South Africa: Diamond in the rough

Senior Writer

STELLENBOSCH, South Africa – It’s nearing dusk and the air is filled with a chorus of children’s voices outside my studio apartment.

I hurriedly tuck away my luggage and rush downstairs to find the origin of these rhythmic chants. There, standing on the street corner wearing matching costumes, a group of black African children are singing tribal songs, pounding on drums and dancing wildly.

They can’t help but stand out in this upper-class, Afrikaans university town where practically every building is painted white. In fact, directly behind them is the charming lily-white church where Ernie Els tied the knot in 1998.

Trying desperately to fight off jet lag, I begin to wander the lively shops and bistros. Uniformed security officers hired by local business owners stand guard outside the boutiques. It’s comforting to know they’re keeping watch, but disturbing to ponder why extra security is necessary.

Maura Nolan, a South Africa native who owns a U.S.-based travel agency, explains her homeland as “a country with many layers.”

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Unfortunately, the layer with which Americans are most familiar involves images of AIDS-stricken poverty and crime. One of the first scenes greeting visitors who have flown into Cape Town is a township comprising thousands of plywood shacks. In the days of apartheid, townships were designated neighborhoods for non-white families.

Today whites and blacks live side by side in suburban South African communities. There’s a growing black middle class and an exploding tourist industry. The Rainbow Nation has come a long way since Nelson Mandela voted for the first time on April 27, 1994.

A little farther down the highway, in Stellenbosch, another layer reveals itself. Vineyards blanket both sides of the road like patchwork on a homespun quilt. Rocky mountain ranges tower over fields of green. It’s a stark contrast to the dusty animal kingdom Americans envision when someone mentions Africa.

“I think the perception of the country is quite vague with the Americans,” Nolan said. “They really don’t expect that splendor of Cape Point, the forests, the desert, all the ecosystems.”

For Nolan, owner of Safari Golf Tours, selling her homeland to American golfers has never been easier. Five-star resorts are popping up on the coastline along with courses designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Robert Trent Jones Jr., Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Darren Clarke. Nolan sells clients on the golf-wine-safari triumvirate at world-class venues. It’s a compelling sales pitch.

Twice the size of Texas, South Africa is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and extraordinary terrain. Quiet beaches outline stunning azure waters. African penguins (yes, penguins) shuffle along Boulder’s Beach. From the lush green of the Garden Route to the majesty of Table Mountain, South Africa’s scenery is as diverse as its people, whose country has 11 official languages.

While captaining the International team at the 2003 Presidents Cup, Gary Player, ever the pitchman, trumpeted the beauty of his homeland.

“What you have on 17 Mile Drive (in Pebble Beach, Calif.), we have 1,000 miles of that,” Player said. “It’s not a case of boasting. It’s a case of fact that nobody is aware of what we have in this country.”

The Presidents Cup, held at Fancourt Hotel and Country Club Estate in George, helped illuminate this distant corner of the world. Fancourt, the granddaddy of South African resorts, offers one of the nation’s toughest golf tests in its Links course. Player, who designed all four courses at Fancourt, moved massive amounts of dirt to build the Links on a former airstrip.

The Presidents Cup teams immediately took to the course, but it can overwhelm lesser players. My caddie, Fred, who has been at Fancourt since it opened in the early 1990s, suggests that most guests stick to the Outeniqua and Montagu courses for a more relaxing experience.

At Outeniqua, I was paired with a German couple who said “congratulations” every time I made par. I didn’t have many chances to return the kindness. At the halfway house I learned the wife had a 54-handicap. She seemed to enjoy the enchanting rose gardens behind each thatched-roof home as much as she did the golf. Her round wouldn’t have been as rosy on the Links course.

Nicklaus, Player’s Presidents Cup counterpart, certainly has taken note. The ubiquitous Nicklaus Design team has 10 projects in South Africa either open for play or under construction. All Nicklaus projects are carried out by Golf Data, a South African construction company co-founded by Robbie Marshall.

We ran into Marshall while checking out the heralded Simola Golf Club, of which he is part owner, in the Southern Cape. This Nicklaus track opened in 2005 and features five par 5s and five par 3s, a unique trait dictated by the mountainous terrain.

Marshall epitomizes South African hospitality. After a rather formal interview about pending projects and facilities, Marshall insisted that we stay for afternoon tea as he carried on, chatting like a long-lost friend.

“It’s taken us a long time to entice the big-name architects to come to South Africa,” Marshall said. “We believe our golf courses can rate with the American golf courses in quality and obviously in beauty.”

On beauty alone, few can compete with the breathtaking views of Pezula. Situated on the cliffs of the Knysna Heads, Pezula hugs the edge of the Indian Ocean on several dramatic holes. It’s not South Africa’s most challenging track, but it might be the most picturesque.

It was impossible to book a tee time the weekend we visited Pezula because the government had taken over the complex. With President Thabo Mbeki expected to arrive in a matter of hours, security around the luxury resort was on high alert. While sitting in the hotel lobby we met the event’s caterer, Fernando Duarte, who said he specialized in chicken. Turns out Duarte is the co-founder of Nando’s, a fast-food chain with 600 locations worldwide.

Duarte recently had returned from Maryland, where he had reviewed spices at McCormick’s headquarters. He expressed a sentiment about Americans we heard often: “One, you don’t think much about us, and two, when you do, you think Africa,” he said. “Your perception is no more than hunger, poverty, AIDS. It’s all the negative things.”

Of course, there’s a reason why that perception is so prevalent.

The Pan Africanist Congress declared a state of emergency last December over the country’s AIDS epidemic, citing 800 people dying each day from the disease. PAC estimates that South Africa has 1 million AIDS orphans and 5.5 million citizens infected with HIV/AIDS.

Poverty and sickness aren’t the only pressing issues Mbeki faces. Although the government reports an overall decrease in crime in recent years, for most citizens the numbers remain too high. While in Knysna, I met a woman in the golf industry from Johannesburg who used to exercise with her friends in an area prison yard because her upscale neighborhood was too dangerous.

She stopped after a recent prison break; I suggested that she buy a treadmill.

I witnessed a mugging during my stay, albeit an unusual one. Returning from Cape Point, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans converge spectacularly, we ran into a traffic jam in Table Mountain National Park. A tourist had stopped his camper to videotape baboons along the roadside. But he left his car door open and a handful of the powerful creatures hopped in and ransacked the vehicle. The man stood outside, video camera in hand, pounding on the side of the camper as several baboons walked up to him. He can’t say he wasn’t warned: Park signs advise visitors not to feed the baboons, who favor shiny objects such as cameras.

In South Africa, though, baboons are fairly commonplace. Leopards are the most difficult to spot, though you might see one at Leopard Creek, the immaculate Player-designed private course that sits next to Kruger National Park. It’s not unusual to see a giraffe munching on leaves just off the green or monkeys frolicking in the trees. One caveat: Kruger is not malaria-free.

On my journey back to the States last fall, the pilot announced that we had a special guest on board. A lion was in the cargo bay, on its way to an American zoo. It was a bittersweet discovery. Some cats are just born to be wild.

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Beth Ann Baldry is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach her e-mail
[email protected]

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