Looking back over the 12 years I have worked for &Beyond, there have been countless victories, newsworthy successes and groundbreaking initiatives that have made me immensely proud to work for this company. Witnessing extraordinary landscapes I’d only ever dreamed of, and overseeing some pretty mind-blowing conservation activities, have been both humbling and tear-jerking; but if you ask me which moments have truly touched my heart the most, I’d say it’s the stories of our staff.
I love working with such a diverse team of hard-working, wildlife-loving and truly passionate people from all walks of life – we’re talking 90 different cultures with 65 different primary languages! Spending time with our &Beyonders out in the field, and hearing their personal stories of growth and sensing their overwhelming pride, are what resonate the most. And the same appears to ring true for our guests; if there is one common thread that we see continuously throughout all of the guest feedback we receive, it’s the people of &Beyond and how they effortlessly turned a guest’s holiday into an unforgettable, life-changing event.
To honour these &Beyonders, not only do we have our own highly anticipated annual &Beyond Bateleur Awards (more on these awards to come at the end of November, so watch this space), we have also created our own #HumansofandBeyond hashtag and have started including more emotive people stories on our blog. If your lives have been touched by an &Beyonder while travelling to our lodges, please use this hashtag and help showcase their heart-warming stories and acts of kindness.
Our current monthly theme on the blog is luxury: the luxury of riding horses in unusual places; the luxury of an island escape; the luxury of an unexpected wildlife encounter … and today, the luxury of following your dreams, something so many &Beyonders have set out to do and have achieved.
If you have travelled to &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa in the last few years, then you will likely have met the two excellent rangers in today’s blog: Amy McMillan and Ben Ackerman. Here are their stories; firstly, may they bring a smile to your face and more importantly, may they inspire you to get out there and follow your own dreams. Courage is what turns dreams into reality, it’s that simple.
A family legacy
Amy’s story of how she became an expert &Beyond guide (one that guests now regularly ask for by name) is a personal one. It is a beautiful story, yet it is a painful story, and for those of you that know Amy, you will agree that she is a gentle soul with a bubbly, larger-than-life personality, boundless enthusiasm and contagious positivity and it should come as no surprise that she took her own family heartache and turned it into a beautiful legacy.
Amy’s first link to &Beyond Phinda was through her beloved older brother Mike, who was actually based at Phinda researching nyala for his masters/doctorate degree. Tragically, Mike lost his life in a car accident on the reserve and to say he will be forever missed is an understatement. Everyone that knew Mike was captivated by his charm, charisma and kindness. He was everyone’s friend and we all still miss him dearly.
To pay homage and respect to her brother, as well as to personally learn more about this enchanting place that was so close to Mike’s heart, Amy returned to Phinda every month for almost a year to help fellow researcher Jeanrick Janse Van Rensburg collect data and complete the research in Mike’s gaping absence. Thanks to JR and Amy’s hard work and loyal dedication to Mike, the studies were completed earlier this year and the project has been officially published in an ecological journal. An achievement that would have made Mike so proud.
During her time at Phinda, Amy fell in love with the people, the diverse landscape, the curious wildlife and without a doubt felt a very special connection to the place where her brother had been at his happiest. Not only that, but Amy eventually met the love of her life, fellow Phinda ranger Eric, and the reserve is now a place she, too, calls home.
Amy inherited her love of nature and all things wild from her parents and has been coming to the bush since she was just 12 weeks old. She makes an effort to always try and appreciate every moment and to cherish every day. As Mike always said, “There is no such thing as a bad day. There are good days and there are days that are slightly harder than others.” Amy, Mike would be so proud to see how far you have come and there’s no doubt he’s watching over you and smiling that big McMillan smile of his.
Never dismiss those childhood dreams
&Beyond Phinda guide Ben Ackerman also fell in love with the bush at a very young age. At just four years old, he knew whole-heartedly what he wanted to do with in life and that was to become an &Beyond guide. Sure, we all have childhood dreams, but Ben never once wavered from his dream and it remained a steady focus throughout his life.
From as early as he can remember, Ben and his family would spend the holidays going on safari together. More specifically, they enjoyed &Beyond safari time together, spending quality time at so many of our lodges: &Beyond Ngala Private Game Reserve, &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp, Matetsi Private Game Reserve, &Beyond Bateleur Camp, &Beyond Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge, &Beyond Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp, (then &Beyond) Kwandwe Private Game Reserve and (then &Beyond) Dulini Private Game Reserve. Clearly belonging to a family of &Beyond addicts and wildlife lovers, it made perfect sense that this would become Ben’s true calling in life.
Young Ben had no interest in hanging out at the lodge with his parents though. He wanted to get his hands dirty and mingle with the &Beyonders in the staff villages. In fact, the only time he’d actually see his family was when it was time to go on game drive. The rest of the time, he was off gleefully exploring with the rangers and having the time of his life. He just wanted to get involved. He played games on the bottoms of beer crates with the trackers, he helped out in the workshop and learned how to change tyres, he went fishing with the staff and helped them dry their catches of the day, he went off tracking animals in the middle of the day with the rangers and he learned everything he possibly could about the fascinating flora and fauna that surrounded them. Ben was in his element.
When Ben’s mother happened to mention that carrots help you to see in the dark, well, that became Ben’s official food of choice. Imagine, all the irresistible food that is on offer at our luxury lodges, and all he would insist on eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner was raw carrots. All in an effort to improve his eyesight for those night game drives. Forget high tea and all those delectable treats that are forever on offer (seven times a day!) at an &Beyond lodge.
Make that carrots and mopane worms. For years, Ben and his brother and sister were “treated” to mopane worms by the &Beyond Ngala rangers, who would reportedly scour the bush for the juiciest ones, which the kids would happily devour back at the lodge. Only several years later, when Ben actually tried his first real mopane worm, did he realise that he had been duped into thinking those delicious cocktail sausages were in fact fat, juicy mopane worms.
Fast forward a few years to when Ben was in university. Still completely focused on his dream of becoming an &Beyond guide, Ben longed for the holidays so that he could escape to the bush. In fact, he even took on holiday jobs at &Beyond Kirkman’s Kamp from time to time, and when he needed to escape his studies for a bit, he’d jump in his car and go drive along the district road at the nearby (and then &Beyond) Kwandwe Private Game Reserve. He did this so often he was actually once suspected of being a poacher!
Ben went on to become a guide at Kwandwe, however, he still had it in his heart that he wanted to join &Beyond. He eventually made the bold and risky decision to put his previous guiding experience behind him and join the &Beyond Inkwazi Ranger Training School – a course that does not guarantee enrolment nor completion. The training is gruelling, demanding and life-changing, but Ben passed the six-week challenge with flying colours. After what he claims was “the toughest, but best six weeks of [his] life”, Ben is now an expert and highly respected guide at &Beyond Phinda Mountain Lodge and he continues to delight guests and live out his childhood dream.
So you see, sometimes the dreams we have aren’t random at all, sometimes they are our calling. It takes courage and determination to follow these ambitions and we are so glad that both Ben and Amy did just that. Take their advice and don’t let your dreams just be dreams. Get out there and chase them. You don’t always have to see the whole staircase before taking a step.