John Barclay and James Stenner have spent years on safari together and give you the opportunity to be hosted and guided on a unique, real safari experience. Together, John and James are an excellent team in the 'Bush', with John leading the guiding and James delivering the perfect camp and service. The energy between John and James will engulf you and truly add to any Safari experience.
John Barclay, raised in Botswana from a toddler, heralds from a long line of African pioneers and adventurers; his first safari to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans at the age of five ended up with him digging up Africa Rock Python babies out of the ground with his caretaker for the day, a member of the last of the great Sua/kwe! salt bushman, Cobra. John’s family has guided African safaris for five generations, the first guide in the family being his maternal great great grandfather, Major Richard Granville Nicholson, who escorted Princess Eugenie to see her son’s grave and the site where he was killed in the Zulu war on the 1st June 1879.
John's passion for the stunning dunes and deltas of the Kalahari Desert, their inhabitants great and small and the Ju/hoasi Bushmen began as a youngster after an exhilarating night spent out in the open with a broken down safari car, a bumbling lion researcher assistant and a pride of 7 lions. On John’s father’s side, the family arrived in South Africa in the 1840s. John’s Dad was the safari equipment tinkerer and his Mum was the story teller and care-giver and would often make nursing miracles bringing all sorts of injured wild animals back to full health. John grew up in the safari industry. John’s uncle; Ralph Bousfield, owner of Jack's Camp in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans and rated as Africa's top guide is his mentor. Ralph’s respect for and knowledge of the Bushmen and the Kalahari environment rubbed off on John from very early on in his career and John had the great fortune to spend many exciting safaris learning from Ralph.
After graduating from Rhodes University John flirted with a desk job for 2 years in London but decided to trade his desk in for an exciting career with his uncle Ralph at Uncharted Africa leading the Uncharted Africa Mobile Safaris Expeditions into the most adventerous corners of the incredible country of Botswana including the wonderful Okavango Delta, the stark Makgadikgadi Salt pans and the wide expanses of the Central Kalahari. Under the guidance of Ralph he carved a name for himself as a guide and achieved substantial recognition within the safari industry leading his mobile safari team to win the coveted Good Safari Guide Award - Best Mobile Operator in Africa twice! He was himself featured in Conde Naste Traveller, Elite Taveller and the Robb Report, and was quoted and defined as “a young Robert Redford” by Gala Magazine, June 2012. His favourite thing to do whilst in the bush is to find a hidden spot by a likely waterhole, and wait and observe the interesting behavior of whomever comes down to drink and learn something new.
From a young age, growing up in Northumberland in the North East of England, James dreamt about the ‘Wild Continent’ and always took great interest in African wildlife. Born into a family of English traditions with an adventurous rural upbringing, during his childhood years James was often to be found at sea, racing his family yachts in international competitions.
James has a colourful family history, descending from his Great Great Grandfather ‘Hexham Jack’ a famed bear wrestler and travelling circus legend. James takes his passion of photography from his Grandmother, who was a leading fashion and landscape photographer for Vogue Magazine in post-war Europe. James has always been a nature and wildlife fanatic and prior to arriving in Botswana lead an active and diverse life rising through the creative events industry in the UK and Australia. Due to his upbringing in a large and lively family, it is in his nature to warmly engage with people and make them feel at home straight away.
James was privately educated in England and following graduation from university spent 9 years circumnavigating the Australian continent, fundraising for a national charity in between running a weekly radio show and documenting his adventures for a well know travel website.
Since stepping foot on the African continent, he has embarked on the journey his childhood dreams were made of. James began working in Botswana for Uncharted Africa Safari Co. where he was responsible for running the company’s mobile safaris and expeditions in the Okavango Delta, Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Western Kalahari. During his time there James and his team were awarded with Best Mobile Safari in Africa award in both 2013 and 2014 at the Good Safari Guide Awards. James has also embarked on some adventurous expeditions in Botswana and further afield to Angola, Namibia and the DRC. His enthusiasm about people, as much as that of the African wilderness and its inhabitants has earned him the reputation of being one of the best hosts in Botswana today.
FULL INTERVIEW FOR THE CITY MAGAZINE - APRIL 2017
How did you meet and where did the idea come from for Barclay Stenner?
John and James met for the first time in the middle of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana in June 2013 when they first discussed the proposition put forward to them by the company they worked for at the time, Uncharted Africa. John had been running and guiding Uncharted Africa’s highly awarded Mobile Safaris for two years and had recently fallen head over heels for his now wife and naturally wanted to spend more time with his beau who was based in the Makgadikgadi at the time. So the plan was made for John and James, who had only recently stepped foot in Africa for the first time, to join forces… the rest is history. With John’s expert guiding and James applying his former background of international events and operations management to his new role in life, they continued to maintain and build upon their reputation of running Africa’s most prestigious mobile safaris.
The seeds for John Barclay and James Stenner to go it alone were planted by two highly reputed African safari moguls, namely Michael Lorentz of Passage to Africa and Susie Cazenove of cazenove + loyd when they were on safari with John and James on different occasions. Both Michael and Susie were entirely thrilled with the quality of safari ‘show’ that John and James had staged for them and their clients and suggested to them that they definitely had what it takes to take the next step and deliver an entirely new mobile safari product in Botswana. In November 2014, Barclay and Stenner took that step and haven’t looked back since, it took a few days of bouncing names around for the newly born company until Barclay Stenner was deemed upon as a simple decision, and their journey into new territory began.
How did you come up with an idea that made Barclay Stenner stand out from other safari operators?
We are both extremely passionate about what we do and with the combined experience of John’s family history and safari background together with the creative flair of my former career in the global events industry and innate love of wildlife we decided to adopt the solid age old strengths of a traditional safari together with modern luxury travel influences over a range of aspects.
When these elements are put in the mix with a brand new tent design, never before seen in the mobile safari industry across the continent together with our shared love of exploring new wilderness areas; the perfect tailor made safaris for each and every one of their clients is created.
In addition to this we have detailed focus on their cuisine and beverages. Last year we invited a South African Masterchef finalist on safari to cook for a group of clients as a surprise. This year John and I have teamed up with John’s cousin, Charley Sywnnerton, head chef and owner of ‘Safari Cuisine’.
Charley not only delivers excellent dishes but has grown up in the bush and knows the challenges to be overcome when producing fine restaurant quality food in an army mess tent in the middle of nowhere.
To complement our cuisine on safari, John and I work with leading South African sommeliers to select a range of top wines.
James has a knack of being able to mix fine cocktails in the bush, so much so that his Old Fashioned’s were once described by a cool lady from San Fran as being ‘better than anything I’ve had in New York’”
How would you describe your values?
Our core values are first and foremost being ambassadors of the correct codes of conduct in the wilderness areas in which we operate and to observe and preserve the wildlife in these areas in order to enable many generations to come the opportunity of enjoying the experience of spending time in the wild as much as we do.
Secondly, an unrivaled and heightened safari experience for each guest is the focus of every safari.
What can a guest experience on a BS safari, but nowhere else/what makes it unique?
Every safari is unique! Each and every safari goer has their unique needs, each area is unique and each time of year is unique. What makes us different is we offer a different way of looking at the safari, there is a story behind everything. Even the salt on our table we describe as ‘humanity’s earliest addiction’ the demand for which stimulated the first ever long distance trade between groups. The point is we aim on every safari for you to learn more about the world and yourself all whilst enjoying the magic of being in arguably the world’s greatest wildlife destination.
Describe the ways in which it is a safari with old age traditions.
A mobile safari is the true essence of safari and the way in which the early explorers and hunters used to carry out their expeditions. The word safari itself is derived from the Arabic word ‘safariya’ meaning a ‘journey’ or an ‘expedition’. To arrive in a place where there’s nothing but nature to be found, where you are entirely in the territory of the surrounding wildlife and then set up a private luxury camp ready for our guest’s arrival always satisfies. We leave nothing but footprints when we continue our safari to the next wilderness area, having immersed ourselves in the habitat having stayed there long enough to explore and understand the movements and characteristics of the surrounding inhabitants yet not long enough to disturb them nor have them get too used to our presence and we move on without trace, it is a truly rewarding livelihood.
The beauty of the mobile aspect of a safari is that we can keep our ‘ears to the ground’ or hear news along the ‘bush telegraph’ prior to a safari and base our camp locations on the most up to date current movements of the game and its predators, this is a major advantage of being mobile over being based in permanent camps or lodges, as well as being totally private, of course.
Describe the ways in which your safaris are new school.
The ways in which we adopt a new approach to the traditional safari is first and foremost about our new tent concept, it’s just so much smarter than the classic meru tent which has not changed in design other than a few personal modifications here and there since people started going on safari commercially in the 1940’s. Nearly eighty years of an excellently designed tent and we’ll give that its dues however, we really thought it was time for something new and entirely different. We are very proud of our design and ultimately happy with its performance and most importantly the way it makes our guests feel at home straight away in their own ‘private Idaho’ of cleverly thought out luxury, even though they are often feeling out of their comfort zone having just arrived in the wilds of Africa, it really is impressive.
To complement our new design we embraced modern technology with solar powered batteries that enable in built usb charge ports in your bedside table and tents lights on dimmers at the flick of a switch. We’ve also paid particular attention to the bathroom, creating far more space and more privacy than the original meru tent design plus a superior plumping system,“in fact our tent shower has more pressure than the one I have at home,”
The super smart thing is that the tent, despite creating a much roomier feel including the first ever hotel quality four poster double bed with a draped white mosquito net, is far simpler and less time consuming to erect and destruct than the original design, therefore meaning we can be even more mobile whilst being far more luxurious.
How do you combine these things?
Bluetooth grammaphone, electric lights in the style of the traditional hurricane lanterns in the tents, pressure showers, bedside usb ports built into a traditional tray stand tables, huge windows in the tents for great views and airflow, the latest in technology of expanding beds, solar powered tents.
What’s the best time of year to go on a safari with Barclay Stenner?
Every time of year is amazing on safari, with specific reasons for different seasons. The beauty of being mobile is that we are exactly that and even a week before our guests arrive we are assessing reports from the ‘bush telegraph’ to ensure that we take people to the best area at the time of travel, this is a huge advantage over a permanent camp.
This is not only to do with game movements but also with localised micro climates and ever changing weather patterns, especially in the green season. We’ve had an amazing amount of rain fall this year which is going to make for an amazing two years ahead in terms of wildlife however, accessibility to some areas has been entirely cut off.
In contrast to some permanent camps who have to close down recently as their airstrips and supply roads are underwater, we can simply keep our ears to the ground and go where we need to go which not only makes exciting for us but makes for a great adventure in comfort for our guests, a ‘luxpedition’, if you like.
The green season is amazing for its lush, fresh appeal as the annual rains makes the Okavango burst into life, the skies and sunsets are some of the most dramatic on the planet, the Summer migrant birdlife sensational and being in low season you really get the vast areas we go to yourself. The extremely well camouflaged cats blend into the long grasses making them far harder to spot but we love a good challenge and in fact just on our last safari in February, at the height of a record breaking wet season, we had a pride of eight lions around our camp for four days, so if you don’t go, you’ll never know is our motto.
The dry season does get busier with tourism in general however, at this time of year we go further afield as we believe the core to an amazing experience is solitude in the wild as much as it is for fantastic wildlife sightings. Saying this, there is never a cloud in the sky, the temperatures are cooler and the drying up waterholes and rescinding vegetation make for arguably the best game viewing in Africa, especially towards the end of the dry season when the predator prey interaction around the last remaining waterholes blow your mind, although during this time of year temperatures do start to soar again, even into the high forties in October.
Why the focus on Botswana? And where in Botswana do you go?
Botswana is an extraordinary country, often called the “Switzerland of Africa”, due to the country’s peace andprosperity. The country was never a colony, has never had a civil war and has the one of the highest GDP per capita in Africa. Botswana is roughly the same size as France or Texas, but compared to France’s population of 68 million people Botswana has just over 2 million. Safety is an important consideration when travelling and it is wonderful not having to worry about that fact in Botswana.
The best places to go in Botswana, As above, depends on what the weather is doing. The reason the Okavango Delta is so incredibly rewarding towards the end of the dry season is that it is the only water available to animals. This concentrates the migrating herds around the life giving source, but also means these herds have to run the gauntlet of the predators lying in wait.
After the rains have arrived towards the end of the year around December we tend to spend less time in the Okavango Delta and focus on the outlying areas, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Nxai Pan and the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. These areas are rich in minerals and the short cropped green flush of grasses provide sustenance to huge herds of Springbok, Oryx, Wildebeest and Zebra and are comparable to Serengeti at the right time of year. One of our most successful tactics on previous safaris has been to find a shady tree in the middle of the plains.
What animals will guests (hopefully) see on the safaris?
Botswana has incredible diversity, with a huge variety of mammals including lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, giraffes, zebra, hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses, African buffalo and hyena, over 22 species of antelope and 600 species of bird. All of the Big 5 can now be seen in the Moremi Game reserve due to it being a safe haven to the critically endangered Rhinoceros. Botswana also boasts the highest concentration of African Elephant anywhere on earth, roughly 150 000 elephant. Spending time with these gentle giants are often highlights of our guests’ time in Botswana and 3 children on a recent safari delighted at the fact that the bull elephant would use the safari car’s bumper to scratch his itchy bum and now with the recently government approved elephant corridors that prevents any farming within a 5 km distance of the corridor they are about to feel even more relaxed in Botswana.
How do you play your part in the preservation of the area and the animals?
In Africa as anywhere on Earth, the old adage rings true, ‘if it pays, it stays’. The most important threat to our wildlife currently is the ever expanding human population and the subsequent habitat loss, arguably more important than even poaching. So if an area can provide an income, then it will be preserved, if it cannot it will be reutilized. Promoting these wilderness areas and guests visiting these areas is proving to be the most important action one can take in preservation of wilderness and it’s wildlife.
We also donate to a park that is suffering from terrible human encroachment in the DRC, called the Virunga National Park. Virunga National Park is Africa’s oldest and it is the most diverse national park on the African continent that boasts savannas, lava plains, swamps, erosion valleys, forests, active volcanoes and the ice fields of the Rwenzori Mountains. Among Virunga’s numerous species of wildlife, the park is home to approximately 200, a quarter, of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas that live on the slopes of the Virunga volcano range which includes active Nyiragongo volcano and the largest lava lake in the world. We have recently returned from leading a safari to this incredible area of this country.
What are some precautions you take to ensure wildlife doesn’t get upset?
We are constantly aware of the various zones, being the recognition zone, comfort zone, danger zone and flight or fight zone that surround each species and even each individual animal. Every animal has different sized zones and give off different visual clues which we look for when approaching. For example the shake of an elephant’s head is a warning that means you have approached too close and the animal is not comfortable. This is important too photographically as you want to frame the animal in as natural environment as possible, as we have many clients investing huge sums of money in camera equipment and their time out here to achieve the best shots possible. A photo taken by a clienton one of our safaris has been shortlisted for the Natural History Museum Wildlife photographer of the year.
We also use red filters for our spot lights when on a night drive and conduct ourselves and educate our camp staff on protocol around camp such as burying and burning vegetable waste to prevent attracting hyena into camp.
How is it beneficial to be mobile?
Botswana has plenty of amazing camps to choose from, but when you can move about as the animals do that's a tough accommodation to beat. Take your bed with you and experience your own private piece of Africa. Every single Barclay Stenner mobile safari is entirely private. The entire complement of staff from the executive chef to the truck drivers is out there on safari for you and your family or friends, so you can pace the safari and suit it to your needs. We have just got back from a fantastic time on safari with guests who were night owls, their mornings were for ‘lie-ins’ and their evenings were for ‘lions’! This is in contrast to the permanent lodges that have a set regime with the needs of so many other guests to consider.
On a mobile safari we take nothing but photographs, and leave nothing but footprints. A campsite for a mobile safari, once camp is packed up, is allowed to return to its natural state and hence the mobile safaris have a much lower ecological impact than a permanent lodge.
How do you ensure guests are still comfortable in the mobile tents? Describe the luxuries
Once you cast your eye over the mobile tent’s Persian carpets, 4 poster beds with 400 thread count Egyptian cotton, flushing wooden throne loo, brass sinks and taps you will realize the only concession to camping is that you have an outdoor shower which is a grand experience in itself.
What was it like having Taylor Swift as a client?
Well naturally we were nervous at first but we had to get on with the job of filming 6 different locations over 4 days across the expanse of a country the size of France, so after having a chat with our Mothers we heeded their joint advice, ‘we are only human and everyone sits on the loo with their trousers around their ankles’.
Tell me more about the Bluetooth gramophone?
We wanted a gramophone but vinyl wouldn’t survive the African heat and rather than lug around warped vinyls we bought an old HMV Gramaphone and DIY rigged it together with Bluetooth and a solar panel and on occasions during dinner when music is appropriate we have Edith Piaf in duet with lions roaring.
What does the future of safaris hold?
As with all industries, technology is becoming a major player, and we are excited to be part of an organization that is providing a Virtual Reality safari experience for those who cannot easily make it to Africa, initially the plan for the VR videos is to be used as a pleasant distraction for chemotherapy patients.
We believe tourism is becoming increasingly philanthropic and tourists will be the answer to many of Africa’s National Parks current issues. We are casting our eyes on new countries’ that could benefit from tourism and create incredible experiences for our guests. Watch this space.
Tell me more about the plans for safari cars which will be revealed later in the year
We have a few tricks up our sleeve with regards to our safari car, along the lines of our Hexagon tents and relooking at the way we safari but we don’t want to give everything away just yet. You will have to come on safari and see for yourself.
Do you feel like you learn from each other?
Yes we do, growing up on different continents we are able to offer each other insights into what would provide the ultimate experience for guests that can practically work on safari in the wilderness. We have only known each other a relatively short time but our colleagues turned good friends turned business partners relationship is proving to be a big success. We are constantly bouncing ideas off one another and with equal passion about our safaris stemming from different backgrounds and points of view then we cover all angles and aspects between us and we get to share a good laugh now and again along the way.
One particular story that I learned from John was on our first mobile safari together within my first few months of being in Africa. On this safari John had told me that in the history of his family sleeping out in the bush, no one had ever been taken from a white mosquito net and that it was perfectly safe to sleep out in that way, negating the requirement of a tent. Being the ever enthusiastic and adventurous type I took this idea head on and sure enough on the next safari arrived with his bedroll and mosquito net. John would bring the guests into camp sometimes straight off the back of another safari and so I would set up our ‘posi’ back of house, a little way away from the camp. ‘Wow, your’re going for it mate?’ John exclaimed when he arrived back and saw next to his tent my bedroll on the floor with a white mosquito net strung up to a branch above and tucked in under the bedroll. That night after seeing the guests to bed we made our we back. ‘Are you sure you’re going to be alright?’ John asked me, ‘sure mate, I’ll be fine!’ I replied. So John got in his tent and I lay down on my bedroll enjoying being able to feel the breeze and see the stars, it was really as though you were sleeping out in the open. We wished each other a good nights sleep and about fifteen minutes later came the slow thuds underfoot of a large male lion. When a lion lies down he exhales the air from his lungs with a slight growl as he does. When a lion lies down next a man in a mosquito net the man tends to hold his breath for as long as he can. The first night in a mosquito net and I found myself to be looking over my shoulder at the silhouetted ‘king of the jungle’ in very close proximity and with only a thin white transparent material separating us. ‘James? Are you ok?’ John hushed in an undertone. At the time I was hesitant to make any noise at all so there was no response. The lion then proceeded to roar for the next two hours. When a lion roars next to you, you feel it in your bones, your lungs and under your skin, “its an innate response for a human’s adrenaline to be triggered by the roar of the lion” John adds. “I lay very still and after a while actually began to realise how lucky I was to experience such a close encounter with an apex predator, John was right, it really works! I thought to myself as the lion continued to roar into the night”, James recalls. “In the morning we measured the distance between the lion, and myself, around nine to ten feet is close enough to be lying next to any predator out in the wild!”John adds.
“See, told you it really works mate” John confirms.
James – why safaris? What is your first memory of Africa/safaris?
Whilst it sounds cliché, my dream was always to see Africa. Had you told me when I was knee high to a grasshopper that one day I would run my own safari company one day I’d have thought as being a wind up. Dreams really can true. I had never stepped foot in Africa before my 31st birthday and as a child used to spend my days either making bases in the woods around my home in Northumberland or being hooked on National Geographic videos. I immigrated to Australia to follow my passion for nature and wildlife in my twenties having not been successful in my attempts to pursue a career in Africa at that stage, it is a very difficult industry to break into as an outsider. Ten years on, my brother was on holiday in Botswana where he planned to propose to his wife, this proved to be a success on two counts as the magnificent camp he stayed at whilst getting down on one knee in the middle of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans mentioned that they had some opportunities coming up but to get my application in quickly. I dropped everything I was doing at the time, it was my time and I haven’t looked back since. My 31st birthday was also my first day of work in Africa and I literally have not stopped since! My first ever game drive a few days into my African journey was sensational seeing an adult male cheetah, very rarely seen in the Makgadikgadi, with a fresh Zebra kill, I was instantly hooked and soon learnt of the famous quote by Karen Blixen, “here I am where I ought to be”. I also had another stand out experience where a swallow who had just finished his migratory route of 14000 miles decided to end it my nest atop my head! Now many of the swallows do not make this vast journey and perish due to exhaustion. I tried to offer the little chap water and warmth but he just stayed on my head for a good few hours, finally he sang out a little song, fell off his perch and that was sadly the end of his journey. I was a little disturbed by this once I looked further into the possible meanings, had something bad happened back home? I eventually spoke with an elder of a bushman tribe with a translator about the whole ordeal who laughed and said in his distinguished language, “you are lucky”.
John – raised in Botswana, did you know from a young age this is what you wanted to do? How has your upbringing helped running the business?
No, I read too many John Grisham novels and thought I would make a great lawyer and use my law to protect the areas I now operate safaris in.
My upbringing has been vital to the business, as on safari you never stop learning and I am lucky enough to have been going on safari and being in the bush since I was an ankle biter. For example this year’s rains have meant the grass is higher than many can remember and that means grass seeds in the radiator and an overheated safari car. The best tool to get rid of the grass seeds without damaging the fragile fins of the radiator was shown to me by my Uncle Ralph on a previous rainy season when I was much younger, a vulture feather. These heavy birds have incredibly high wing loading and the feathers are one of the stiffest in the bird kingdom.
John – your first safari to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans – tell me your memories from this.
I was too young to remember my first, but I have seen photographs of my Grandfather flying in on his Cessna 206 dressed in a Father Christmas suit. We were explained it was too hot for reindeer in Botswana. The first one I can actually remember was a trip also at Christmas when we had the most amazing experience. One of the last of the great bushmen, an amazing tracker, highly adept at capturing animals and probably the most photographed bushman on the planet named Cobra came over to us and said he had found a python (python sebae) nest, useful for my Grandfathers next shipment to San Diego zoo. We asked to go and see what he had tracked, it was as he had explained. It was a disused hole from an aardvark’s (orycteropus afer) nocturnal foraging for termites which the female python had laid her eggs into the bottom of, what was amazing was Cobra pointed out where a brown Hyena (hyeannae brunnae) had discovered the nest and not being able to fit into the hole had sniffed out exactly where the eggs were laid and had dug straight down to them. Unfortunately for the hyena the female python was laying in wait ontop the eggs during his raid and he dug right down on top of a highly agitated massive female snake. She gave him a nip and the hyena moved on. This provided us a unique opportunity and a window into the development of the eggs. Python’s being a snake and cold-blooded need to sun themselves to get warm. We watched as she would sun herself and then slither back and wrap her body around the eggs thereby transferring heat for incubation. The final display of showmanship from Cobra was when he led us over to where the eggs had now hatched and shoved his arm down the hole bringing up a writhing mass of python hatchlings, which he promptly deposited on his head sticking out his tongue for the photo! Our very own Makgadikgadi male Medusa.