a certain point, the mystics went to go and get quiet enough to feel themself inside of that credible field of intelligence. That is the natural world. I mean, I just had radical encounters every day. And I think that’s another thing about the natural world is, you know, things happen and as things happen each day, it almost like it helps you make meaning, and in the society, you know the societies of the modern world are almost becoming devoid of the structures that allow us to make meaning, but the natural world is full of encounter, and that encounter generates an aliveness and a relational meaning making quality that just makes life feel very, very rich. And we lived like that for thousands of years before we lived on Discord.
Tim Ferriss: Were there any other aspects of the experience that were particularly surprising to you in any way or any other rules that you set for yourself that proved either fruitless or fruitful?
Boyd Varty: I mean, the one encounter that comes to mind and there were many, you know, lots of solo hours tracking, which felt very special, but on one of the nights I got caught in a storm, a thunderstorm rolled in and the heat built all through the afternoon. And I could see the storm building out over the western horizon and it started to look menacing and then even more menacing. And I was living on a flat platform up in the tree and eventually the wind started to howl and blow, and then the mother and the father of a thunderstorm broke around me and, you know, the lightning bolts were coming around me and I don’t know if you’ve ever been very close to lightning strikes, but the first thing is that you just hear it go like this, and then the blade comes down and then the sound goes sonic, but if you’re close enough to it, it actually clicks as it hits the ground: “Boom.”
And it started to come down around me, torrential rain and blades of lightning lighting up around me and the sound was just so intense. I mean, it was just monstrous and I was cast into a deep and overwhelming fear and I realized —
Tim Ferriss: I can imagine.
Boyd Varty: — I realized like true fear is kind of a rare experience in life. It’s so different.
Tim Ferriss: Terror, right? Like terror is, it’s a very distinct thing.
Boyd Varty: It’s so distinct to like all my anxiety, you know, all the things I worry about, but like true raw, “I don’t know if we make it out of this” fear is actually a very rare encounter in life. And, you know, it would not end. I just kept saying to myself, like “You can’t be this scared for so long. Surely it’s just going to pass.” And then like another hour and another hour and I just kind of weathered it and I felt an incredible, yeah I mean, I guess it’s talked about a lot, but an incredible fragility and an incredible humility. And then the next day when I came out of it, I also felt like, “Oh, God, that scared me so much, but I would do it again.” You know, just to like on the other side of it to have been like in a storm like that felt very very special, I felt like a profound encounter with the force of nature.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think you’ll ever do an extended period solo like that again? I don’t know if you were totally solo. I have no idea if you were solo solo or it was like solo most of the time, but a few people would come out and say hi every once in a while, maybe you could clarify that, but do you think you would repeat an experiment like that? Why or why not? Not necessarily in a tree, but that degree of solitude.
Boyd Varty: I mean without a shadow of a doubt, it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done and I don’t know it if I will do six weeks again, but I will certainly try and get 10 days solo in nature a year with no other people, and in this one, I didn’t see other people. I was totally by myself. And, you know, there’s amazing things that happen when you are by yourself. One is, you know, getting really into your own energy, just being in your own energetic field, then being attune to nature and feeling your body start to attune to those rhythms. You know, watching the stars move through the sky all night and feeling yourself naturally wake up with the dawn and go to sleep when it gets dark and feeling your whole circadian rhythm attune to that, what else about it?
You know, funny things happened like on the one day I banged my head. I had a trunk which had dry goods in it, but I banged my hand on the trunk and I was like, “ah, Goddammit” and I flew into a rage. I flew into a rage because it was so painful and then I realized that with no one else around, I couldn’t maintain my state of anger and that’s a really weird thing, like sulking, being angry and sulking and moods and all of that stuff is really for the benefit of other people, it’s really so that other people can get tuned in to like what a difficult time you’re having. But when you are by yourself, they just do not abide because there’s no one around to like stay in the story for.
Tim Ferriss: Well speaking of mood, part of the reason I’m asking is because I know you and I have both experienced in life depressive episodes, and I suppose there’s part of me that thinks “Man, 40 days is a long time to be alone with the voices in your head.” But did you find, how did you find that experience? Was that even a concern going into it for you? If you did think about it, how did you think about that?
Boyd Varty: No, I mean, certainly a concern. And then there’s also this weird component of time, right? Like you wake up in at 4:00 in the morning, you meditate, you go tracking for a few hours, you come back to the camp, you make some coffee, you run, you do some more reading and journaling, you meditate again and it’s 10:15 and you have 39 days to go. So… But the one thing is that, you know, I was not doing like traditional Zen retreat. I allowed myself books. I allowed myself to do daily recordings of my encounters, like kind of journal entries and I allowed myself to go tracking and so actually it was incredibly generative for me. And there’s all these like little problems you have to solve. Like you got to keep your camp clean and then everything gets wet, and then you got to work out how to build yourself a bit of shelter. And then, you know, but once you become more present, it becomes so full of life.
Like I would make myself this evening shower, I’d go fill a big cast iron kettle with water. And then I would warm it on the fire. And then I would pour this kettle of hot water over myself, totally alone, up in the tree. And it was the best shower I’ve ever had and it was teaching me presence all the time. And I actually, once the anxiety left, there was a lot of introspection and I looked at a lot of things, but I actually didn’t feel myself taken by sort of anxious or depressive demons. The process felt very generative and alive to me.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s something that I’ve been looking at very, very closely for myself. And I don’t think I’ve yet perhaps developed the eyes or the awareness to parse it, but the difference, the characteristics or the circumstances that lead to nourishing solitude versus depleting isolation.
Boyd Varty: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Because those are very different, for me, those concepts represent very different things, right, solitude versus isolation or loneliness. So thank you for answering.
Boyd Varty: How does it feel for you now, like if you went alone for a week to a cabin now, like how does it land on you now?
Tim Ferriss: A week, I could do week, a week I can do and I could find that I think very restorative. I particularly find it restorative if I am with Molly, my dog, and have that close connection going through wilderness with Molly is particularly nourishing to me. I can also do it solo, but I find that she and I are so attuned at this point because we spend almost all of our waking time together that she’s like my external nervous system. So she’s almost like an amplifier from my own nervous system. So I’m picking up what I’m picking up, but I’m also picking up a lot of what she is picking up, just by observing her behavior and that is very additive for me and also deepens my relationship not only with the surroundings and with myself on some level, but with her. So a week I would take no problem. I think the six weeks starts to get out to a point where I’m like, I wonder, right, there’s just a question mark.
Boyd Varty: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Because I haven’t done six weeks solo. That’s a pretty good stretch of time.
Boyd Varty: Yeah. I mean, I will say that it was largely supplemented by the passion for tracking and so your encounter with like feeling the presence of Molly there and you know being in this thing together, like my feeling is every time I’m tracking, I’m in a new story. Every time I’m out there following, I’m in a deep encounter and it actually feels like there’s this alive sentience awareness. One of the things that I would say is that when I first went out, I thought that part of what I was doing is I wanted to improve my attunement to nature, like I wanted to know nature, but one of the most profound experiences out of it was that I started to feel known by nature.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. For sure.
Boyd Varty: I know that this maybe gets us off a little bit into the esoteric, but there was this feeling that there’s this sentient alive consciousness and somehow it was feeling me as I was feeling it in a really deep way.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Boyd Varty: And that felt incredibly supportive and like I was touching something really beautiful and special.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I think there’s a lot to that, but lest we get too far down the rabbit hole into crazy town, which maybe we’ll do on a round two, definitely do around a campfire in person. But I think there’s actually a lot there related to what you just said. So I do want to discuss your healing process and this is going to seem like a very strange way to approach it. Before we get to that, I feel like maybe like ginger and the sushi meal will just give people a story as a quick refresher/pallet cleanser and then we’ll dig into some heavy stuff. So are you willing to tell the story about the bees?
Boyd Varty: Oh, absolutely. Well, I guess, we bonded over this story. You know, people ask me a lot, like what’s the most dangerous encounter you’ve had in nature. And you know, by this stage of the podcast, you know, a crocodile tried to ingest me and that wasn’t the worst, but I became fascinated by bees for a few reasons. One is that one day I was walking in the wild part of Zimbabwe and I came across this ancient baobab tree, this two-storey high baobab tree and it had been hollowed out when an elephant had knocked the branch and it was in fact empty and a swarm of bees had made their hive in the top of it and the sound of the bees humming was coming down the base of that tree. And it was like standing next to this giant didgeridoo.
And just the sort of, I could hear the intensity of the bees through this process and I felt their vibration coming out of this tree. And it kind of sparked my interest. There’s also an amazing thing in Southern Africa, there’s a bird called the honeyguide and literally if you go out in parts of wilderness in Africa and you start banging on trees, a bird will come to you and it will start to call incredibly animatedly very much like Disney’s, “I think he wants us to follow him” and then it will fly in front of you and show you where the beehive is. So that like for thousands of years before, as a hunter gatherer, you can rob the beehive and then you put some honey down next to you and the bird comes and lands next to you and eats the honey. It’s this incredible, ancient just, you know, an encounter like that. Like it just takes you back thousands of years in an instant.
Tim Ferriss: Wow. So wait, just for clarity. So this is like thousands, tens of thousands — who knows? Hundreds of thousands of years of coevolution where this bird has a species memory of a symbiotic relationship with humanoids. Is that what I’m hearing?
Boyd Varty: Type of morphogenetic field memory.
Tim Ferriss: That’s nice.
Boyd Varty: That when it sees a person, it knows we go and get honey together.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Boyd Varty: Isn’t that amazing?
Tim Ferriss: That’s cool.
Boyd Varty: You walk out to remote places and suddenly the birds, then it’s like, “Come on, let’s do this. Are we going to do this?” And it almost appears to get disappointed if you’re like, “I’m not going to go and rob the beehive now.”
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Boyd Varty: So anyway, like I was having, you know, sort of, I was around with this idea and I was like the bees are really fascinating and then I started reading up on them and it’s this incredible creature, right? They pollinate millions of flowers. They’re one of the biggest contributors from the insect world to the economy, honey sales, they can feel electromagnetic fields. They will disappear if a storm is brewing.
And then as you watch the hive itself, this incredible kind of algorithmic intelligence whereby a single bee, an individual bee responds to localized stimuli, doing what it knows to do, and when enough bees responding to individual localized stimuli, all start to attune an algorithm fires through the hive, and they move as one and they know where to go and get food, et cetera. So that idea also gripped me the idea of individuals attuning to what they know to do can trigger a kind of a collective transformation. So I got really into this and I went up into the village.
Tim Ferriss: That’s all the good stuff.
Boyd Varty: Yeah. It was a bit of backstory here before my near-death experience. So wait, I should tell you that during the time that I got fascinated about bees, there was a couple who were coming on safari and they had been writing to me from Singapore and they were saying, “Listen, we want to come to Africa, but we are terrified of Ebola.” And I had said to them, “Listen, Ebola is in, you know, North and West Africa. There is no Ebola in South Africa.” “Yeah. But we are very, very afraid of it. We are very concerned that it could travel.” I said, “You really have to trust me. There is no Ebola in South Africa. You’re going to be absolutely safe.” So they had come on safari. Meantime, I walk up into the back of the village and I seek out a man by the name of Simon Sambo, and Simon Sambo himself has a mellifluous voice, very soft, lilting voice.
And Simon Sambo is the village beekeeper. So I say to him, “Simon, I’ve got really interested in bees and I know that you have some hives and I would love to come and experience your beekeeping.” He says, “Okay, that’s not a problem. I can take you beekeeping.” I said, “Great. I’m excited about this.” He says, “You meet me tomorrow in the morning and we will go and meet the bees.” Okay, next morning, I meet him and he’s got a big sort of black plastic case and we drive out to the hives and I’m inappropriately dressed. I’m in like shorts and t-shirt. “What do we do now?” He says, “Okay, the first thing is you must put on your beekeeping suit.” So he gives me his suit and I put it on and it’s a little bit short for me. Like literally between my sneaker and my ankle, I have some exposure.
So I said to him, “Simon, the suit is a bit short for me,” because he had sort of, this was his second suit. He says, “Oh, don’t worry you can borrow my socks.” So he takes his boots off and he’s got thick black socks. And so I sort of feel, and I think, okay, this is going to be good. And I put the socks on and I like seal up the suit. I said to him, “Cool, Simon, let’s get the smoker going now.” He says, “Oh, no, I don’t use the smoker. It makes the bees afraid of a fire.” So like a little bell goes off in my head. I’m like, “But beekeepers all over the world use the smoker.” He says, “It’s not my style.” So I’m like, okay, I’m here to learn. And so Simon and I start heading towards the hives and I’m talking African bees here.
Now, some amazing thing happens. As you approach the hive, if you just walk past the hive with no intention of doing anything, the bees somehow know it, but the minute you put your intention and attention on them, I don’t know how, you know, it’s maybe too woo, but I’m telling you, they feel it. And as you start walking towards the hive, they start changing gears. Like they’re at the Austin F1 track. “Woo, wooooo.”
You hear the sound changing. So we get up next to the hive and Simon gets out his crowbar and he cranks the lid off and 70,000 of the most enraged African bees rise up in a black cloud around me and they are shimmering around me and you can feel the intensity and you can feel their attitude of, “Oh, you think you can fuck with us?” and they are all around you and they start to land on you.
And you know, someone who’s grown up around animals, I feel the energy of a single angry, aggressive animal and they’re all over me. And I say, “Simon, this is quite intense.” He says, “Don’t worry. Everything’s okay.” and they start landing on the visor and like blocking the visor out and it’s super intense, and right at that moment in the midst of this like raw buzzing intensity, one bee found my weak sock area and it stung me through the sock and the minute as that sting went through the sock, a huge pheromonal cascade was released to the other bees and the shimmering swarming dark mass around my head it stopped for a second and then as one, the bees went to my ankles.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God.
Boyd Varty: And they begin to sting me intensely through the socks. The socks do not work. So I was like “Simon, Simon, they are stinging me. Simon, Simon they are stinging me, what do I do?” He says “Okay, back away.” and they start following me. And then now I’m being stung hundreds of times and then at one stage I look up and there’s a bee that is inside the suit. So as I get into the clearing and now I have a swarm of bees around me, they are still penetrating the sock. “Simon, what must I do, what must I do?” He says “Hold on, I will help you” and he runs over and he cuts a large branch of a tree and then he runs back and he starts beating me with the branch.
And I’m standing in the clearing getting pounded with the branch and they’re still stinging me, they’re still all around me, I say “Simon, it’s not working, it’s not working.” He says, “Okay, I will get the smoker going.” And just the thought ran into my head like “Little late for that.” He grabbed the smoker, he starts putting elephant dung in it and then he gets it going and he comes over to me and he starts blasting me with the smoker, and the first blast went right through the visor of the bee suit and into my mouth. And so I got a big inhale of elephant dung and then my mind and my chest immediately tightened up.
I started thinking, “Shit, my whole body’s going into anaphylaxis. Is it elephant dung or was it anaphylaxis?” and they’re still stinging me and it’s bad. I said, “Simon, they’re still stinging me, they’re still stinging me,” He says “Okay, run for your life!” [crosstalk 01:29:41] Two men in beekeeping suits break into a full run through the wilderness and we just start running aimlessly at first and then he says, “They will chase you forever; make for the Land Rover.” So we run to the Land Rover and we jump into it and he just says, “Drive, drive, drive. They are enraged.” I start driving off into the wilderness. True as nuts, we come around the first corner and on the other safari truck driving towards us is the couple from Singapore who’ve been afraid of Ebola and they see — what they see is the Ebola cleanup crew in full white suits driving towards them at full speed going “You’re going to die. You’re going to die! Drive, drive, drive!”
And that was my first encounter with the bees. So eventually I make it back to the house and I remember I got into my bedroom and I sat on the bed and I was just trying to feel my own body and I was like, “Am I dying? Am I okay?” Like, is it kicking in? And I got into the shower and I like took all the stingers out of my ankles. And I made it back onto my bed. And that was me for the next five days. I did not move, my feet looked like someone had taken surgical gloves and just blown them up.
And Simon would come around and he would say, “Hey, Boyd, how are you doing today?” I said, “Not good.” He said, “I brought some ice for your feet. Next time we will get you boots.” But you know, I sat with it and what I took out of it was, number one, if you want to, what the bees taught me is if you want to know about the bees, respect the bees and the next thing that I got was I became intrigued by the power of this collective ability to fire the collective consciousness algorithm. Like what would it mean if we all started really attending to states of peace and healing and well-being and and if enough of us did that, could we like the bees, you know, create some kind of algorithmic transformation for everyone? So I got a lot out of it.
Tim Ferriss: Stinging the shit out of some invaders’ ankles.
Boyd Varty: The intensity. They taught me so much about intensity.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s what I learned from Independence Day. If we have aliens invade, that’s a great way for us to activate our hive mind to sting the shit out of someone’s ankles.
Boyd Varty: Get the bees on them.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, all right. Well this segue back to what I mentioned earlier is going to be a little awkward. So let me find like an in-between course to get us there that will maybe lead us back in some odd way. Could you speak to the moment when a lion notices you and then what happens at that point? How does an encounter like that unfold?
Boyd Varty: Well, again, you know, when I come back to that idea, the minute a lion becomes aware of you and you become aware of it, you are in a language dialogue, and it is a language of energy and presence. Now there’s usually one of two things that’ll happen. Either the lion will get up, and this is 99 percent of the encounters, the lion’s natural instinct is to get away from you. Remember, people hunted lions for hundreds of years on the planes and actually one of the primary ways that hunter gatherers got food, and a lot of people don’t know this, is they tracked lions and then they would rob them off their kills, and so lions have a long history of being, you know, chased by humans.
So normally it’ll go away from you. However, that doesn’t always happen. Particularly if a lioness has cubs or if they have meat, they can be aggressive. Now, normally what’ll happen is the first thing that you will notice is the animal’s body will tighten, they’ll drop their head and the tail starts to flick intensely and they start to warning growl at you.
The growl is so intense it sounds like someone started a dirt bike in the bush up ahead of you, and then if it’s a lioness and she’s got cubs, she’ll stand up and still with her head low and her ears back, and the tail lashing, she slowly starts to walk towards you and she fixes you with a gaze of utter intensity and the minute she has you in that gaze, your only option is you have to stand your ground and you have to communicate an intense presence back to her. So when that happens to me, if I feel myself starting to come into an encounter where we’re going to have a more aggressive, energetic conversation with each other.
Tim Ferriss: And may I just interject for one second to say, when you don’t have clients, true or false, you guys will often go out with just walking sticks.
Boyd Varty: Yeah, no rifles without clients.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, please continue.
Boyd Varty: What we most believe in is being in this dialogue. And so if that happens, the first thing that you do is you breathe out, a long out breath, cause everything in your system is starting to jack up because the feeling of it is like, you can feel your whole system flush with adrenaline. So you breathe out, you anchor yourself. And then you understand that that lion is trying to communicate with you. She walks towards you intensely and then she’ll growl, and with that she charges, and then she runs at you at full speed and it is so fast, snarling, you know, full gums revealed, teeth revealed, and she comes in. And then you stand your ground and you look her directly in the eyes.
And mostly what’ll happen is she’ll stop some distance from you. As she stops, you hold her in your energy and you’re almost aggressive back to her. And you’re showing that like, “I’m dangerous too.” And then the minute you see her energy drop a little bit, because all that she’s doing is she’s trying to anchor you so that the cubs can run away. The minute you see her energy drop a little bit, you just start dropping away and still facing her you step back, you give her space and very quickly you start communicating to her that “We know we’ve come too close, but we are going to give you space now,” but you can only do that once she has stopped coming at you. And if you watch her very intensely — and Renias is really the master of this — as you watch her closely, a slight drop in energy, and he’ll move backwards a little bit. And then you get out of the situation and you just find yourself giggling stupidly and doing all the weird things that happen after high tense situations.
Tim Ferriss: So you said most of the time, they stop some distance from you. So what’s the alternate scenario?
Boyd Varty: If you’re in the alternate scenario, you’ve got something very, very wrong.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Boyd Varty: And the reason that you get into the alternate scenario is that you get it wrong in the moment. You see, as that charge starts happening, you’re in the dialogue and your presence is absolutely critical and your ability to project an energetic presence and meet her and then to quickly help her understand that you’re not afraid of her, you’re dangerous, but you’re also going to give way. And when people get killed, it’s because they get that wrong. They fall over, their nerve breaks and they want to run or they get scared and they start running immediately. That’s when dangerous things happen.
Tim Ferriss: I don’t know if you’ve ever come across this book, but it’s one of my favorite non-fiction books for the last 10 years, which is saying a lot for me because I do read a lot of books and they already have cleared hurdles, right. I’m not just reading whatever I randomly pick off of Amazon. I’m getting books that are usually recommended by two or three people first. In a book called Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez, who’s won a lot of awards. He’s best known for a book called Arctic Dreams, but Of Wolves and Men, he talks about the conversation between predator and prey as the conversation of death. And he went out with field biologists and also with Inuit and Native Americans in North America at various points and observed different hunts and also heard stories from both groups about this conversation of death. So people listening might think, well, that doesn’t make any sense, a lion is a predator, they can easily overtake you, why wouldn’t they attack you?
But time and time again, the conversation of death wouldn’t always end in death. Sometimes a perfectly capable, say, pack of wolves would pursue a caribou or an elk or something. And then at one point, the elk or the caribou do an about-face standoff with the wolves and then they would just part ways. They’d just walk in opposite directions, and it seems to defy explanation, but it does happen. And I found that entire segment of the book, it comes up a number of times, but talking about the nuances in this conversation of death and how these animals interface, there seems to be some communication. And sometimes it ends in death and other times it just ends in both parties deciding, “Okay, another day,” and then they just go in different directions. It’s something I don’t have any real understanding of, but I find endlessly fascinating. So it’s something that you’ve had more firsthand experience with, I suppose.
Boyd Varty: I mean, there’s a knowledge out there that is — and if you actually talk to any people, biologists feel the more time you spend in nature, the more you’ll realize how little we know. There is subtlety and nuance and there is things happening out there that is way beyond our understanding.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah, there’s another example. I think it’s in Of Wolves and Men, but talking about how there’re recorded instances of wolf packs that are being tracked, presumably with radio collars, but maybe with flyovers or something like that prior to the satellite collars because this book was written in the ’70s, that at some point for no discernible cause, right, no stimuli that can be identified, will just pick up and all head off in a very precise direction, in a more or less straight line. And then four days later, they intersect perfectly with a caribou herd that happens to be migrating, but started at roughly the same time, moving in a different direction. And the two vectors intersect and it’s like, okay.
I mean, that seems interesting. I don’t know how to explain that exactly, but these types of phenomena that get observed over and over again and also, not to take us too far afield but these so-called, and in some cases, there are certainly mythologies, but mythologies about, for instance, in the case of some North American Indians, the collaboration between coyote and badger. So the joining forces of coyote and badger, which for a long time was thought to be this quaint fairytale, and then during quarantine, this is now about a year, year and a half ago, there was some type of trail cam footage that was released that showed a coyote playing with a badger like a dog would, wagging its tail and jumping around and then them leading off through a tunnel on basically a hunting party, right. So there’s just so much we don’t know.
Boyd Varty: It doesn’t surprise me. I mean, even just some of the stuff around orientation. You watch a female leopard walk five or six kilometers, leave her cub, walk five or six kilometers, then hunt in thick terrain, walking circles, moving in an irregular way, catch an impala, hoist it in a tree and walk a direct line back to where her cub was, which by anyone’s standards would just be an incredible piece of navigation. And she doesn’t have a verbal mind or a rational mind, but somehow through all of that circuitous movement, she knows where she left the cub in a more instinctual way almost.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Boyd Varty: And then you find this in native people too, the capacity for homing, the ability, and I’ve seen it with trackers who’ve come down from the Kalahari. They’ve come into the Kruger National Park, a terrain they’ve never been in. We’ve taken them into the Mopani. Mopani is like an eye-high scrub and we’ve walked for a few hours in the Mopani. We have a GPS because we know how easy it is to get lost in there. And then afterwards we’ve said to them, “Okay, take us back to the vehicle.” We’ve got the GPS and they walk on a beeline directly back to where we left the vehicle.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Boyd Varty: That’s just like, what is that?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s fascinating. It makes me wonder. And I think this might actually be demonstrated, if we have some magnetic homing capability or navigational ability similar to hammerhead sharks, right. So there’s footage people can find of marine biologists studying hammerhead sharks with a baby hammerhead sharks in a aquarium basically, and they have top-down footage of how the movement changes if they rearrange magnets underneath the encasement.
So many unanswered questions, which is very exciting to me, obviously, because if everything were discovered that would be quite depressing in and of itself. So let’s come back to these traumatic events. Let’s come back to these traumatic events in your, say, early 20, 18 to 20s, and then what followed after that. How did your healing path, and this might seem like a strange way to lead in, but differ from those of your mom and sister, right, because they were also presumably traumatized by the home invasion. If you’re open to speaking to it, and you could just speak to your own personal experience, but I’m curious how different people have approached finding some degree of closure, resolution, healing after an experience like that.
Boyd Varty: Well, I think for one thing, there was a masculine/feminine component to that. They did a lot more post-traumatic counseling at the time. And I wasn’t open to that. I thought the way that I’d grown up, I thought I’m just going to get on with it and move forward, which is a naive approach to say the least. And then there was also a challenge that I had where I think in the masculine, it was harder just to process, just process feelings. What I needed was a path that I felt was taking me somewhere. And so where that really took root for me is when I started to understand that if I was willing to look at how I had become frozen, if I was willing to look at how I was anxious and depressed as a result of that and how that kind of shut me out from living, and if I was starting, if I was able to start living towards that, it actually gave me a kind of map out of trauma. Someone trauma healed becomes a kind of medicine.
And so it was only really when I started to understand that there was value to this just beyond myself, and in fact, if I became someone who learned how to be in a transformational process and learned how to heal, it was actually taking me towards what I was meant to do in some very important way. And somehow that structure of meaning had to take root in me before I was really able to dive into healing spaces and be open to that type of work.
And it was different for my mother and sister. They were able to, in a more feminine way, allow that process earlier. For me, there had to be a structure of meaning that allowed me to engage in healing and be soft enough and to learn to soften and to learn to open and to learn to let myself actually feel what was there and the fear that was there and the uncertainty that was there. And also a feeling that I didn’t know what I really wanted to do. I had a family legacy in conservation, I had a safari business that I could come into, but I didn’t want to just run safaris. I knew there was something else for me. And I had to go on that journey to find out what that was.
Tim Ferriss: When you say structured meaning, could you elaborate on what that means? Might seem a little recursive as a question, but how did you find that structured meaning that you needed to move forth with contending with what had happened?
Boyd Varty: Well, a few ways. One is, so what I mean by that is, okay. So if you’ve had a traumatic encounter in the way that I understand it, it’s like a part of you becomes frozen and almost inevitably where there’s been trauma, there is a reduction of options, which means I have less choices and that gets laid down. So life starts to become limited and there’s less access to different choices. A healthy person could say here’s a way of handling this. Here’s a different way of handling it. A traumatized person has one way of handling it, retreat and isolate, for example. And then I was lucky to have Martha and she started to expose me to how a healing process works. And then very soon after that I found ceremony work.
Tim Ferriss: Just for context, for people listening, could you define ceremony work?
Boyd Varty: There are obviously many different ways of being in ceremony. You might say that AA is a ceremony space, all the way to sweat lodge spaces, all the way to gatherings using plant medicines. There’s just an array. I found myself in spaces using plant medicines that were very well guided. And so the first part of the journey for me was actually acknowledging that I was frozen. So there was building awareness around how I’d become frozen and then in ceremony watching, drinking the medicine, being with people who were in a healing energetic, and then watching how that affected my life, getting to know how I was when I was frozen, then making peace with that, as opposed to thinking there was something wrong with me.
That was a big movement being like, this has happened, this is where I’m at, and that’s okay. Then starting to give myself different options. So instead of just being isolated and frozen, starting to actually be able to share the things that I was ashamed of. In some ways I was ashamed that I hadn’t been able to protect my parents, my sister and my mother. And I was ashamed that I had let bad guys in the house. I was the man of the house, all these things, I was able to start to be able to share these things that I was ashamed of. And I was able to talk to how disempowered I had felt in and unable to do what I needed to do. And so I started to generate awareness out of that. And then I started to realize that in sharing that, it actually opened me to deeper connection, as opposed to what I thought it would do, which was shut me out and shun me.
And then I started to, because I was well-guided, I started to generate a narrative that was supported. And what I mean by that is the guide started to help me generate a narrative of the things that have happened to me can actually be fodder for growth and learning. And that became really important. And then it actually became, I have some gifts in this and if I can find those gifts and share them, that’s probably the most healing thing I can do. And so I was in that process for a long time and at a certain point in it, I started to realize, in fact, this is taking me to my work and that’s when I started to see the tracker differently.
And I started to really understand how a transformational process is an intricate unfolding, and as a guide, you can support it as a storyteller, you can support it with presence, you can support it by just listening, you can support it by creating spaces that people can actually be open in. And you can actually start to know the way certain trauma patterns work and help people develop awareness and different outcomes for themselves. And so my healing was actually about finding the purpose to help healing come into the world. If that makes sense.
Tim Ferriss: It does make sense. And I wish — at some point I’ll show you all the highlights and underlying sections in your book. And I think I might have shown you a photograph of the index that I created just for the highlights at the front of the book, but one of the lines, this is on page 122 of The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life is, “In these times, an authentic life infused with meaning is a kind of activism.” Right? And then you go on to explain why that’s the case. And I think about this a lot and you actually had another quote way earlier. Let’s see if I can find it. It’s from Saint Francis of Assisi. Oh man, I wish I could find this because it ties into — [crosstalk 01:51:52]
Boyd Varty: “Wherever you go, spread the gospel. When absolutely necessary, use words.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, exactly. So don’t we all wish more people would follow that advice. And perhaps advice we should give ourselves as often or perhaps more often than we give it to anybody else. And I think this is really critical to highlight in the sense that in this day and age, in these times, yelling and screaming on the internet and shaming other people or tearing other people down can be mistaken for something constructive or activism. But in reality, a very powerful form of activism is being the example that you want to see more of in the world, right. And holding yourself accountable in that way, which is not easy. It’s really hard oftentimes to do that. And I know both of us have had tremendous struggles of different types. Although I think they share a lot of common DNA and a lot of this seems to come down to stress testing beliefs, if that makes sense. Right?
So if you are, if a component of yourself, kind of along the lines of IFS or Internal Family Systems, if people are interested in that they can certainly look that up. I did an interview with Dick Schwartz, Richard Schwartz, the founder. But if a component of your personality or psyche is kind of frozen in time and compartmentalized and when you are put in circumstances that activate that part of yourself, you get tunnel vision with options, and maybe you have one option or maybe you have two options. You can often reduce that down to a belief, right, a statement of some type. And I’m bringing this up because I would love to hear how Byron Katie’s workshops have been helpful or not helpful for you, because I know this is something we’ve spoken about, and if they have been helpful, what specific worksheets have been helpful for you?
Boyd Varty: Oh, my goodness. Can I talk for a moment to the activism thing and then come back to Byron Katie?
Tim Ferriss: You are allowed sir. The stage is yours.
Boyd Varty: So one thing on the activism thing, and I would say it like this and Tim, you’ve been on a healing journey. What I notice is that a person who heals has a natural inclination to want to be of service. And especially if you’ve had people who’ve supported you along the way. And that’s not to say that I think I know how you should heal, but there’s just this desire as someone who heals to support the healing impulse and be there. And you know that there were moments in your own journey that were very powerful for you and you want, it’s almost just innate when you get in touch with that to want to do that for other people and support that.
The way that I think about this is if you can give yourself a transformational process and you go on a journey to discover, I would call it the track of your life, the place where you feel whole, where you feel like you’re expressing your essence into the world, the place where you feel just at peace and in tune with yourself and it takes time to get to that. And it seems to me that at a certain point in every lifetime, we get asked, what’s it about? And it seems to me it’s about that, coming to that place in yourself. But there are some characteristics of people who I see who deeply find that place. For one, they become inclined towards simplicity. They don’t want a lot of things. A feeling of enough comes into them and both ‘I am enough’ and ‘I have enough’ and they stop wanting to consume more things to feel okay. There’s a natural desire towards service. There seems to be this inclination that takes them to be pulled into nature. There’s a desire to be creative and support other people.
And that’s what I mean is that inside of every healing journey and when someone goes on that journey and finds a deeper place of peace and of course it’s a continuous journey, but it seems to me that those things take root and that seems to be very important for the restoration movement. In a very individual way we do our own work to heal and come to wholeness, but a whole lot of people coming into that state of I have enough, I am enough, it just changes the desire to consume endlessly and I think that’s going to be very good for nature. And so I see the restoration movement as both restoring our relationship to wild places and restoring wild places, but also restoring ourselves, coming to wholeness and healing so that we come out of the illusion that more stuff is going to make us feel okay and realize it’s already there in us. We need to discover that gift and share it. So that’s a little talk on how people who discover that just become embodied activists.
And then Byron Katie’s work. I cannot say enough about it. I know you’ve had a lot of people on the show who have brought her up. But there is nothing more profound than being able to identify thoughts that are causing you stress and then have a system to question them. And on a certain point on a journey, they become absolutely critical because if you are getting in touch with this place inside yourself, and it’s curious, and it knows sort of what it wants to do, and you feel drawn to a different way of living, inevitably a number of ideas will come in as to why that’s not possible. And so I’ve done hundreds of worksheets now and you name it, I’ve done absolutely ridiculous ones. And she says — I’ve done “My mother shouldn’t have taken my cake away.” Literally that sort of level of stuff all the way down to “I’m not safe” or “I’m not going to live the life that I want to live.”
And when you sit in it as meditation and you get to know yourself and that’s where the process changed for me, when I would come up with a thought like I’m never going to achieve what I want to achieve. When I actually sat, like she says to do, in meditation and asked the question, “Who am I when I believe that thought?” And I started to watch. “I feel frustrated. I feel let down. I don’t have confidence in myself. I feel like I’m never doing enough. I feel like I need to do more. I say yes to things that I don’t really want to do. I’m afraid of missing something.” And when I sat in that and got to know myself there, and then “Who would I be without the thought?” I would be relaxed. I would be open. I would be really feeling for what’s a yes and a no for me, I would be listening. I would be grateful for where I already am. I would be thankful for what I have.
And so for me, I did the work for a long time before realizing it was meditation in which I was getting to know myself as someone who believed a thought and someone who didn’t believe the thought. And only when I really understood it to be meditation and I could sit and watch myself like that did I feel a compassion of getting to know myself when I believe a thought and when I don’t believe a thought and how powerful that is. And that’s when the work really took for me.
Tim Ferriss: And people can find out more about this at thework.com. It’s not a panacea, of course, and Katie, she goes by Katie, right —
Boyd Varty: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: — or people call her Katie instead of Byron, is a very unusual woman, unique woman. So —
Boyd Varty: Well, I mean, I’ll give you a Katie story.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, please.
Boyd Varty: The first time I ever met her, I was sitting in a conference that she was talking at. And I happened to be sitting in the second row. She sat down next to me. She looked at me, she put her hand out, I took her hand and we held hands for an hour while other people talked. And then she turned and looked at me and she said, “I liked holding your hand.” And then she left for the stage. That was my first, and that’s Katie, totally connected, totally wild. And you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Tim Ferriss: Right. So I suppose I’m saying this all as a caveat that if you watch videos, which I think are worth watching, but you may think, “Who is this alien? Get me out of here.” But I would also suggest that it’s worth investigating. The worksheets I have found tremendously valuable for myself. If a belief is a thought we take to be true, having an actual worksheet and structure for stress testing that belief, right, in the way that you just described, and then also doing turnarounds, where if, for instance, just this one example, if your statement is I am not safe, having a statement I am safe and then being forced to come up with examples or evidence that you list out that you are safe. And it is incredibly practical and powerful for sort of diffusing the emotional boiling point, the sort of entropy and red line emotional state that then puts you into this thought loop where you create this selective attention where you only see evidence for whatever this belief is that you hold.
Yeah. I highly recommend people check that out. I want to ask you about something that I don’t know about, which is true for a lot of this and a lot of the follow-up questions. The sweat lodge in Arizona. Does this cue anything for you?
Boyd Varty: That was my first medicine encounter.
Tim Ferriss: All right, please say more.
Boyd Varty: And so it happened really early on. I had just been through those two traumatic encounters and I was severely kind of unsure of what I was meant to be doing. And I was staying in Arizona with Martha and another woman who was apprenticing with her who was a horse whisperer by the name of Koelle Simpson. She had ties to the Navajo community and she invited me to attend to a sweat. And so I was, I’d never been exposed to that before so I was really interested. And so we went to the sweat and we ended up on a kind of a church ground on the outskirts of Phoenix and it was one of those classic encounters of, what did they say? First the enlightenment and then the laundry type thing.
I knew that it was a very big kind of experience I was about to have, it was a spiritual encounter. There was a medicine man coming in, but we were also in kind of this abandoned churchyard and then the medicine man arrived and he had just left his job on a Friday afternoon in construction. So I was trying to catch up a little bit with it, but the minute the ceremony started, I started to feel the energy. And we went into the sweat lodge, we drank the medicine, and —
Tim Ferriss: So in this case, just could you describe for people how tall is the sweat lodge? How many people? It’s presumably completely dark. I mean, once the door closes.
Boyd Varty: Yeah. Short classic hogan with blankets over it, you got to crouch to get into it, fire area in the middle where the stones come, huge fire outside where the guys are really heating up the rocks. And then over the course of about five hours, the stones just keep coming in and the heat just keeps building and people start to sing. And we were joined by various other people who had come to the ceremony and it was all native people and myself and Koelle and everyone started singing. And the energy started to build and then more heat and then more singing and then drum and then more heat. And it just keeps on building. And then people started to let go of things that they were holding. And so people started to scream and people started to cry and the music builds and the singing builds. And you can almost feel the energy is conjuring more and more energy. It’s building on itself and it’s getting super intense.
And eventually the heat was getting too hot for me. And I could feel, I’d been told, don’t leave the sweat lodge, but I’m like, this is too much. And then the medicine and then the singing. And suddenly I found myself in this kind of slide show and my eyes were closed, Tim, but I saw the gun in my face. I saw my sister tied up. I saw the crocodile just break the surface of the water. I saw all of these images, and the gun to being taken outside, kneeling down, being told “You’re going to be killed,” the words, and “We are going to kill you, we’re going to kill you.” It all just ran through my mind and with vivid, vivid imagery. And then eventually it got to the point where it was almost too much. And I just started throwing up. And as I started throwing up, the entire imagery changed.
And suddenly I was in the vision. I was back home in South Africa and I was sitting in a clearing in the late afternoon light and walking across the clearing towards me came the Mother Leopard. And she walked through the short grass and she walked directly up to me in the vision. And she just bumped me as she walked past me. And in the instant that she bumped me something in me understood that my own healing and the healing of nature and the healing of the land was somehow connected. And that’s why all I’ve ever done now is try and tell stories from this place of nature has so much to teach us if we can attune to it. And then I passed out. And the next thing, I woke up.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, you passed out in the sweat?
Boyd Varty: I was passed out in the sweat and there was this vibrational quality to it. I know you have some experience with these medicines, but it was almost like I could feel the humming of the earth. And then eventually I came to and I was outside the sweat, and I was lying in a pile of leaves that someone had raked up earlier in the day. But I was in the leaves and I could feel the earth and I could feel the leaves all around me. And I looked up and this Navajo medicine man was pouring water up and down my spine. And I was disoriented and I said to him, “I think I’m dying, I think I’m dying.” And he kneeled down and he put his mouth right to my ear and he said, “No, brother, you’re just being born.”
And it was weird and I said, “But I don’t understand what’s happening.” And he said, “You’ll only understand in the next few weeks.” And he was right. It took a long time to integrate that. But that was really the beginning of my understanding that the restoration of our relationship with the natural world can begin inside each one of us. As each one of us heals, we create an opportunity to create a different relationship with the natural world. And then somehow that imagery spoke to the freezing, the trauma that we all go through and the opportunity to awaken back to our nature.
Tim Ferriss: What did you find unfolded, stuck, didn’t stick for you over the subsequent weeks?
Boyd Varty: That voice stayed with me, that whisper, “You’re just being born,” because I felt newborn. And I know that you probably know this place and many of your listeners who’ve had psychedelic experiences will know. There can be the sense of being new and almost baby-like. Sensitized again. You’re feeling again. You feel attuned again. You can feel people’s emotions. And for me it was just that. I was feeling again, after that experience. And all of the armor that I had put on had come off and I was able to slowly start … I felt other people’s pain. I felt other people’s sadness. I felt my own. And I did feel like brand new inside of that. And it wasn’t altogether comfortable, but at least I felt back in some ways. In fact, it felt incredibly uncomfortable, but I knew that it was better than where I was.
Tim Ferriss: I was recently spending time with an expedition guide who’s spent all sorts of time on Everest and Denali and K2. Really fantastic guy. And his name is Eli. And we happened to see the solar eclipse together. This was a few weeks ago. It’s the first time I’d ever seen a solar eclipse. And I think it was the first time he’d ever seen a solar eclipse. And I asked him how it was for him and he said, “I went up to some of my friends here at camp and I said to them, I’m like, “I’m not sure what this is. It’s like I’m wetting my pants, but it’s in my chest. I think they might be feelings.” “Well, it’s a warm feeling in my chest. I don’t know. It’s like, I’m peeing my pants into my chest. They might just be feelings.”
Boyd Varty: It’s so funny, because I had this buddy of mine who’s a Navy SEAL. And he says to me, “So I recently met this dog named Butters, and I find myself thinking about Butters. And he’s a friend of mine’s dog, and I go out and I think about Butters and I’m always worried about Butters. And I take Butters treats and I go over there. I always want to check on Butters. And what do you make of that?” I’m like, “I think that’s called love.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I always feel Butters right here in my chest.” I’m like, “I think you’re having the experience of loving Butters.” And he was like, “This is outrageous.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Sometimes we have to build the vocabulary, learn the ABCs. Or just rebuild them, reactivate them. Leopard in the fire. This is another cue. And just for people who are wondering what the hell I’m doing with these cues, sometimes I will ask people, or I’ll ask my research team to give me cues for stories that they think will be fun or productive or profound or interesting to explore. But I don’t want to know them in advance. Right? Because otherwise, the conversation is less fun for me. So leopard in the fire. What does leopard in the fire refer to?
Boyd Varty: Well, two parts to the story. The first is that, when I was very young, I heard a story around a campfire that stuck inside of me. And it was a story about a man by the name Laurens van der Post. And van der Post, you may have come across some of his work, but he was a tremendous poet and an artist. And he had one of those miraculous lives. He was a philosopher, really. But van der Post grew up on a farm in South Africa. He was very connected to the native people. He learned to track when he was young. And then he ended up going to fight in the Second World War. And, in fact, in the Second World War he was eventually taken prisoner. He was in a prisoner of war camp.
And the story as I heard it was that he returned to South Africa after the war. And he really wanted to go and see his family. But, he felt he couldn’t face them after the things that he had seen and that he had done. And so, instead of going to see his family, he decided that he would go alone into the Kruger National Park, very near where I grew up. So, he packed up his gear and he walked out into the reserve and he set up this little camp. And this was, of course, before the days of diagnoses like PTSD. And the story goes, on the very first night, he was sitting at the base of a marula tree next to this small water hole. And I can imagine after the war, the stillness he must have felt. And somewhere nearby a hyena started calling. And then a nightjar would’ve called somewhere, “Dear Lord, deliver us!” And I think of him sitting there in that stillness after the war.
And on the other side of the water hole, a kudu started to come towards the water hole to drink. And he sat incredibly still.
Tim Ferriss: And a kudu is like a large antelope?
Boyd Varty: Oh, this beautiful, regal animal. And it moves with this incredible elegance. And the kudu walked to the edge of the water hole. And then with these huge ears, its ears listened. And you can actually see the ears moving like satellite dishes as they listen. And it scanned the terrain all around. And then, very slowly, it put its lips down and it started to drink. And just as it started to drink, a breeze touched van der Post’s back, and it blew his scent over the water hole and straight into the nostrils of the kudu. And it put its head up and it looked directly at him. And, for a moment their eyes met, and van der Post said that in that moment, in the stillness of that gaze, he felt a kind of innocence come back into him, after all he had seen and all he had done in the war.
And instantly in that moment, he knew he was able to go and see his family again.
Tim Ferriss: Wow!
Boyd Varty: And, as a young kid, I think I was maybe eight or nine when I was sitting around the fire and I first heard the story. And, I didn’t even know why, but it had struck something in me. And, years later after the crocodile Solly and I had been sitting around the fire and we’d been talking a lot. And I was recovering. And the experience of being attacked by the crocodile was profound, because really it had brought me closer to Solly and I had learned so much about how he saw the world. And his world view was starting to come into me a more relational way of relating to nature and to other people.
But still, I felt myself incredibly anxious and frozen. I literally felt like I had this shake in my body and I couldn’t get it out. I would look at my hand and my hand would be shaking. I would wake up at night. I had pretty severe PTSD. And into the teeth of this, a fire broke out on the reserve. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a big bush fire, but the first thing you notice about a bush fire is just the-
Tim Ferriss: I have not.
Boyd Varty: — is the intensity of the sound. It hisses and crackles up ahead of you. The smoke drifts across the sun. And it bathes everything in this eerie orange light. And then insects that are escaping the blaze start flying up. And what you get is an aura of hawks and eagles, hawking insects out the sky. You feel the grounds start to shake. If you go out to fight it and you look to your right and out of the smoke comes a rhino. And it books past you. Snakes escaping the fire are coming past you.
And in this instant, Tim, with PTSD, I was highly activated. And we fought that fire for three days, and then eventually on the eve of the third day, the fire had burned through and the crews were still fighting it. But I had become isolated from them. I was about a mile or two away from them. And I was in an area that the fire had already burned through. And night was starting to fall and I could the crews on the horizon in the distance. And I could still see the fire was lighting the sky in this big, orange blaze. And, in fact, the area that I was in the smoke was still hanging on the ground all around me. And in the darkness to my right. I heard a sound like someone cutting a two by four, and immediately I knew that there was a leopard in the darkness to the right of me.
And so I turned to look, and walking out of the darkness into the faint light that the fire was throwing came this male leopard. And he was walking directly towards me, which is extremely — one, it was strange that he was in an area where there’d been a fire. And two, it was strange that he was walking directly towards me. And when I saw him and I looked at him and he became aware that I was aware of him, no aggression came into his body. He didn’t drop his head. He didn’t tighten his shoulders. He just continued to walk towards me.
And I, in fact, dropped down onto my haunches. And part of what I wanted to do is, he wasn’t being aggressive. So I dropped down, because I wanted to give myself the space to escalate. If he became aggressive, I would stand up. And if he became more aggressive, I could put my arms up. I was giving myself room to create more energy. And he continued to move towards me. And as I watched him, he was walking through the smoke and the smoke was almost dancing around him. And his eyes were lit by the fire on the horizon. And his whole coat, that beautiful rosetted coat, was bathed in this beautiful deep orange light from the fire.
And he continued to come towards me. And as he walked towards me, I felt this very ancient, primal energy wake up inside of me. And then he stopped when he was about 10 yards away. And he was so close to me that I could hear him breathing. And what it felt like to me is that, in that moment, it was as if I could feel his body in my body. And I could feel my body almost creating a mimesis to his energy. And I felt myself becoming incredibly alert, but incredibly still. And there was no thought of the future. And there was no thought of the past. There was just an energy circulating between this incredibly beautiful, wild, elusive, dangerous cat and I.
And then slowly, he turned to look at me and then he walked past the front of me. And in a moment he’d disappeared into the darkness. And as he walked away from me and I felt into my own body instead of more anxiety and fear, and this shake that I had had, I felt this myself in this profound state of stillness. And I knew in that moment that that leopard had helped me understand what happened to van der Post. And I also knew that I had gone to a place in myself that I could never have gone to alone. That leopard had almost taken me into a state of this.
And if I think about that Ubuntu consciousness, that relational consciousness — what Solly taught me was that the Ubuntu consciousness is activated through action. And what the leopard taught me in that moment, and what I think van der Post experienced, is that the Ubuntu consciousness, the relational consciousness, is also activated when we in a moment let go and let someone else take us to a place we couldn’t get to ourselves. Or another sentient being. And I think about that a lot as someone who tends to be quite controlling. There comes a point where I want to let go and go somewhere where I just can’t get to with my own control, my own sense of should be, my own sense that I know how this should unfold. And that leopard just took me there in a moment. And so, all through my life, I’ve had glimpses of something, and I can’t exactly say what it is, but I keep living towards it.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a beautiful story. God! Just the imagery that conjures. I see it in slow motion almost as if it’s shot on film from a Francis Ford Coppola film. Wow! It’s really just a striking story. And it me think of a few things also. You mentioned a horse whisperer earlier. And for the last few years, I’ve been very interested in these natural encounters, of course, but it’s very challenging to manufacture those experiences. So I’ve also spent time looking at, for instance, equine therapy and how horses are used in partnership with patients of different types for therapeutic purposes. And I think it fascinates me, as many therapies do, that are predominantly non-verbal. I think that we overweight the verbal perhaps.
And so I spent time, I wish I could remember the name, but at a number of equine therapy centers. One in Texas. And oddly, but maybe not oddly, I also learned when I went to a wolf sanctuary and I volunteered there for a period of time, in Colorado — and I should explain it’s Mission: Wolf, missionwolf.org. I recommend people check it out. In the middle of nowhere in Colorado. And they are effectively a place of sanctuary for wolves or wolf dogs that cannot be released into the wild. Right? So they’re not captive wolves per se. They’re wolves or wolf dogs, often who were raised in captivity under terrible, atrocious circumstances, and then somehow made their way to Mission: Wolf. There are other examples.
And there are also second-generation or third-generation wolves who are very much wild. Right? Like Arctic wolves. They’re all effectively gray wolves, but come from different areas and therefore have different coats. And they’re in really large enclosures, multi-acre enclosures. But there are a few who are, because of their history prior to getting to Mission: Wolf, are accustomed or not terrified of human beings. They can be near humans. Because wolves, by instinct, don’t want to be anywhere close to humans. And if they bark, it’s usually a fear response, like a fear bark. They’re not like dogs at all, in that respect. And, if they bark, they’ll stay as far away from you as possible on the opposite side of an enclosure. But, when groups come through, say school groups, or visitors, and they have a limited capacity for visitors, which is why I volunteered.
But when they come in, there’s an opportunity in some instances to meet the ambassador wolves. So you’re led into an enclosure and then they let a number of these ambassador wolves in. And, I heard repeatedly stories of these wolves going directly to whoever was most internal in a group, whoever was most closed off in a group, whether that be a child with autism or a veteran with PTSD, and would go right up to them and look straight into their eyes. And I heard this story repeatedly from multiple staff members. And much like van der Post and your experience, but in this case with a wolf staring directly into the soul of this animal — and more importantly, maybe, the animal staring directly into you, many of those people reporting that it was the first time they really truly felt seen. And I just feel like there’s so much beauty and value in that. It’s something so worthy of exploration.
And it’s fascinating that, that it can occur, not just from another human, not just from a prey animal like a kudu, but also from a predator. Or a leopard, for that matter. It’s so deeply interesting and begets so many questions. I just wanted to mention that, because it’s also something, having looked into the eyes of a number of these wolves. It’s very different. The presence, not better or worse, but just fundamentally different in a wolf, as compared to say that of a dog. They are very different creatures, even though the wolf is certainly the progenitor of the dog. And I haven’t read it yet, but I think National Geographic had a cover story at one point called From Wolf to Woof, which is one of the best headlines I’ve ever heard in my life. But, for more info on Mission: Wolf, people can and just go to missionwolf.org. And, I think they do some very, very interesting work.
I would love to ask you, because you brought up the name, and I can’t let you go without asking for this story. So, Laurens van der Post, that’s the name you mentioned. Right?
Boyd Varty: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So, he described the lion’s roar. He said that it, quote, “It is to silence what the shooting star is to the night sky.” End quote. Right? Tremendous. Right? It’s this one of a kind —
Boyd Varty: I know where you’re taking me!
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah. You know where I’m going. This one-of-a-kind experience that cannot be replicated. So please take us to — at a well-known company, you were invited to give a presentation. And could you tell us the story of how that presentation went?
Boyd Varty: Oh, my God! From the beauty of van der Post’s quote, to my ridiculous life as a storyteller.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Boyd Varty: Yeah. So this was early on when I first started speaking a lot and telling stories to people. And, I got this gig at one of these Silicon Valley companies. And, normal story, I got there early and I arrived to meet the tech guy to make sure that we were well set up. And, normal story, the tech guy was late. He had to have a cigarette break. You know like that archetypal tech guy, who’s running the AV? It was that guy.
And, so eventually I said to him, “Listen, man. I just really want to run through my slides. I want to make sure that we’re all good and everything.” And he’s like, “Listen, I need to upload the system so that we can stream to the whole company. I’ll get to you in a second, but we’re all good.” I’m like, “Dude, I need to get some reps in. I want to be well prepared.” Anyway, people start filing in, people start filing in, and before I know it, the auditorium’s full and I haven’t done the run through. And I’m in my worst nightmare.
Now, the intro to my talk is a poetic speech and then I say, “And my story, like many good stories in Africa, begins with a lion roaring.” And then I press my clicker and on a huge screen behind me, there’s an early morning image of a male lion and he’s roaring into the morning. So, actually, mist is coming out of his mouth. And what’s meant to happen is people are meant to be overwhelmed by this incredible baritone audio. And it’s meant to put them right in the moment. And, of course, the lion is doing the action of roaring, which is a bit of a convulsion, but there’s no sound.
Tim Ferriss: So you’re in the middle of the presentation, you press “click” and no sound?
Boyd Varty: Just a convulsing, silent lion. And, it was at this point, and it dawned on me slow enough for it to be truly painful, that I realized I was about to roar at a group of executives. And I grabbed the lapel mic and I held it close to my mouth. And then I synced up my roar with the lion. And the problem with the damn clip is it went on for a long time. And then when a lion winds down, he goes, “Whuahh!” That was literally the intro. And I was like, “Why won’t this lion stop?” Oh, my God! It was painful. It just went on and on. Anyway, I got through the presentation. And still to this day, Tim, I’m going to be honest with you, if I lie in bed and I think about that, a wave of shame will travel through me. And I’ll have to curl over on my side and just rock myself.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God! Yeah. Did you get any pats on the back or any stiff drinks handed to you after that one?
Boyd Varty: Well, the thing that saved the whole damn thing is that eventually when I finished roaring, one person started clapping and everyone went for it. And so the whole room ended up clapping. And that moved the energy and we were into the presentation. I was like, “Thank God!”
Tim Ferriss: Oh, God! Thank God for Laurens, or whoever that was.
Boyd Varty: Yeah. Thanks, Laurens. It was one of those moments also where you realize you can’t half-roar at a group of executives. You’ve either got to not do it or go all in. I was like, “Let’s go!”
Tim Ferriss: Thanks for nothing, AV guy! Such a great story. So, I’ve got to say, so first for people listening, get a copy of The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life. I rarely make an endorsement like that. It’s a small book. You can read it in one or two nights or afternoons. And, as I mentioned, it’s one of the few books that I have an entire shelf dedicated to in my guest bedroom. It found me at the right time. So maybe it doesn’t find everyone at the right time. But for me, it really found me at the right time. And it’s a book I’ve reread, which is also something I cannot say for many books.
And you work with individuals, you work with companies. I find your approach to life and of your multisensory, multi-modality perspective on life to be, not just fascinating, but very practical. Right? You’ve spent a lot of time testing, developing, inheriting, learning tools. And, I think that, as you mentioned, given the trauma that you’ve experienced and the challenges that you’ve had to overcome, some people, and I think you have certainly done this, can convert that pain and that university of suffering into part of the medicine that you bring to the world. And I think you do that, not just well, but very beautifully. So, first I just want to thank you for that.
Boyd Varty: Thank you, Tim. I really appreciate you saying that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, absolutely. And I just wanted to know if there’s anything — I want to leave a couple of stories. I still have a couple of notes, which I don’t know the context behind. But I want to save a couple in case we do a round two, although I know you have no shortages. I might ask you about, was it your uncle in the boat with the outboard? I can’t remember who it was, but that’ll have to be saved for another time.
Boyd Varty: They’re all in there, but some of them only get pulled out with a bit of scotch and a campfire.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Well, round two might be with scotch and a campfire. But is there anything you would like to say? Any last closing comments for the audience, requests, recommendations, anything at all? Anything else? Something you’d like to point their attention to? Anything at all that you’d like to share before we wind to a close this time around?
Boyd Varty: Well, firstly, just thanks for having me and it’s a privilege to support a show that has had such an impact on so many people and be a part of it. So I’m just really grateful to you and been fun getting to know you. I would say a few things. I would say one is, I would invite people to come on safaris in Africa. It’s a very unique encounter with a landscape that is still wild. And when people come and have safaris at a place like Londolozi, or wherever they go, it has a profound impact on allowing us to protect these areas and on the local people.
And so, I’ve always been a proponent of the economy of wildlife. We keep these areas wild. We invite people to come and experience them and that has a huge impact. So, I would say if you’re thinking about a holiday, come on a safari. If you’re thinking about a safari, come. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I would say that if you are interested in tracking, you can support The Tracker Academy, trackeracademy.co.za. They do amazing work supporting young people from difficult backgrounds and teaching them to become trackers. They have a nearly 90 percent placement rate into the tourism industry. So, they do amazing work. And yeah, those would be the two things that I would offer to people.
Tim Ferriss: Where can people learn more about the safari side, if they wanted to learn more about that?
Boyd Varty: You can get a hold of us at londolozi.com. You can also get a hold of me at boydvarty.com. My team will point you in the right direction. And tracker academy, yeah, is trackeracademy.co.za.
Tim Ferriss: Dot za for my fellow Americans out there.
Boyd Varty: Sorry, za.
Tim Ferriss: I like the zed. It sounds more dignified. It’s nice to see you, Boyd. I’m glad we did this with a bit of video as well, for people who want to see it on YouTube. They can just search for Tim Ferriss on YouTube and it’ll pop right up. But, I know we are many time zones away at the moment. That won’t be true in the not-too-distant future. So I’m looking forward to spending some time in person. And-
Boyd Varty: Me too, man. I’m looking forward to getting you out here. We’ll go track a rhino.
Tim Ferriss: I’m excited to track a rhino and I’m excited not to have any legs eaten by crocs. And I’m very much looking forward to finally getting feet on the ground at Londolozi and getting to meet some of these characters that I have only read about and heard about at this point, both human and animal alike. So, thanks for taking the time today, man. I really appreciate it.
Boyd Varty: Thank you, Tim. Thanks for having me.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve enjoyed it even more than I expected to, and I expected to enjoy a hell of a lot. So to everybody listening, you will find show notes to everything that we discussed at tim.blog/podcast. And you just search Boyd, B-O-Y-D and it’ll pop right up. You can find him online at boydvarty.com. We’ll link to Londolozi, trackeracademy.co.za, and everything else in the show notes, as well as Boyd on Twitter @BoydVarty and all the rest. His books, The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life and his memoir Cathedral of the Wild can both be found everywhere books are sold. And, until next time, experiment often, be safe, be kinder than is necessary, even just a little bit. And see if you can get out in nature. It will be good medicine for the soul. And thanks for tuning in.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.
Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)
2 Replies to “The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Boyd Varty — The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life (#571)”
Thank you Boyd and Tim, for helping me find my way. This is an inspiring conversation (as so many of your podcast are, Tim.) And thank you so much for posting transcripts!
Thank you Tim & Boyd for such a great conversation. And thank you for recommending The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life – I ordered it right after the episode and just finished reading it. As someone who has done a lot of personal development work and has gotten more seriously into wildlife tracks & sign in the past few years, it hit home on so many levels!
On that note, Tim, I hear through the grapevine that you’re looking for trackers in North America. My colleagues and I, who work at a conservation and experiential education nonprofit and who are all certified trackers through CyberTracker North America, would love to invite you to the Swan Valley of Montana for some tracking with us! We just hosted some two-day certification courses earlier this month and came across many (very) fresh grizzly tracks, wolf tracks and a fresh wolf kill, a number of mountain lion tracks and kills, and so much more..all right on or off the dirt roads of our valley. It’s an incredibly wild and special place tucked between two Wildernesses, and we’d love to share it with you.