South Africa – Golf & So Much More
By Peter Hellman
Many of us have a "bucket list". In case the concept is new to you, a "bucket list" is simply a personal list of things you want to do, see or experience before you literally "kick the bucket". So, as we get older filling that bucket becomes more important and as I am one of those guys approaching my final hour (well, maybe it is more like my final 20 years), I am quite keen on spending more time getting well down my list.
My "bucket list" is quite large and I have done a pretty good job of ticking away at a good part of it. I have climbed mountains, backpacked above the Arctic Circle, learned and forgot four languages, skied the Valle Blanche glacier in Chamonix France, scuba dove the kelp forest off Monterey California, drove a used Vespa motorscooter through much of Europe, tasted extraordinary wines in Argentina, went by snowmobile to the northern most point in Europe, had cocktails in a bar constructed solely of ice, attended family reunions in rural Sweden, traveled to over 50 countries, spent Christmas Eve dining in a Fire Base in Vietnam with local Montagnards dignitaries on the Cambodian border in 1970 and, of course, played golf on many of the finest golf courses in Ireland, the UK, Europe, South America and Asia as well as a few here in the USA.
What until now I have not done, which was always high on my "bucket list", is visit South Africa. Well, in December 2013 as a guest of Glitedge Golf and Safari, a respected tour operator based in Cape Town, I finally had my chance. As you may know, South Africa, the home of Nelson Mandela (locally and affectionately called Madiba), has had a difficult past. Apartheid, which segregated the majority non-whites (about 84% of the population) from the ruling white minority, was the law of the land from 1948 to 1990. Under Apartheid the country suffered badly as nations around the world boycotted it economically and politically. The transformation of the country in since 1990 has been remarkable though unemployment particularly among blacks remains high. South Africa is a rich country with natural resources and a vibrant population working hard to redress the sins of the past. I was in South Africa when Madiba died and the out-pouring of affection and respect for him by whites and blacks convinced me that this country has come a long way to repair the tragedy of Apartheid.
Where in the world can you sink a 15 foot right to left putt and then from the edge of the green look down to a river to see several hippos happily wallowing in the stream below? The view tends to slow play on the 13th hole of Leopard Creek Golf Club the number one course in South Africa and host to many international tournaments. The river is the Crocodile River and it defines the southernmost boundary of the Kruger National Park a massive Game Park of some 6.2 million acres, thousands of indigenous wild animals including the BIG 5 (lion, African elephant, leopard, cape buffalo and rhinoceros). In the park, I stayed at the Lukimbi Safari Lodge a well appointed retreat with comfortable chalets linked to the main lodge by elevated wooden walkways. Like all the lodges in Kruger and other parks elsewhere in country, game viewing is the main daily activity. There are usually two game drives each day. The first leaves the lodge at about 6:00 am and the second about 2:00 pm. Each drive is about 3 hours long. Rangers, who are well trained, knowlegible and personable, work for the lodges and drive converted open-sided Land Rovers with seating for up to nine passengers. At some lodges a spotter is also employed to make certain that the clients see as much game as possible. Questions were always encouraged and I learned much about the animals and their behavior. The guides are generally available during the evening as well and ready with stories and interesting facts. As for the animals, I saw all of the Big 5 except the Cape Buffalo. And unlike your local zoo, these animals are in their own environment and doing the things they do in the wild. One of the most extraordinary experiences I had was to see about 75 elephants running directly in front of our Land Rover. There were big bulls, females and even young ones all suddenly moving together. It was electrifying. The various antelope or "Bucks" as the locals call them, range from the largest, the Eland, to the tiny delicate Duiker. The Impala is the most common while others such as the Kudus, Steenbok and Waterbuck abound.
During the first part of my trip I stayed in a Game Park called Pumba. This park is a Private Game Reserve meaning that it is owned by a group of investors or a company. These parks are smaller than Kruger at about 50,000 to 100,000 acres and an electric perimeter fence keeps the game within the park. But don't let the size convince you that they lack game. I had some of my most memorable experiences at Pumba. Oh, it is also one of the most deluxe lodges I have ever seen.
I did mention early that part of the purpose of the trip was to experience the countries' golf and I certainly did. I also experienced some amazing accommodations, terrific South African wine and generous welcoming people. Those topics, however, must wait for my second article. My editor tells me I am at my word limit for this one. Keep tuned.