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Golf on the Wild Side

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GOLF A TRAVEL Player’s Guide Golf on the Wild Side Kenya might be better known as one of the best safari destinations in the world but as Duncan Forgan explains, travellers would be well advised to pack their golf clubs on any visit to this colourful East African nation. 70 HK GOLFER・JUN 2015 HKGOLFER.COM

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The picturesque Sigona Golf Club on the outskirts of Nairobi HKGOLFER.COM HK GOLFER・JUN 2015 71

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Clockwise from above: Karen Country Club is routed over a former coffee plantation owned by Out of Africa author, Karen Blixen; water makes an appearance at Muthaiga Golf Club; wildlife at Limuru Golf Club 72 HK GOLFER・JUN 2015 “Slow your swing down mzungu, there’s no need to rush,” urges Nathaniel, my caddie, as I watch my third drive of the morning at Nairobi’s Muthaiga Golf Club assume an unfortunate leftward trajectory and sail towards a towering stand of trees. Maybe it is pent up tension from being stuck in the nasty traffic that curses Kenya’s capital, or perhaps the undue haste is an over-stimulated by-product of being in Africa to play golf, but my game and general mindset is in stark contrast to the bucolic surrounds. Of course, Kenya is a country replete with all kinds of marauding beasts. In fact, we will see plenty of them during an epic two-day safari in the world-famous Masai Mara reserve. For now, however, the local caddies – most of whom, it seems, boast of single figure handicaps – are both amused and bemused by the sight of a burly Scottish visitor going through numerous shades of angst and joy as his golf game veers from the competent to the catastrophic. My amateur thrashings are, it has to be said, mostly due to an inherent lack of skill. Nevert heless, nobody should doubt t he veracity of the challenge offered by Kenya’s golf offerings. Take Muthaiga for instance. Sprawled over a rolling chunk of land to the north of Nairobi, it can trace its roots back to 1913. The Kenyan Open was held here for over thirty years and during that period the tournament was won by three future Masters champions – Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and Trevor Immelman. A slightly laissez faire approach to all-round maintenance (although the greens are excellent) means that Muthaiga is no Augusta National, but lack of manicuring aside, it makes an excellent curtain-raiser for a six-day golf and safari odyssey in the East African country. Although Kenya is far better known for its safari options than its selection of golf courses, it should not be discounted as a destination for holiday golf. Indeed, a combination of truly world-class game spotting opportunities and accommodation and better-than-average, valuefor-money play, makes the country a highly intriguing prospect for intrepid golfers. The Royal and Ancient game has a longstanding presence in this part of East Africa. The Nairobi Golf Club – which would become the Royal Nairobi Golf Club – was established in 1906 and opened the floodgates for a wave of course construction from the lush central highlands to the panoramic slopes of the Great Rift Valley and the steamy shores of the Indian Ocean coast. Due to time constraints, we are only able to HKGOLFER.COM

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sample a handful of these layouts on our recent visit to the country – all in or around Nairobi. Like Muthaiga, Sigona Golf Club enjoys both a venerable history and a pleasantly rolling topography. Laid out in 1938 to a design by eccentric English architect Tom Simpson – a sharp-dressed lover of fast cars responsible for some of the best courses in continental Europe – the course is a beauty. Fairways are lush and relatively generous, while the location on the edge of the Rift Valley, around 6,500ft above sea level, means that short-hitters are given a helping hand. There are several memorable holes, notably the seventh, a rollercoaster that veers left towards a green that’s benched into a small slope and the 17th, a fiendish uphill par-4 played to a hidden plateau green. Although the golf more than holds its own, the undoubted highlight of the trip is our twoday odyssey to the legendary Masai Mara, arguably Africa’s greatest wildlife reserve. One of the most memorable moments occurs as our jeep is hurtling through the scrubby landscape of the savannah as its human cargo chat merrily about misplaced crushes on television wildlife presenters and attempt to remember the right words to the song Circle of Life in The Lion King. All of a sudden, Bas, our driver, cuts the engine, turns sharply to face us and places a finger to his lips. Suddenly the light-hearted bonhomie has been replaced by a palpable sense of tension and excitement. It is the second and final day of our safari in the Mara, and although we have witnessed HKGOLFER.COM everything from marauding black rhinos to a herd of elephants ambling towards the border with Tanzania at sunset, we've not yet been blessed with the sight we have all been silently (and not so silently) craving: a prolonged glimpse of one of the park's big cats. But all this is about to change. Our eyes follow the gaze of Bas, our guide, to a disturbance in a bush around 200 metres to the left of the track. "Leopards," he hisses, and instructs the driver to move us towards the action. What follows is nothing short of amazing. As we draw closer, the indistinct tableau sharpens into a scene that would have David Attenborough himself grasping for superlatives. Prone in the thick grass, a dead zebra is providing lunch for a trio of the sleek, spotted predators. According to Bas, an individual cheetah does not have the wherewithal to take on a zebra – gazelles and impalas are their normal victims – so this has obviously been a group effort. This is nature in the raw and boy is it exciting. HK GOLFER・JUN 2015 73

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Windsor Golf Hotel and Country Club boasts some of the best conditioning of any course in Africa 74 HK GOLFER・JUN 2015 I had arrived in Nairobi feeling slightly more cynical. Ernest Hemingway may have been a great writer, but his portrayal of Kenya has had some unfortunate side-effects. The renowned American scribe was one of the first westerners to write extensively on the African country in the 1930s, and his use of the Swahili word "safari" did much to introduce it to common English parlance. Nevertheless, Hemingway's boy's-own accounts of big-game hunting undoubtedly gave weight to the popular image of the great white hunter and opened the gates for a flood of pinkfaced and pith-helmeted would-be conquistadors eager to get their kicks on the savannah. For years, Kenya's game reserves were the domain of the privileged, with luxury camps providing a gilded experience for the lucky few while local tribesmen such as the Maasai were marginalised and displaced. These days, however, things are somewhat more egalitarian. Top-end camps still exist, but so, too, do budget and eco-friendly options. Conservation efforts and humanitarian concerns also appear to be striking a blow against naked greed. There are strict restrictions on hunting, and there's definitely a greater willingness on the part of operators and camps to plough some of the tourism bounty back into local communities. Located in the south-west of the country, hard by Kenya’s border with Tanzania, the Masai Mara boasts all the Big Five (black rhino, leopard, elephant, buffalo and lion) as well as a ubiquitous contingent of giraffes, zebras and antelopes. These staples of the African savannah would soon become as familiar to us as a herd of cows or a flock of sheep, but on that first afternoon the jeep is obliged to rattle along at the pace of a narcoleptic snail in order to accommodate our requests for gawping time. We eventually pull in at our camp in the early evening, just in time for a gorgeous spread of curries, salads, fruit and banoffee pie to be consumed in the shade of acacia trees. Afterwards, I sit at the entrance to my tent with a Tusker beer and anticipate the prospect of eyeing up some more big game. The next day an encounter with a group of black rhinos warms us up in the frigid morning air, but the next few hours are marked by frustration. At one point the tension is ratcheted up as Bas spots some lion tracks, but the trail runs cold. Later, at a water hole, we spot a hippo's back, but it submerges into the muddy depths before our cameras have even been drawn to shoot. Even the savannah staples are starting to pale. "Look," cries Bas, pointing towards an indistinct shape in the distance. "Not another bloody impala," mutters one of my companions. Sensing the disappointment, Bas reminds us of some home truths. "This is nature," he says. "It doesn't always put on a show." Luckily for us, it proceeds to do just that. Back in Nairobi, following a thrilling journey in a miniscule Cessna craft, there’s time for one last round of golf, this time at Karen Country Club, the current home of the Kenya Open. Routed over the former coffee plantation of Out of Africa author, Karen Blixen, the layout is another undulating beauty. By this time, I am suitably relaxed and put on a decent show with a birdie at the closing hole – a stunning par-5 with a tricky approach over water to a raised green – allowing me to toast a job reasonably well done. A waiter brings me a giant bottle of ice-cold beer. The leopards may have stolen the show on safari, but the Tuskers take a lot of beating at the end of another gilded African day. COMBINING GOLF AND SAFARI: HOW TO BOOK Hong Kong-based Golf 007 (golf007.com) arranges Kenya golf safari tours. Eight days, five nights, including return flights with Kenya Airways to Nairobi, accommodation, three rounds of golf and safari game drives is priced from HK$28,900 per person. Call +852 2137 2023 for further information. HKGOLFER.COM

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