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Big bucks and Big Berthas in South Africa

By Michael Vlismas,

ROSEBANK, South Africa - It costs just over $3 to drive your car through the tollgate just outside Nelspruit in South Africa's Mpumalanga province. But golf loving South Africans are willing to pay around $3,000 to fly over it.

They're paying $3,000 for the view from a $1 million dollar helicopter as you cruise over the edge of the escarpment, watching it drop from 20 feet to 200 feet below you.

They're paying $3,000 to play two of the most memorable golf courses in South Africa, and to be chauffeur-driven in a black MG Rover 75 Connoisseur.

But most importantly, they're paying $3,000 to see the look on other golfers' faces when three helicopters land on a driving range as part of one of the most opulent and extravagant rounds of golf on the planet.

It's being billed as the Executive Helicopter Challenge, a unique concept that is the vision of a South African company called the ABC of Golf.

The company was started by professional golfer Mauritz Leen and is based on his successful ABC teaching method, which has grown into a highly lucrative multi-media concern now busy expanding into the travel and lifestyle sector.

So for roughly $3,000 per person with a maximum of two four balls, ABC of Golf is offering the executive and avid golfer the opportunity to play the highly exclusive Leopard Creek Country Club course and the entertaining Hans Merensky Estate course over a period of two days, to be flown there by helicopter and to generally be treated in ways usually associated with the surnames Rupert, Branson, Murdoch and so on.

Everything from the golf to drinks and snacks is included in the price and no expense has been spared in creating the ultimate golf experience in Africa.

And it all begins with a look at Wednesday morning rush hour through the bubbling gold haze of a glass of champagne.

At MG Rover's head office in Rosebank, a plush suburb of Johannesburg, we were treated to a light breakfast. We were told to leave our cars and their keys with the staff at MG Rover.

After a brief introduction as to the itinerary of our trip, we were driven to Grand Central Airport where, on the runway, stood three Eurocopter EC120 executive helicopters, courtesy of air charter company Sapphire Air, and their pilots.

The Europcopter EC120 is a machine designed to pamper the needs of the rich and famous. It has enough luggage space to accommodate golf clubs -- or the skis of the European jet set it was originally designed for -- is extremely quiet to the extent that you need not even wear a set of earphones during the flight, and provides an overall smooth ride for even the most sensitive stomach.

Our flight path followed a two-hour trip to Hans Merensky near Phalaborwa, including a 20-minute stopover to refuel.

In the helicopters, we snacked on the traditional South African delicacy of biltong and sipped our vodka's and whiskeys as we watched the people below us scurry about and busy themselves in such menial tasks as work.

We soared through the spectacular Blyde River Canyon at no more than 30 feet above the river, banking left and right within metres of the mountainsides. We passed over a herd of elephant in the Kruger National Park, and even turned back for another flip after some passengers missed them the first time.

And finally, we landed on the driving range at the Hans Merensky Estate, briefly stopping a three-ball from putting on the 18th green.

A line of golf carts stood ready and waiting with our golf bags, which had been driven up with our luggage, already strapped to them. After a quick snack, we took to the fairways.

The par-72 Hans Merensky course, designed by Bob Grimsdell, always has been a quality layout that has in the past hosted professional tournaments. But it's true charm lies in its location. The Kruger National Park stretches along the entire eastern border of the course, and wild animals regularly find their way onto this layout.

The estate has plenty of photographs of lions on the greens or a cheetah and its kill on one of the fairways, and the water hazards are filled with hippos and crocodiles.

After our round, we retired to the bar and the customary Wednesday Club Day prize giving, where we were made to feel entirely at home by the locals.

As evening arrived, we boarded two Land Rover game viewing vehicles for a night drive through the Estate's private reserve en route to their Elephant Lodge on the banks of the Olifants River, stopping to witness two lionesses feed on a buffalo carcass.

We arrived at the luxurious Elephant Lodge, were shown to our chalets and then entertained on the viewing deck where the staff produced a magnificent feast.

The helicopters arrived the next morning, landing on the banks of the river to take us to our next destination, Johann Rupert's lavish Leopard Creek Country Club near Malelane.

Now, before going any further, there are a few things you need to know about Leopard Creek. A round of golf here would cost the average man on the street $200 -- a quite steep sum for South Africans. Membership is by invitation only, and consists of millionaires and billionaires, including golfing icons such as Nicklaus and Ernie Els.

Rupert, the tobacco tycoon, spent a reported $1.7-million just on the construction of the famous 13th green, which overlooks the Kruger National Park. Oh, and only Rupert lands his helicopter on the estate's premises.

But for this trip, we were welcomed with open arms, landing on Rupert's own helipad and then welcomed into the clubhouse, itself a rare achievement for non-members, by Director of Golf Derek Murdoch for drinks.

Not even the professionals who grace these fairways during the annual Tour Championships played at Leopard Creek may venture into the clubhouse. Unless, of course, your name is Els and you are a close friend of Rupert.

We were then assigned to our various golf carts, each one fitted with its own mini-cooler box filled with refreshments, complimentary golf balls and caps.

Leopard Creek, designed by Gary Player as Rupert's ultimate vision of creating the Augusta of Africa, is a spectacular challenge. Since it opened in 1996, the course has improved every year to the extent that it is now ranked within the top three in the country.

Because of its exclusivity, you can play an entire round at Leopard Creek without encountering another golfer, giving you the luxury of having a championship course to yourself.

You can even order duck liver pate as a halfway house snack from the intercom system on the ninth tee. The golfer is given an ice-cold towel to freshen up with after nine holes, and a snack is placed in your golf cart to, as they put it, "sweeten the back nine."

With the burning reality that not even $3,000 can buy a good golf swing, we soothed the aches of a hard day on the fairways with a refreshing shower and a sundowner in the clubhouse, the walls of which are lined with golfing memorabilia from around the world.

That evening we enjoyed another African feast in the bush at the very comfortable Southern Sun Inter-Continental Malelane Lodge, followed by a leisurely breakfast in the morning before heading home.

Only nine such golf trips have been booked for the year to retain the exclusivity of such an outing, and future participants will be presented with a framed picture of the challenge, while the winners of that particular challenge will receive a model of a Eurocopter EC120.

Trips are also being planned for other golf courses in South Africa.

Contact details

The people at ABC of Golf will take care of your every need, from your arrival at and departure from Johannesburg International Airport to all the golf and travel plans in between.

For bookings, visa requirements and any other information you require, speak to Belinda Lamb at Rennies Travel, the travel partners with ABC of Golf, on 0027 11 407 2800 or e-mail Belinda on belinda.l@travel.rennies.co.za.

You can also contact Blacky Swart, CEO of ABC of Golf, on 0027 82 461 5721 if you have any questions about the trip, or e-mail him on blacky@abcofgolf.com

Or you can visit the ABC of Golf Web site on abcofgolf.com and book for this and other golf-related tours to South Africa.

Depending on what package you opt for and where the golf courses are located, you may have to take precautions against malaria. But this is not as bad as it sounds. It merely means that if you're traveling in the high summer (December through April) to either Mpumalanga or parts of KwaZulu-Natal, then you can take either malaria tablets, which are frequently available at any pharmacy in the country, or simply apply a spray such as Peaceful Sleep to keep the mosquitoes away.

The spray is the easier option as the tablets do have certain side effects, such as causing nausea or drowsiness.

Michael Vlismas is a freelance golf writer and has covered the game for Reuters, several international newspapers and publications such as the Daily Telegraph, Golf Digest and Golf Weekly, as well as having done radio work for the BBC World Service and other stations worldwide.

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