While the flight was long and Table Mountain was huge, it wasn’t until a South African native waitress clicked through some Zulu expressions that the waves of delightful unfamiliarity washed over me and far-awayness kicked in. The April trip to South Africa with some other writers and tour operators was with Pro Golf Safaris, the most noteworthy golf and safari tour operator in South Africa. Making bogeys taste good is this group’s specialty, and the seemingly endless depths of South African resources available to them in this undertaking made this an enchanting trip and introduction to the country.
Topping the New York Times list of places to go in the world in 2014, Cape Town has something for everyone. Twelve hours after my arrival, I was staring into the wide open mouth of a 17-foot great white shark as it banged itself against the wimpy and bent up cage I was diving in, an experience I will never forget. We saw the wobbly little penguins by the hundreds at Boulder’s Beach, which was (there is no other way to describe this) totally cute. Reaching the top of Cape Point, I was laughingly disabused of the notion that I would see a jagged and watery line where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.
The Cape Town waterfront offers multitudes of excursions involving helicopters, whales, wine and other activities — the most famous probably being the trips to Nelson Mandela’s former prison on Robben Island. Fresh eateries and local markets are around every corner, and we consumed local biltong by the pound the whole trip. Biltong is a 400-year-old South African snack similar to beef jerky, but chewier and prepared differently, featuring every type of game meat conceivable. Not having yet picked up a golf club or gotten over jet lag, I was already wowed by South Africa.
The most distinctive golf in SA lies along the Eastern Cape and Garden Route between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. De Zalze, a parklands course on a 300-hectare estate boasting substantial vineyard and farming efforts, was a great example of just how much golf and wine scratch each other’s backs in the SA economy. A visit to the picturesque Ernie Els Winery and his nearby Stellenbosch restaurant, The Big Easy, culinarily hammered this point home. Farther down the road and voted #5 in SA, Arabella Golf Course was an absolute treat to play. Nestled amongst the hills of the Palmiet Mountain Range above the Bot River Lagoon, the course was a sanctuary of bird life and beautiful views.
South of Mossel Bay, the caves directly beneath Pinnacle Point Golf Course, are a heritage site, which are believed to be one of the first places that humans used heat to make stone tools. Forty thousand years later, I was hoping to reap karma benefits from using forged irons at the breathtakingly stunning course. Halfway between Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, Pinnacle Point reminded me of an elevated Pebble Beach, and the views from above the blue waters of the Indian Ocean may be the best I have seen in golf.
The Links at Fancourt, designed by Gary Player, was recently voted #34 in the world. The caddied round here was special and portrayed traditional golf in a way conservatives would toast as near perfect. The two other courses at the resort, Montagu and Outeniqua, along with the exemplary dining facilities and accommodations, rate this a destination by itself. We stayed three days, but many retire there and do not leave the premises. The massive grounds are a botanist paradise. We stayed an evening at the Conrad Pezula after that, dined in Flintstonian proportions, and in the morning drove the impressive Pezula Course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
The game drives over the next few days at the Kichaka and Pumba Reserves on the Eastern Cape were amazing. The highlight of my Kichaka experience was a quiet sunset tailgate in the bush, punctuated by the velvet pattering of giraffe pillow fights less than 100 yards away, as they whipped their gangly necks at each other’s torsos. The unexpected baby rhino sightings at Pumba were thrilling, and on the last evening there we stumbled upon a family of white lions and watched the cubs play with each other as we sat in silence. Wildebeests just look weird, and watching them run in circles was interesting. The tendency for startled warthogs to scatter and then immediately return to where they were startled was Darwinistically interesting. Monkeys are always a welcome addition, as long as all of your food is within reach. Nighttime hippopotamus noises were new to me, once you figured out they didn’t come from someone in your own crowd.
I like to think of myself as a contrarian, a non-cruise-ship guy, someone who makes their own plans and comes out ahead. But I was overwhelmingly thankful and appreciative for Pro Golf Safaris by the end of this trip. It’s too hard to be in the know this far from South Africa, and good operators have a finger on the pulse of their specialty areas. Most tour operators get roughly 30-percent discounts on almost everything, especially outfits like this that do a large volume business with the places you want to go. The skill that results in good times and cultural education for me now seems to be in communicating with folks like this about exactly what you would like to do, because it’s all available.
This was a lifetime experience, and I will go back. The last conversations with my travel friends all concerned bucket-list amendments and revisions to include repeats and further research. There is golf everywhere, and certainly closer, but what about the penguins and biltong? What about the wines they don’t ship and the plants that don’t grow here? What about the Indian Ocean? What about Zulu? Knowing the answers to these questions makes up for the truth: that I will never play on the PGA Tour.
You may contact Pro Golf Safaris at 1-800-701-2185, or go to progolfsafaris.com.