SKUKUZA, South Africa - It seems every other golf course in the world advertises itself as "unique," when in fact, not many are.
However, deep in the African bush, literally within the confines of South Africa's wild and remarkable Kruger National Park, is a course that lives up to the billing, even though it doesn't bother to advertise itself as such.
The sign as you enter the Skukuza (pronounced Ska-koo-za) Golf Course is a harbinger of the wild ride you're in for, in every sense of the word: "Beware: Dangerous Animals. Enter at Your Own Risk."
This is a golf course we're talking about here.
When you tee off on the first hole - after you've signed the mandatory indemnity form - you will most likely hear deep, ominous noises coming from the small, weedy lake which starts about 20 feet from where you're setting up; it sounds like big diesels roaring to life.
Those would be the hippopatami, which many experts believe are the most dangerous animals in Africa. They can weigh up to 8,000 pounds and run nearly 20 mph. Everyone has seen those large, flat canine teeth on nature documentaries, but hippos also have very sharp incisors. They have been known to be extremely aggressive and unpredictable and have no fear of man, particularly golfers.
Let's see, 20 feet at 20 miles an hour - that is the sort of thing you think about during your backswing. No one teeing off in the final round of any of golf's majors faced first-tee jitters like that.
And that's just the first hole. You aren't through with the hippos yet because the nine-hole course - 18 tees - plays around the aptly-named Lake Panic, where the hippos watch your progress with eyes barely above water. The ninth hole in particular can be frightening - more about that later.
In fact, there are land-based creatures - big carnivores we're talking about - that have free, lifetime passes to the course as well. There are no fences around the course, so all the animals in Kruger Park can show up at any time - lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and cape buffalos for example. This is a golf course born of one of Marlon Perkins' nightmares.
This is one of the times you REALLY need to read the literature on the course before you tee off, and we're not referring to yardages: "Lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos and buffaloes," the information sheet reads. "Do not run away! ... If you run, the animal will believe that it has gained the advantage and it will be more likely to give chase."
Then there's some helpful information about climbing the nearest tree. You look up from your reading to survey the trees on the course - this is when you yearn for a classic, tree-lined course.
If you're looking to cure your slice, this is the course on which to do it. Skukuza gives new drama to looking for your ball in the rough. And we haven't even mentioned the highly-venomous puff adders yet. Sound advice: Keep it in the fairway.
Actually, even keeping it in the fairway may not be enough, since you look out and see a small herd of strange-looking, almost ridiculously ugly creatures grazing in the second fairway. They turn out to be warthogs, which are generally shy of man. Still, with razor-sharp tusks, they have been known to inflict serious injury.
Speaking of serious injury, course officials claim no one has ever been killed by a wild animal on the course. They won't, however, say much about the staff.
"No golfers," said course staffer Cora Lingenfelder. "Staff members have had some problems - they get used to working out here and lose their fear of animals."
However, a woman on a golf course in nearby Hazyview was killed by a hippo when she got between the animal and the water - a surefire way to invite attack.
And the little town or "rest camp" of Skukuza, where many of the park's staff lives, was the scene of a recent tragedy. The town itself is fenced off, but fences mean little to leopards, one of which tracked down and killed a child who made the wrong decision to walk home alone from school instead of taking the bus.
Each of the holes has a marker warning you about different animals, not that the animals prefer certain holes, except the hippos. Lions generally prefer the early morning and late afternoon hours, and in winter, buffaloes and elephants like to take strolls around the course. Giraffes can show up at any time, but will not eat you.
The elephants like to eat the green bark off the fever tree, which is used by natives for medicinal purposes. The maintenance crew had to rope off some of the trees to keep the elephants from destroying them. No one from the maintenance crew was around on one recent visit, so they couldn't answer the question of how to repair divots made by giraffe or warthog hooves on the greens.
Then there are the crocodiles. "Stay out of the water!" is a helpful hint from the course tip sheet. "Do not try to retrieve your ball. There are large crocodiles." You might want to stock up on some range balls for this course.
The layout concludes with the ninth hole, a pretty par-3 over Lake Panic. The hippos number anywhere from four to more than 30, depending on the season, and you must hit over them to reach the green. Talk about water hazards! Hmmm, which club to use to hit over hippos? You want to be extremely careful in the early evening hours when the hippos like to interrupt their bathing and roam around the course grazing on the grass.
"They really come out at night," said staffer Collison Pilane. "If you're out here and they attack you, you have no chance. There's no way to survive them. Their teeth are huge."
Skukuza is not a championship course by any stretch of the imagination, but it is well-maintained and besides, the quality of the course isn't the lure here. It is indeed a unique and amazing experience to play this course, for obvious reasons.
It was built by Kruger Park staffers in 1972 for their own use, but has recently been opened to park visitors. Green fees are 100 South African rands - the conversion rate varies anywhere from five or six rands to the U.S. dollar, so it is imminently affordable for such an experience.
Golf carts are available. Armored personnel carriers are not.
There are a number of accommodations in the park, but for a real African adventure, book a room at one of Exeter's four lodges. They're all in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which forms part of the Kruger park.
As part of your lodging, you get two, daily game drives where the "Big Five" can easily be spotted: lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and buffalo. Guided bush walks are also available with armed guides.
Trained guides and trackers take you through the bush, chattering to each other in Zulu over an intercom. They manage to get you so close to the predators you could reach out and touch them, if you were fool enough to try.
Each of the lodges has its own executive chef, and the African dishes are delicious and can be eaten in an open-air "boma," a sort of ampitheatre where you can watch the stars, or even in the bush. The lodges also have selections of wines; those new to South Africa may not know that the country has an extensive fine wine industry.
The Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport opened in 2002 for international flights. The airport is about an hour's drive from the park. Skukuza Airport is also available for chartered flights.
March 28, 2005
Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.
Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.
There are many stay-and-play options in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C region, but none can match the combination of upscale amenities at a reasonable price, the private-course conditions, the diversity of courses and the Interstate convenience of Turf Valley in Ellicott City, Md.
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