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South Africa

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Text by Meg de Jong. Photography by Meg de Jong and Guy Upfold

Source: This article was taken from the March 2011 issue of Compleat Golfer

The Kruger National Park is better known for the Big Five than its birdies and eagles, as Meg de Jong discovered on a recent trip.

One of the many legends of Skukuza Golf Course goes something like this: Jimmy Golfer and his partner wake up bright and early to hit the golf course at first light. After a few picturesque holes, Jimmy’s straight drive down the centre of the fairway is intercepted by an impala, which goes belly up after deflecting the golf ball with its temple. Jimmy and partner – somewhat dumbfounded – start to amble over to investigate, when, out of the nearby foliage, leaps a lion; mauling the impala and dragging it back into the bushes. This, according to Tim the driver, is the way things roll in the Kruger National Park.

Tim tells this story to me and the other media attendees as we make our way from the quaint Kruger International Airport to the Rhino Post in the Kruger Park, pressing our faces against the windows on the lookout for any sign of movement in the scrub.

We’re in line for a rather unique experience – Rhino Walking Safaris gives you the opportunity to view Kruger Park wildlife on foot. I’m prepared for it to be an exciting experience, but little do I know it will be a life-changing one.

Travel weary but eager, we are whisked from our arrival at Rhino Post to Plains Camp by game ranger Mark McGill and his assistant James. These men are our guides for the duration of the stay, and the group quickly finds itself gravitating towards them – not just because of the safety they offered with their rifles permanently at their sides, but the wisdom they have to share on just about every aspect of the bush.

The Plains Camp itself is anything but plain. Accommodations are rustic, but amply comfortable, with luxury canvas tents on raised platforms in accordance with the host’s ethos of leaving as little trace as possible (minimal permanent structures are erected).

The central social and dining area overlook a watering hole, and one can happily while away the hours from this spot watching the wildlife come and go. If it wasn’t for the allure of even closer contact with the animals, it would be mighty hard to drag oneself away, but with the promise of sundowners and snacks, our group is offered windbreaker blankies and we all pile into the open-air vehicle for an evening game drive.

From the Rover it is possible to get up close and personal with much of the wildlife. Elephants amble calmly past – less than an arm’s length away at times – and buffalo crowd past as if the car was one of the herd. To them the vehicle is a singular unit, part of the landscape, explains Mark.The biggest challenge is to tone down the squeals of excitement when you spot something off in the distance – all those games of ‘eye spy’ as a kid are put to good use here!

Back at the camp we gather around a festive bonfire until we are called for dinner – a hearty home-made stew which, as a result of the culinary prowess of the kitchen or the fact that everything tastes better in fresh air, is magnificent. Bellies happy and an early start looming over us, we retire happily to bed – after Mark gives the rundown of things that are not worth screaming about in the middle of the night.

The camp is fenced off, but it’s nothing but wire (to persuade elephants not to come barging through) – mammas with their warthoglets in tow easily scamper in and out and snuffle around your tent in the night, and as you drop off to sleep the hoot and holler of hyenas does sound like it’s getting closer. Lions will be deterred by the light and the noise, Mark assures, but as you lie there you can’t help but think, ‘There’s always a first time… there’s always a first time…’

“Morning, morning!” comes your wake-up call from James, and bang, so starts your day. It’s barely half-past four, and the sky is still thinking about getting light, and we stumble out of bed into bush gear and then gather for some coffee and rusks before setting off for our first hike. The early start seems inhumane at first, but by the time you return to camp at about 10 and already feel like you’re baking under the African sun, you will be grateful to avoid the heat of the day.

After quick coaching from Mark about bush etiquette and safety, we follow him into the veld in single file, eyes peeled for any sort of activity. In theory, we could wander up to a lion or rhino any time – easy to believe with the grass up to your knees – but Mark and James’ sharp eyes pick up things well before they have time to get close. The first few encounters are exhilarating – the magnificence of nature strikes so much harder from up close and hardly seems comparable to what you see on a TV screen on in the pages of a book. I find myself quite moved, in a way I hadn’t expected.

The air feels different here, and there’s a reality and depth to life that one doesn’t easily get in touch with on our tarred roads and air-conditioned offices. I watch my feet tread one in front of the other in the veld grasses, and feel very alive. While close encounters are undoubtedly a highlight, Mark’s lessons on things like tracking, identifying prints, the different types of grasses and flora and their practical uses add a rich dimension to the experience.

We arrive back at the camp hot and sweaty but in high spirits, and some of the group take a dip in the plunge pool – which also has a view of the watering hole. I favour a cool shower and lie down under the ceiling fan on top speed, before I’m called for a hearty brunch. The hottest hours of the day are your own for luxuriating, and while there’s plenty to keep you occupied if you’re the active sort, this time can be well used to make up for the early start.

“…THE MAGNIFICENCE OF NATURE STRIKES SO MUCH HARDER FROM UP CLOSE…”

Rhino Post Safari Lodge offers fantastic game viewing; prepare yourself for any encounter at Skukuza Golf Course; the rooms at Rhino Post offer rustic luxury; enjoy viewing game over sundowners and sleep under the stars during a’sleepout’experience.

As incredible as the experience has been so far, evening two has an even bigger treat in store. Packing nothing but a light bag with overnight goodies and a toothbrush, we take a hike to an elevated camp-out venue – to sleep under the stars! The camp is very simple and is little more than a few platforms on stilts each with a rough mesh tent, but falling asleep under the Kruger stars – so many millions more of them than back at home – and being right in the heart of the wilderness is a priceless experience. Mark and James prepare a scrumptious braai and salads, and the evening is spent in good company chattering around the campfire, and spotting animals that dare to venture to a nearby watering hole despite the noise. We all sleep soundly.The next morning Mark informs us that a rhino couple had been doing a mating dance beneath our camp in the middle of the night, and there had been lion nearby – he shows us the prints.

It is on our hike back to Plains Camp that we have our closest encounter. We spot a herd of elephants on a hill in the distance, and Mark explains that if we stay downwind, we may be able to get close enough for a good photo opportunity. We follow his lead in solemn silence, when we are suddenly intercepted by a lone elephant rising out of an unseen watering hole, only a few hundred metres away. Despite common beliefs, an elephant, along with a lone buffalo and hippos, is the most dangerous animal one can encounter on foot.

Mark turns us on our heels and we speed off in the direction we came, adrenalin pumping as we flee as silently as we can. I find myself grinning wildly as I check over my shoulder. After some time, Mark reports that we’ve successfully evaded the ellie, and our pulses return to more regular rhythms. But the fun isn’t over yet. Not far from Plains Camp we encounter a herd of zebra, and in among them, a rhino.This time, however, we’re upwind, and it’s only a matter of time before he smells us, Mark explains. Sure enough, our scent interrupts his amble, and senses peaked, he ventures closer to us to investigate. Rhinos are curious creatures, Mark explains, but we’re less threatened than if it were an elephant.

As a precaution, he positions us behind a fallen tree – a barrier in the unlikely event that the rhino charges – and Mark instructs us to talk a little louder, as the commotion should scare the rhino off. It works. After a sniff-sniff, he kicks his heels, and in a flurry of dust trots off in the opposite direction. A good morning, we all agree when we finally make it back to the camp.

Our final evening is spent in the relative luxury of the Rhino Post Safari Lodge. The suites don’t fail to impress with their rustic charm and modern conveniences, and it’s tough to make a call between the large tub and the outdoor shower. The lodge overlooks a riverbed and a wide variety of animals saunter past – including two leopards during the next morning’s pre-game-drive coffee.

The farewells are tough – the intensity of the experience brings you close to the group you experience it with, and at the end I can’t decide whether I’m in love with Mark or if I want to be him. For the journey home, and the post-holiday-blues-wrought weeks that followed, it was Dr Seuss’ wise words that got me through: ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, be glad because it happened.’ For more information please contact: Rhino Walking Safaris, tel: 011 467 1886, info@rws. co.za, www.isibindi.co.za.

GOLF IN THE KRUGER

Although you may be deep in the bush, it is possible to find a place to play golf around the Kruger National Park, with a number of fine golf courses offering superb bushveld golf experiences located near the perimeter.

Only one golf course exists within the Kruger Park, however, and that is Skukuza, located only half an hour’s drive from Rhino Post, and which up until a few years ago was literally one of the best-kept golfing secrets in the country.

The story of Skukuza Golf Course reads a bit like a work of fiction – and the course owes its existence to the dedication and creativity of a senior Parks Board official and his helicopter pilot friend. In the early 1970s, the pair of golf nuts went about building their own golf course in the middle of the bush, weaving the routing between significant trees and natural landmarks. Until relatively recently, there were not a lot of golfers outside of Parks Board personnel who had even heard of the unique course, never mind played it. Nowadays, this nine-holer (with 18 tee-boxes) is hugely popular due to its location within an unfenced section of the park.

One of the obvious attractions is the close proximity to wildlife and it is not uncommon for golfers to come face to face with some of the more fierce creatures on earth, such as lions, hippos and crocodiles. It’s also one of the reasons that visitors sign an indemnity form before they tee off – the club wouldn’t want lawsuits from golfers who lose their betterball partners to a pride of lions while 2 up with three to play.

SKUKUZA GOLF CLUB

  • Par 72,5 950m
  • Tel: 013 735 5543
More info on the area of Lowveld More info on the Mpumalanga area

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