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Birdies, bogeys, lions and leopards - Kirkman's Kamp in South Africa offers a wild ride

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa - The South Africa bush is not a place where you want to be lost - especially at night when predators are on the prowl.

We passed the gates to the Kruger National Park long ago, which closed ominously behind us for the night - no way out now - and the narrow, dirt road seems to wind ever deeper into the bush, pressing in on the SUV. With the windows rolled down, the night is alive with the sounds of Africa.

Around one corner, the hindquarters of a huge animal abruptly appear, partially obscured by bush. The treetops erupt into movement - birds scared by the animal? As we creep closer, we see that it's all one in the same - a giraffe browsing in the trees, his moonlit, and impassive face towering above us.

As we pass, our heads craned around staring at one of nature's strangest animals, the headlights catch yet more movement around the next corner: two lions trotting down the road. They glance back at us, but don't seem to be bothered. Mesmerized, we follow them.

After 15 minutes or so, the lions, two females, pull off to the side of the road in a clearing, eyeing us with mild curiosity. It is at this point I realize that the window is still down. The lions are no more than 20 feet away. Not wanting to be their midnight snack, I claw frantically at the electric window button, but can't find it in the confusion.

No matter, the lions merely watch as if amused, waiting for us to pass so they can resume their hunt for meatier game.

We finally find Kirkman's Kamp and it's no more than 500 yards away from where we last saw the lions. When I get out of the SUV, I look nervously over my shoulder. In the morning, I will find huge paw prints outside my door. You aren't allowed out at night without an escort.

Kirkman lodge is located in the Sabi Sands Private Reserve. With no fences between it and the park, all of the wild animals are free to roam, including the "big five" of lions, leopards, elephants, hippos and buffaloes. Elephants have been known to stroll across the manicured grounds during cocktail hour.

The area is home to the greatest diversity of wildlife in Africa, which becomes apparent quickly: the place is teeming with beasts large and small. Visitors can drive themselves through the park, but they must stick to the main roads and aren't allowed to leave their vehicles.

At Kirkman, no such restrictions exist. You're assigned a trained guide who takes you on early morning and evening game drives in an open-air Land Rover, accompanies you at meals and generally looks after your every need. With their Land Rovers, they can go virtually anywhere, and do. If you want to get out of the car, they will take you on guided walks with a .375-caliber rifle - which could bring down an elephant in the extremely rare case it was needed - slung over their shoulders.

Our guide, Chris Sibuye, is a native of the area, as is our tracker, Simeon Mukable. We start out early, the two men chatting to each other in Zulu over an intercom. We stop occasionally as they check fresh tracks. Suddenly, Mukable chatters excitedly over the intercom and Sibuye veers off the dirt road, into the wild African bush. Minutes later, we come across two more lions, a young male and female, resting after a hard night of hunting.

Kirkman's has been around since the 1920s, and most of the wild game has grown accustomed to seeing the Land Rovers - they know they can't eat them and they know they won't be harmed - so you can get so close it is truly terrifying at first. However, that doesn't mean the animals are tame. You are warned not to stand up in the vehicle and, obviously, not to get out in an attempt to get even closer. If you were fool enough to try, all bets are off.

We get so close to the lions we could almost reach out and touch them. They stare back at us, eye to eye. It is extremely unnerving at first - you yearn for a steel cage - but after a while you understand you won't be eaten if you don't do anything stupid. It's an amazing, up-close-and-personal experience with one of the fiercest carnivores on earth.

During the course of three game drives, we will see all of the "big five," with one young bull elephant in particular becoming agitated enough to make a short charge; elephants, for some reason, don't want man to get near, no matter how familiar. Of course, we make all sorts of other sightings, including an extremely poisonous vine snake swallowing a chameleon, dozens of herds of antelope, including the big, elegant kudu with its long, curved horns. There are also monkeys, baboons, warthogs and different species of colorful and exotic African birds.

Still, it's the big cats that stick with you, including the solitary, spotted leopard we crossed paths with.

For what's surely one of the biggest incongruities on earth, you can have intimate encounters with wild African beasts at Kirkman in the mornings and evenings, while enjoying a round of golf during the day. Mpumalanga, where Kirkman and Kruger are located, doesn't have the high concentration of golf courses other provinces of South Africa do, but it does boast the country's top-rated course as well as some other good courses.

Must plays

Leopard Creek this year knocked out the Gary Player Country Club as South Africa's top golf course, according to Golf Digest South Africa. Designed by Player with tinkering by Jack Nicklaus, Leopard Creek borders Kruger Park. It is an exclusive club and difficult to get on, but the public can play if they're the guest of a member or if they stay at one of three nearby hotels or lodges.

Skukuza Golf Course is a unique experience every golfer should try if he or she is in the area. Far from being a championship-caliber course, the lure here is the wild game that can and does roam at will. Located within the boundaries of Kruger, with no fences, you're met with a sign that says: "Beware: Dangerous Animals. Enter at Your Own Risk." Pay particular attention to the hippos in Lake Panic, which you must hit over at the No. 9 par-3.

Nelspruit Golf Course is one of the busiest courses in Mpumalanga. Situated in the lowveldt, it has more than 250 species of birds, no fairway bunkers, but tons of trees. Home to the annual Jock of the Bushveldt Festival, the parklands course was recently revamped by South African architect Peter Matkovich.

White River Golf Course was designed by Player a quarter of a century ago as a nine-holer, with nine additional holes added later. About an hour-and-a-half drive from the Kruger Park, the course winds through a valley and has excellent views of the White River, which regularly criss-crosses the course, fronting some of the greens.

Solid seconds

The Sabi River Sun Course is also situated along the White River with all but four of the holes having water. The course was originally built by the local farming community for its own private use and was improved and expanded in the 1990s, with a new irrigation system. It has hilly fairways, but beware the hippos and crocodiles in the dam next to the 14th and 15th holes.

Kruger Park Lodge has a nine-hole course with 18 tees and a driving range, located about a 10-minute drive from the park.

Off course

By far the biggest non-golf attraction in this area is wild game watching. Aside from the park, the area is home to a variety of private game reserves.

Where to eat

Kirkman's serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in an open-air "boma", a sort of amphitheatre where you can watch the stars, or you can eat in the bush. Like the other Exeter lodges, Kirkman's has its own executive chef, and the African dishes are delicious.

The lodges also have selections of wines; those new to South Africa may not know that the country has an extensive fine wine industry.

Where to stay

Kirkman's Kamp is one of four Exeter lodges in the Sabi Sands reserve. It's a low-key, pretty camp set back way in the bush, with blooming flowers in front of the main reception area.

It was built in the 1920s by Harry Kirkman, who started as a cattle farmer and eventually became one of South Africa's leading conservationists (after, it is said, he shot roughly 500 lions). The old homestead is now the main recreation hub, where guides check off animals seen by guests on a tote board.

Sugar cane farmers and British royalty used to hunt on the grounds, and the current camp opened in 1981. It overlooks the Sand River, and the verandas open onto rolling lawns and, beyond that, primordial African bush. There is a large lounge and parlor, in 1920s decor, and the 36 beds are in separate buildings a short distance from the main buildings.

The guides are all highly-trained, including advanced weapons training, and the trackers are mostly former subsistence hunters.

"The Sand River runs the entire length of the property," Kirkman's Niall Anderson said. "There's actually less game in Kruger. With the high, annual rainfall, there's a lot of food. So we have a lot of antelope which, in turn, leads to a lot of predators."

The big deal for guests here is seeing all of the "big five," which is usually accomplished fairly easily.

Lodge rates vary from 2,300 South African rands - about $400 U.S. - per person, per night at Kirkman's, to 5,200 rands for the five-star Leadwood Lodge.

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.

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