Out of Africa

Destination Focus

A tour group from Singapore took to South Africa's vast safaris to explore golf's final frontier.



BY Lucy Kublikowski

Out of Africa. That poignant Sydney Pollack film starring the charming Robert Redford and incandescent multiple Grammy winner, Meryl Streep, kindles a warm spot for the safaris of Africa that calls to romantics around the world since its 1985 release. Today, one such group from across the Indian Ocean, in Singapore, attempts to relive that experience, albeit with a lot of golf thrown in.

South Africa. Those two words conjures up images of an unheralded past where civil strife raged through the nation through the 20th Century but at the same time upheld heroic figures such as the recently deceased Nelson Mandela. In golfing terms, it is also a nation that has given us such legends as Bobby Locke, Gary Player, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, who collectively own 19 Major titles. And that’s not even including the new generation of players like Charl Schwartzel, Louis Oosthuizen and Trevor Immelman.

That can only mean one thing. Either they are a truly blessed people or they have some wonderful golf courses waiting at every turn. While it is hard to justify the former, the sojourners from Singapore will soon be able to experience the latter.

We fly into Johannesburg on a grey March morning, the sharp chill in the air doing its best to remove the weariness of the overnight flight. Our vehicle was waiting to take on board the luggage, golf clubs and guests as we set out east towards Kruger National Park, a 19,633 square-kilometre game reserve between the northeastern provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

Everyone catnapped on the way from the Highveld plateau, on which Johannesburg sits, towards the Drakensberg Mountain escarpment, which plunges into the Blyde River Canyon below. A pity since those views offered were carved by heaven’s own hands. But a long flight and road journey were bound to take its toll on the human body. The third largest canyon in the world, it stretches 25 kilometres running north to south and acts as a natural boundary between two very diverse eco systems. As we started our descent into the valley, some stirred awake noticing a marked change in the climate. It is here that the sub-tropical Kruger National Park lies.

The first night was spent at the delightful Oliver’s Hotel, with a delicious dinner before everyone turned in for an early night and a chance to have a good rest. The following morning the group were up early for a hearty breakfast of cereals, fruit platters, croissants, cold meats and a full English for anyone who needed some extra fuelling before golf.

Our first round was at the fabled Leopard Creek Golf Club, located at the southern end of the national park. This 889-acre course was Gary Player’s vision of “Augusta in Africa” and it is glorious. The fairways are emerald green, the views breathtaking, and each hole poses a particular challenge. Features include well placed bunkers, uphill drives, two-tiered fairways bisected by creeks, elevated greens and 207-yard drives over water hazards, home to hippos and crocodiles, which are not for the faint-hearted!

From Leopard Creek, the group travelled by light aircraft from the nearby airstrip to the luxurious

Thornybush Safari Lodge for a unique wildlife experience over the next three days. The flight path crossed over the Kruger park and it was possible to see elephants below gathered around the riverbanks, whiling away lazily nonchalant of the group above them that was just yesterday, hacking away right beside. Thornybush stands on the banks of a dry riverbed. The beauty of the lodge blends into the environment, so much so that the wildlife treat the place as its own. Kudu greeted us at reception, monkeys and hornbills kept watch from the overhanging trees and colourful Nyala antelope nibble at the grass. Each of the suites has a private deck overlooking the riverbed, where animals come to browse or graze at the vegetation.

We got ready to enjoy an up close and personal visit with the African wild. The first game drive took us far south on the reserve, where we caught up with elephant, buffalo and a pride of lions as well as numerous sightings of impala, warthog, zebra and the majestic giraffe before returning for a well-awaited dinner. The morning wake-up call jarred us into life the next day for another game drive and we were able to spot a female rhino with her calf browsing among thick bushes. Everyone was given a checklist of the most common animals and birds to be found in the region and each vehicle enlisted the help of their ranger to mark off as many as possible.

The final evening drive was the most memorable as both vehicles chanced upon different meats, accompanied by salads, sweetcorn and local dishes such as mealie pap - a polenta porridge.

Next day, the group flew down to Fancourt on the coast, in the area known as the Garden Route for a return to golfing business, and at a site that is easily one of the world’s finest. Home to three courses including The Links at Fancourt, a Gary Player design that ranks as the number one course in South Africa and a past host of the Presidents Cup. Fancourt has extensive practice facilities including a driving range, bunker areas, putting greens and a swing analysis lab.

The layout and facilities of the hotel make this a dream destination with every detail considered and catered to the needs of golfers. The group played their first round a leopard strolling down one of the tracks. Notoriously skittish, this large male was unusually relaxed and allowed the vehicles to track him as he moved silently through the bush. Eventually he disappeared into the thick undergrowth and the trail was lost, but everyone was elated to have ticked off all of the Big Five game animals. As the group rounded a corner, they were greeted by the flickering lights of a bush dinner set up on the runway.

The staff had set up a table complete with white linen and gleaming cutlery for the guests to dine out under the stars. Everyone had a chance to stretch their legs and enjoy a glass of wine in front of the fire before sitting down to dinner. The threecourse meal included a barbecue with on the Montagu course with its magnificent risk-versus-reward 18th hole over water to the green. All the courses are maintained to the highest standards, meandering through lush valleys, with superb lightning-fast greens. There is plenty of water on the course as well with a number of shots over water including the par-3 17th.

This was followed by an afternoon of sightseeing in the nearby town of Oudtshoorn, famed as the Ostrich capital of the world. The group toured a working ostrich farm and were offered the opportunity to ride an ostrich in the enclosure! Everyone declined the use of the practice facilities before their next round on the Links course, something that a few regretted later. The caddies were assembled at the first tee and we were joined by the club’s pro, who had some useful advice about playing the course.

The Links is a walking-only course and the caddies are compulsory but also very necessary. Stray off the fairways and the rough can be knee-deep. This course favours straight drives and accurate shots to the green above all else. Danger lurks in the form of deep bunkering around the greens and thick long grass, so caution is the better part of valour.

From Fancourt the group headed the short distance to the coast and the dramatic Pinnacle Point Golf Club. Perched on cliffs, this wonderful course offers views of the ocean from virtually every hole, and in some cases you can even feel the spray as the waves crash on the rocks below. Several holes run along the edge of the cliffs with par-threes across gorges that plummet into the ocean. There is usually an area to opt out and play safe, but it is the kind of place where you have to go for glory and make at least one attempt from the tee to green.

Incredibly, one among the group, Alan Fong, a member of Raffles Country Club in Singapore, achieved a hole-in-one on the par-three 13th here, which added to the festivities of the already entertaining trip. The next stop on the tour is Cape Town and the 5-star Table Bay Hotel. Ideally located in the heart of the V&A Waterfront, the hotel is close to Victoria Shopping Mall and there are a host of restaurants to choose from and shops to browse along the quayside.

Today represents another off day off from golf with sightseeing the call of the day. Commencing with a ferry ride across the bay to Robben Island, the notorious prison that once held Nelson Mandela, the guide on the island was also once a political prisoner and he gave the group an insight into life under the apartheid regime. Back on dry land, there was time for some shopping before everyone departed for a trip to Table Mountain. The views from the summit are magnificent in every direction, with the city below, Robben Island in the bay and, in the distance, the mountains of the Cape winelands. The view was further enhanced when everyone was led to a private viewing platform complete with champagne and canapés set up as a surprise. It was a memorable evening, enjoying the cooler air and watching the sun setting with a glass of bubbly in hand.

The next morning the group headed into the winelands, about an hour’s drive from the city. The first stop was the Ernie Els Wine Estate where there was a chance to sample the different wines with a sommelier on hand. We could also look at the trophy room, filled with photos, memorabilia and trophies that Ernie has won throughout his career. From the wine estate it is a short drive to the De Zalze Golf Club, set among the grape vines and orange groves in Stellenbosch. The first few holes are quite flat but it soon starts to pick up elevation with a number of holes either over water or flanked by water. The signature hole has its tee boxes set on islands in the lake and offers big hitters a chance to try their luck with a shot direct to the green.

The course winds through the vines of the nearby Kleine Zalze wine estate, and it was here that the group dined after golf, with a superb meal at the acclaimed Terroir restaurant. The three-course meal was laid out on the terrace overlooking the golf course and accompanied by wines from the estate.

The final day in Cape Town included a trip to a golf superstore where numerous brands of clubs, clothing and accessories were on offer. Prices in South Africa are very reasonable and visitors are able to claim back the 14 percent sales tax when they depart the country. Clubs were purchased by some of our party in a lastditch attempt to improve scores on the final round that followed, which happens at another links design called Atlantic Beach.

A very tight course with long, undulating fairways that reward straight tee shots with some extra rolls of the ball, Atlantic Beach offers picture-postcard views of Table Mountain and Robben Island as backdrop but when the offshore wind blows, it can make this a very difficult track indeed. Springbok, mongoose and leopard tortoises share the fairways, oblivious to the golfers passing by.

Back at the hotel, the group met for a final dinner at a Waterfront restaurant and a light-hearted prize-giving ceremony over the days of pseudo competitive play that adds to a little bit of fun more than pressure. The wine flowed and the group reminisced about the golf, the safari and all the sights that we had enjoyed. Everyone had a different highlight but were united in their enjoyment and surprise at the diversity they had experienced.

 

The group travelled with Out of Africa Travel & Golf, based in Singapore. To find out more, call +65 919 412 56 or visit the website at www.outofafricatravel.com.