Live the story you want to tell

Barry Mthembu’s sheer determination is a reminder to never stop dreaming, or learning…

We all travel for different reasons. I can think of at least 10 reasons why I love to travel.

Sometimes we’re in dire need of replacing our everyday monotony and routine with grand adventure, while other times we actually want to escape the chaos in search of a much slower, simpler pace.

Whether travel serves to relax, restore, transform or reconnect us, the greatest gift travel gives us is the opportunity to learn. The more we travel, the more we learn about ourselves, new destinations, misunderstood species, ancient cultures and indeed each other. Everyone has a story to tell, and often, it is the people we meet on our worldly adventures that leave a lasting mark.

Life is about the people you meet

Looking back on the past year, it is without a doubt the people I’ve had the honour of meeting that have truly enriched my travels. Nicci Wright opened my eyes to the unspeakable trauma and post-traumatic stress that pangolins endure as the world’s most trafficked wild mammal. Jimmy Vasquez-Calderon brought Machu Picchu to life with his fascinating tales of the mysterious Incan legacy.

Pato Garrido encouraged me to exercise my photographic eye in a wildly beautiful Chilean wonderland. Hashim Tyabji reminded me that the journey is only as good as your guide as he revealed peaceful, untouched landscapes amidst the colour and chaos of India. And in the middle of the world’s driest desert, Verónica Poblete taught me that creativity often takes courage.

Every journey I look back on, it is the people that have brought the experience and the destination to life with their passion, storytelling and contagious pride for where they live and what they do. On a more recent visit to &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve. I reconnected with an old friend, Barry Mthembu, and his lesson is simple and meaningful: believe in yourself and never stop learning. This is Barry’s story.

“I have grown up with &Beyond. It is like family to me.”

A Star in Training

Barry grew up in the rural African community of Makhasa, which borders &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa. When he was just 20 years old, an advertisement caught his eye. &Beyond was looking for new recruits for its longstanding Star in Training programme.

Each year, aspiring young individuals that live in the African communities that border our reserves and who do not have access to tertiary education, are invited to apply for this sought-after internship.

After a series of interviews, the young learners that are selected are based at one of our safari lodges, where they receive three months of valuable on-site training and workplace experience in the tourism and hospitality industry. This one advert, 17 years ago, would go on to change Barry’s life.

A desire to learn

As a young and eager Star in Training at Phinda Forest Lodge in 2003, Barry recalls being a sponge. He absorbed as much information as he could in his three months and learned to help out in every department, not just the one he had been assigned to. It was this initiative that later earned him a permanent position at Phinda Vlei Lodge as a butler.

“It was a great learning curve to start out at a smaller lodge, where you are far more hands-on with your guests,” he explained. “In a smaller lodge, you also have the opportunity to closely assist the manager with all sorts of tasks, so this is how I broadened my knowledge.”

For five years, Barry created a reputable name for himself among guests and proved he was a hard-working and dependable team player. However, now that he had fully mastered the role of a butler in a six-roomed lodge, he wanted more of a challenge and asked to be transferred to Forest Lodge, which boasts 16 suites.

“I still wanted more challenges,” he revealed. “I kept asking where I could help out because I wanted to learn and grow.” With his can-do attitude and willingness to help, Barry quickly earned himself the merited role of Head Butler and now had a team to manage.

“No one shuts the door on you at &Beyond if you want to grow.”

Dedication takes sacrifice

Setting his sights even further, Barry wanted to enrich his passion for wildlife. A butler’s role is laborious and time consuming; their shift starts as guests are waking up and it only ends once the last guests have retired for the evening. Despite this unforgiving schedule, Barry chose to sacrifice what little personal time he had in order to learn everything he could from Phinda’s rangers and trackers.

He would forego his lunch breaks in order to go out on bush walks to learn how to track wildlife and after a gruelling six-week work cycle, instead of going home for two weeks of rest with his family, Barry would stay on at the lodge for an entire week just to learn everything he could from the guides and trackers.

Eventually Barry spoke to his mentors and managers about his newfound dream of becoming an &Beyond guide and in 2009 he officially enrolled at Phinda’s renowned Inkwazi Ranger Training School. Of course it comes as no surprise that Barry excelled at this physically demanding and mentally arduous training course and proudly graduated as a fully qualified &Beyond guide.

“Straight from a butler into Inkwazi!” Barry laughed.

Happenstance

Barry’s first guiding placement was at Phinda’s private family camp. “It was an interesting challenge being the only guide, without a tracker, for this entire camp,” Barry explained. “You’re on your own, so you have to learn quickly and fulfil all of the roles that a tracker would usually assist with. I enjoyed it, but again, I got to the stage, after a year, where I wanted something more challenging.”

The universe works in mysterious ways and once Barry started guiding full-time at Forest Lodge, a chance meeting would later change the course of his life. He guided a family from New Jersey and they immediately bonded. So much so, that the Laurners wanted to play a positive role in Barry’s future as a form of gratitude for the unforgettable wildlife experience he gave them.

Barry’s newfound guardian angels generously chose to sponsor his college education and so, in 2013, Barry temporarily left &Beyond to enroll at the Southern African Wildlife College. He successfully completed a Higher Certificate in Nature Conservation Implementation and Leadership, which would arm him for his next self-driven career change, thanks to the Laurners.

For the next few years, Barry continued guiding (at &Beyond Ngala Safari Lodge, Phinda Zuka Lodge and Phinda Homestead) and steadily worked his way up from Assistant Head Ranger to Head Ranger at Forest Lodge.

Opportunity knocks

In 2018, the perfect opportunity arose. The role of Assistant Reserve Manager for Phinda opened up, and as Barry can attest, vacancies on Phinda’s Habitat team are few and far between. Barry jumped at the chance and soon landed the coveted position. From young and inexperienced Star in Training to respected Assistant Manager of the entire reserve, Barry now proudly oversees Phinda’s land management.

Everything from bush clearing and alien plant control, to building/eradicating fences, maintaining the roads, assisting with wildlife management and protection, and helping to resolve any issues with the surrounding communities all fall within his demanding portfolio.

“It is important to make sure your job is always challenging you and you’re constantly learning new things. We, as the Habitat team, we’re the ones working behind the scenes to ensure the beauty and natural harmony that the guests expect to experience on safari. It is a privilege to be able to give them that.”

“Time flies when you are doing your job and loving what you are doing.”

Paying it forward

Barry credits countless &Beyonders for taking the time to help mentor and guide him to where he is today, especially Eric Buthelezi, whose own story is also one of success and determination. Eric, who joined &Beyond as a luggage porter way back in the day, worked his way up to barman then head barman and is now the esteemed General Manager of Mountain, Rock and Zuka Lodges.

“Eric is like a father, brother and friend to me. I always remind myself of his story and where he began,” Barry confessed.

“I know I’m in the right place, with the right organisation, to reach my full potential. It’s just a matter of how we as individuals push ourselves to succeed.”

&Beyond’s Star in Training programme continues to this day and Barry feels a sense of duty to help mentor and inspire these young learners. “I always say to them that they’re in a great place where they can strive to be more than what they are currently. I encourage them to use this opportunity to learn as much as possible about the industry. I want them to know that no one will shut them down for trying to learn more.”

Sage advice from someone who has come such a long way, thanks to his own unwavering appetite for knowledge, personal motivation and ever-positive attitude. Congratulations Barry on all that you have worked so incredibly hard to achieve.

SEE WHAT LIES BEYOND

Meet our Stars in Training when you visit Phinda and, if you book one of Phinda’s conservation experiences, you may even cross paths with Barry himself.

Enquire now