MIDLANDS, MEANDER - Ok, you may want to ask what large people-gobbling creatures at the foot of a waterfall and strange beers such as the Whistling Weasel Pale Ale, the Possum Pilsner, the Pickled Pig Porter and the Tiddly Toad Lager have to do with golf.
The answer is nothing. In fact, they couldn't be further apart from each other. So far apart, that they don't even belong on the same planet. But in the mountainous KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa, in a stretch of about only 80 kilometres known as the Midlands Meander, all this and more seems to blend together in a very bizarre, yet pleasant way.
The Midlands Meander is South Africa's largest and most popular arts and crafts route. From its humble beginnings in 1983, when a small group of artists and crafters came together to form the route as a means of displaying their wares to the odd passers by, the Midlands Meander has grown into a self-drive tourist route offering a veritable feast of craft shops, curio stalls, art galleries, antique shops, country hotels, herb and flower farms, guest houses and tea gardens, country pubs, health hydro's, breweries, wine cellars and more.
It covers the region between the towns of Pietermaritzburg and Mooi River, and has grown to well over 100 stops. The N3 highway is the main access point to most of the Midlands Meander, which is very well signposted. But your best bet is to get off the concrete and onto the back roads to truly appreciate the scenery.
Now, South Africans are a very pleasant bunch always willing to help a tourist discover their wonderful country. But chances are that when you land at Johannesburg International Airport, sidle up to the tourist information counter and start enquiring about the country's best golf trips, the Midlands Meander will not even feature. This is quite expected when you consider that the route boasts none of the high profile, multi-million dollar golf estates and resorts.
But as a family holiday, in which Dad, Mom and the kids can all feel as though they're getting something out of the deal, then the Midlands Meander will go down like a pint of Tiddly Toad Lager on a hot day.
KwaZulu-Natal has long been South Africa's premier family holiday destination. It boasts one of the most agreeable climates you will find anywhere in the world, and it's ever changing terrain and richness of things to do and see makes it a pleasure to visit. The province is rich in diversity, offering its visitors every outdoor activity conceivable as well as game parks and a flip through the pages of the country's history. It was in this part of the world that King Shaka ruled his famous Zulu kingdom, and it's here where many 19th Century battles were fought between the Boer settlers and Zulus as well as the invading British troops.
The British influence remains very strong here to this day, and for years, KwaZulu-Natal was dubbed "The Last Outpost" of the British Empire.
Even the landscape reminds you of something out of Scotland or Ireland with its green valleys and hills. The Midlands are sandwiched between the historic town of Pietermaritzburg and the spectacular Drakensberg mountain range, so named by the Boers for its peaks that resemble dragon's teeth. The region was a spiritual retreat for Mahatma Gandhi and also features strongly in the memoirs of former South African president Nelson Mandela.
You can easily experience four seasons here, ranging from pleasant for most of the year, to the odd fall of snow. The months between April and July are possibly the perfect time to visit the area, with the climate quite mild compared with the sticky, humid months of summer.
For South African golfers, KwaZulu-Natal is the perfect winter getaway and offers them the chance to escape the brown fairways of their home courses.
But until recently, even South Africans have overlooked the wealth of quality golf courses on offer in the Midlands Meander. And the very favourable 10 to 1 Dollar to Rand exchange rate makes playing golf in this region an absolute steal for overseas visitors.
The centrally located town of Howick is a good place to start your discovery of the local fairways. Howick is renowned for the Howick Falls around which the town is built, where the Umgeni River plunges about 100 metres into dark pools that, according to local legend, contain man-eating monsters.
The two courses here are the new 18-hole Sakabula Country Estate and the 9-hole layout of the Bosch Hoek Golf Club.
Sakabula is the Zulu name for a local bird species, and the course was the brainchild of six farmers who, in the mid-90s, decided to try their hands at something other than cows and crops. The course is still young, but is busy maturing into a spectacular layout. A round here will cost you in the region of $5 on weekdays and $6 on weekends, while a cart will set you back about $9.
Bosch Hoek used to be a private course belonging to an industrialist by the name of Punch Barlow. It's rated as one of South Africa's top nine-hole layouts, if not the best, and bears the signature of Bob Grimsdell, who shaped its contours in the early Sixties. The course was only recently opened to the public. It's a compact and scenic layout with a lovely park-like feel to it.
But don't mistake it for a pushover. This is one layout that places a tremendous emphasis on accuracy and course management. However, more than the quality of the golf course, it's the friendly welcome of the staff and owners that is Bosch Hoek's true charm. Your golf will cost you around $10 and a cart about $9.
Both courses are easily accessible from the N3 highway, and detailed maps of the area are widely available.
The Victoria Country Club just outside Pietermaritzburg, the entrance to the Midlands Meander, has the fame of being the venue for Ernie Els' only South African Amateur stroke play victory in 1989. Grimsdell also had a hand in the design of this undulating, parkland layout, which features a few tough par-fours. The green fees here are $16 for non-affiliated golfers and $10 for affiliated golfers, with a cart costing $9.
Further inland and nestled in the Drakensberg is the Champagne Sports Resort. This used to be a very basic nine-hole course. But it has since been upgraded, with South African senior professional Hugh Baiocchi redesigning the new 18-hole layout that finally does justice to its spectacular location.
The layout is quite open and features the longest hole in South Africa, the 605-metre par-five first. This is easily the signature hole, presenting golfers with a start off a tee overlooking the clubhouse and a ravine.
As can be expected from an area very reminiscent of Switzerland, the views here are spectacular. A lavish timeshare development partners the golf course. Your 18 holes will cost around $16 non-affiliated and $14 affiliated. Hotel guests pay $9, and cart fees are $10.
These four courses are considered the most outstanding on the Midlands Meander. But there are others that also deserve a trip down the fairways.
Kloof Country Club is an attractive parkland layout that is nestled in the scenic Valley of the Thousand Hills. The green fees are $20 non-affiliated and $15 affiliated, with a cart going for $9.
The Maritzburg Golf Club in Pietermaritzburg is one of the oldest golf clubs in the country dating back to 1886, and offers a pleasant golfing experience at around $7, with carts costing $6.
The accommodation options along the Midlands Meander are overwhelming. But if you're in the market for the t-shirt that says, "Been There, Done That", then there are two establishments you have to stay at.
The Nottingham Road Hotel, in the quaint village of Nottingham Road, is KwaZulu-Natal's oldest country hotel, established in 1854. This town has its own brewery that is famous for the strange beers mentioned at the start of this article. It's also the home of the great snow race, a road race through the snow.
And the Granny Mouse Country House is an absolute must. Granny Mouses is one of the most recognisable establishments on the Midlands Meander.
The hotel is situated on 52 acres overlooking the Lions River in the heart of the Midlands, with 16 thatched cottages decorated in country style.
For further information on the Midlands, go to www.kzn.org.za/kzn/ - the official website of KwaZulu-Natal tourism - and click on the "Pietermaritzburg and the Midlands" section. The site is highly informing and will give you an excellent insight into the accommodation options available as well as a comprehensive list of contact details and tourist attractions.
Sakabula Country Estate - Tel: +27 33 3306751.
Bosch Hoek Golf Club - Tel: +27 33 2344232.
Victoria Country Club - Tel: +27 33 3471394.
Champagne Sports Resort - Tel: +27 36 4681088.
Kloof Country Club - Tel: +27 31 7641492.
Maritzburg Golf Club - Tel: +27 33 3962356.
The Nottingham Road Hotel
Tel: +27 33 2636151.
Rates - $15 with an en-suite bathroom and $12 without.
Granny Mouse Country House
Tel: +27 33 2344071.
Rates vary from midweek rates of $34 per person per night, bed and breakfast to $46 per person per night sharing, bed and breakfast.
October 3, 2002
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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