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Beyond The Course: Pack your golf clubs and binoculars for Fairmont Mt. Kenya Safari Club in Africa

Larry OlmstedBy Larry Olmsted,
Special Contributor
Mt. Kenya Safari Club Golf Course - Hole 1
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The nine-hole course at the Fairmont Mt. Kenya Safari Club might not be considered special if it did not happen to be in the heart of the African wilderness and run across the equator. (Courtesy of fairmont.com)

Lion and tigers and bears? Well not tigers or bears actually, but maybe a lion or 10.

The King of the Jungle, as the lion is better known, is the top of the food chain in Africa (ditto for the tiger in India/Asia and grizzly in North America), and for most vacationers to the Dark Continent, the animal they most want to see.

In safari guide-speak, the lion is one of the so-called Big Five, the animals people try hardest to see when they go on an African safari. But the Big Five is a bit of a misnomer. The term evolved from hunting safaris, now not especially popular or politically correct, based on the five animals that were the most difficult or dangerous for the hunter to bag: the lion, rhino, elephant, cape buffalo and leopard.

While cape buffalo are very dangerous to the local pedestrians. They are kind of boring to look at, and no one in their right mind would prefer to see a cape buffalo, which can easily be viewed by the hundreds, to the more elusive and graceful cheetah, the world's fastest land animal, or the surreal giraffe.

And if danger really is your motivation, consider the fat, happy and humble hippo, which to the surprise of most safari goers, is Africa's leading man killer - by far.

What does any of this have to do with golf? There are some very good golf courses in Africa (they are all in South Africa actually), and some visitors go to climb mountains (Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya being the most popular), do volunteer work or, if you are a celebrity, to adopt kids.

But by far the most popular reason for American tourists to visit Africa is to go on a safari, armed not with a gun but with a camera, or maybe today, just a cell phone. Forget the Big Five, everyone goes to see the big cats, lions, cheetahs and leopards (the most elusive and the one that many visitors miss) and the big animals period: elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles and giraffes lead the pack.

This is all a very convoluted way of explaining how you, as a traveler on safari, might very well find yourself holed up for a night (or several) at the legendary Mt. Kenya Safari Club, now more properly known as the Fairmont Mt. Kenya Safari Club.

How to choose a safari

Let's back up for a minute: When choosing a safari, for most people, there are two destinations to pick from, East Africa and South Africa. There are some exceptions, like those seeking gorillas - which, despite the Tarzan movies, do not coexist with the Big Five and require their own trip, usually to Uganda or the Congo.

Some more adventurous types who want to get off the beaten track will choose Namibia or Botswana, but for the most part, the choices are between the classic East Africa, meaning Kenya and Tanzania, or the newcomer, South Africa. There is a lot of be said for the South, which wins in almost every aspect beyond the safari itself, but for the first timer, nothing can compare with the vastness of East Africa's Serengeti plain.

Game viewing in South Africa is often an intimate affair, you and a lone animal in the bush. East Africa is sweeping and epic, and there are times when a pride of lions, a chain of elephants dozens of animals long, and huge herds of giraffe and zebra can all be seen at the same time. East Africa is simply epic, larger than life and awe-inspiring. Except for its hotels.

In the last few years there has been a move to replicate the kind of tiny, luxury, tented lodges common in South Africa, with some success, but most of the game lodges in East Africa are more Club Med than Ritz-Carlton, with cheesy meal buffets and package tourists. In terms of a full-service luxury hotel, there really is only one standout in all of Kenya and Tanzania and that is the Mt. Kenya Safari Club.

The hotel has a storied history and was built in the 1930s as private estate. In 1959, mega movie star William Holden visited and fell in love, bought the place and turned it into what at the time was considered the world's most exclusive, by invitation only, private members club, sort of the Pine Valley of the safari set.

Winston Churchill was a founding member, and the list has included everyone from Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Steve McQueen to a Who's Who of world royalty, including the Aga Kahn, and even President Lyndon Johnson.

While it still has a membership, the place is mainly a hotel and was recently purchased by Fairmont, which poured $35 million into renovations. As a result, according to Micato Safaris, the Rolls Royce and gold standard of safari tour operators (voted best in the world each of the last eight years), "A new level of five-star service and luxury has reached the continent." And the club is at, "The absolute top of every list of Africa's preeminent hotels and resorts."

Fairmont: A big name in golf travel

If you know golf travel, you know Fairmont, operators of such fabled golf resorts as Banff Springs, Jasper Park Lodge, the Chateau Whistler, Scottsdale Princess, Turnberry Isle Resort & Club and the Fairmont St. Andrews Bay on the Old Sod. They are very, very good operators of luxury hotels, excellent golf courses, top spas and restaurants.

So how come it is nearly impossible to find a mention of the golf course that William Holden had built on the Mt. Kenya Safari club's Web site? In fact, it is not even on the hotel's fact sheet, which curiously ignores the golf course but lists the Irish Pub at the clubhouse as one of the dining outlets.

Maybe the void is caused by the fact that while Fairmont operates some legendary courses by legendary designers, this ain't one of them. The course, on paper, is totally nondescript, a nine-holer probably laid out by the club's gardener or handyman, with no architectural significance whatsoever, similar to so many $10-a-pop munis scattered across the U.S.

That is on paper. But a diagram of the course would miss several vital features, such as the fact that it is open to the African jungle, and while in all honestly you are very unlikely to see a lion while playing - not that you would want to - you might well encounter gazelles, monkeys, antelopes, maybe even a curious giraffe, a creature that often seem as interested in people as people are in them.

It is no coincidence that the scorecard has local rules to deal with the interference of wildlife, and wildlife, after all, is why you are here.

At the end of the day, there are very few golf courses in Kenya, and none of note. So if you want to be able to have played on safari, this is the place, in a grand setting complete with lush landscaped surrounding, a bit of the still wild, the Irish Pub and, of course, all the history of playing in the footsteps of the kind of A-list guests places like Pebble Beach boast.

When you go on safari, the game viewing is typically in the early morning and just before dusk, since the middle of the day is too hot, and the animals all seek shelter and rest. That leaves a big block of the day with nothing to do, which is why golf nuts like Crosby and Hope chased the little white ball around, even here in the middle of Africa.

But there is one other excellent reason to play the Mt. Kenya Safari Club nine-holer, a reason that will most likely be a first - and last - in even the most well-traveled golf lifetime.

When you take the first tee, you will be in the northern hemisphere but just barely. By the time you reach the seventh hole you will have crossed into the other half of the world, because the Mt. Kenya safari club is not only built on the lush slopes of namesake Mt. Kenya, Africa's second highest (over 17,000 feet!), but also directly on the equator.

Playing across this fabled landmark is a journey that takes the golfer Beyond The Course.

More photos

Breakfast Mt. Kenya Safari ClubFairmont Mt. Kenya Safari Club - Equator LineMt. Kenya Safari Club - Africa

Larry Olmsted has written more than 1,000 articles on golf and golf travel, for the likes of Golf Magazine, T&L Golf, LINKS, Golf & Travel, Men's Health, Men's Journal, USA Today, and many others. He broke the Guinness World Record for golf travel and wrote Getting into Guinness, as well as Golf Travel by Design. He was the founding editor of The Golf Insider, and the golf columnist for both USA Today.com and US Airways Magazine. Follow Larry on Twitter at @TravelFoodGuy.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Golf in kenya

    Kibe wrote on: Aug 24, 2012

    Very poor view about golf in Kenya, dear writer there are several golf clubs in Kenya so to speak..As usual the opinionated American view of those others.


  • Things to do

    Jehnavi wrote on: Jun 10, 2010

    Madikwe is a relatively young reserve which is a great conservation success story, as it has been converted from derelict farmland into a wilderness area. This process is still ongoing, so you may occasionally see remains of the farms which formerly made up the area.


  • Cruise

    Jehnavi wrote on: Apr 1, 2010

    Another malaria-free option is Madikwe Game Reserve in the Northern Province. Madikwe is a relatively young reserve which is a great conservation success story, as it has been converted from derelict farmland into a wilderness area. This process is still ongoing, so you may occasionally see remains of the farms which formerly made up the area.


  • thumps up!

    African Safari Vacations wrote on: Jan 6, 2010

    This is a brilliant website providing so much information on Africa and its related tours.


  • Land of beauty.

    African Safari Vacations wrote on: Jan 1, 2010

    Africa certainly has some of the world's golf courses.
    This is great website providing information in detail.


  • Great golf in Kenya

    louis wrote on: Oct 30, 2009

    I agree with Peter and Richard. As a golf enthusiast, I have to say that there are quite a number of good golf courses in Kenya. I would ask the writer to play at Karen, Muthaiga and Windsor; all world-class links. The other notable is Vipingo at the North Coast (Mombasa).
    To say that all the good courses are in South Africa is indeed uneducated.


  • There are more great golf course in Kenya

    Richard wrote on: Aug 6, 2009

    Your article is great, but I should just point out that there are other great golf course in Kenya, Windsor Golf Hotel & Country Club is an 18-hole championship golf course.


  • Golf in Kenya

    Peter wrote on: Jul 22, 2009

    The author should have visited a few other golf courses before claiming that Kenya has little to offer. There is Muthaiga and Karen, both 18 hole and world class. Othergolf courses are strewn in some of the scenic destinations in Kenya.


      • Golf in Kenya

        Ephraim W. Irungu wrote on: Dec 28, 2011

        As the golf course superitedant at rvamped and expanded vetlabs sports club i surely dont agree that this is a golf course but a 9-Hole practice range.
        You have a chance to turn it around to a competitive course.Come visut Vetlab.


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