Kenya is rightly known for the amazing wildlife of its national parks, including the famous Maasai Mara where you can enjoy breathtaking encounters with big cats. With golf courses spread from the escarpments of the Great Rift Valley to the white-sand beaches of the Indian Ocean, you can take a golf safari and even get up close and personal with wild animals on the fairways.
I’m a marked man. If I ever return to the Maasai Mara, there’s a male cheetah waiting for me – and it will sniff me out straight away. We were close. So close, the razor-sharp claws of its blood-stained front paws were just inches from my face as it sat on the back of our open-top Land Rover.
Moments earlier, it had jumped up onto the vehicle to use it as a vantage point over the surrounding grasslands, having gorged itself on a gazelle its mother was still feasting on. I have never been so close to a killer, nor as spellbound by such a graceful and beautiful wild animal. Having been on at least a dozen safaris, I had never seen a cheetah before, let alone had one right above my head.
Although a young adult, it could have easily dispatched me or any of my travelling colleagues with a swipe of its lethal paws. Yet I felt absolutely no fear, even as it stared down directly at me while I photographed it.
POWERFUL ODOUR. Mesmerised, I was rooted to my seat…until it decided to mark its territory, spraying urine directly over me and my camera equipment, before jumping back down to rejoin its mother.
Despite leaping out of the way, I got showered, much to the amusement of everyone else. And, as the cheetahs nonchalantly ambled away, leaving their kill to a throng of circling vultures that then proceeded to rip the carcass apart in a raucous mass of flapping wings, laughs erupted when the guide said the odour was so powerful it would be almost impossible to remove.
THE LEOPARDS. The cheetah experience was the highlight of a very memorable stay in the sprawling Mara park, although far from the only one. On the drive from the park entrance to the Mara Explorer Camp, accessed by a precarious Indiana Jones-style rope bridge across a rock-flanked river, we saw a leopard – another first for me.
Then on one of two safari drives next morning, having enjoyed a camp dinner and been entertained with traditional Maasai dancing by local villagers the night before, we got an even closer view of another leopard. This one, a star from the BBC’s Big Cat Diary series called Olive, serenely posed for all of us in our attendant safari vehicles as we happily snapped away, before sauntering past our vehicle so close I could have reached out and stroked her.
BREAKFAST WITH HIPPOS. We also watched a challenger take on and beat the alpha male impala to be master of his herd of females, the bloody clash of antlers watched by skulking hyenas. Later we came across, among others, elephants, giraffes, ostriches, a pack of sleepy lions, baboons, buffalo and hippos, wallowing in a river just steps from where we enjoyed an al fresco bush breakfast prepared by chefs sporting white hats.
All that plus luxury tented accommodation that would put many a top hotel to shame. The eight-hour drive from the Great Rift Valley in a non-air conditioned minibus might have been tortuous, but the flight back to Nairobi in a twin-engine puddle jumper was sublime. I was completely captivated by the contrasting landscape below: the green grass of the veldt, the bright red soil, the sculpted mountain and valley scenery that was unfurling like a never-ending canvas, speckled by myriad tracks and tiny dots – the Mara’s animal inhabitants.
GRAZING ZEBRAS. This wasn’t just a safari trip. I was in Kenya to sample its golf, too. Boasting some glorious courses, it is fast gaining recognition as a superb golf destination, with non-golf options including stunning beaches along its 480km of coastline.
You don’t even have to leave some of the golf courses to enjoy the wildlife. At the Great Rift Valley Lodge & Golf Resort, which lays at 7,000 feet, zebras were grazing the fairways of a couple of holes as I played early on a misty morning. Five zebras live on the course, along with several warthogs and a herd of impala, besides many exotic birds.
I had been told the warthogs were often seen by the 3rd hole, which has an amazing scenic view over the Rift Valley to Lake Naivasha and the mountains beyond. Sadly, they weren’t there, although I did see the impala crash through bushes and race across the 14th fairway before disappearing.
UPSIDE AND DOWNSIDE. The animals are an experiment which the resort and golf club members, whose homes are dotted around the estate, are still assessing. They are an undoubted and unusual attraction, but the downside is that they often trample the greens, leaving trails of hoof prints – with two green-keeping staff permanently employed to repair the ensuing damage.
Buffalo had also been part of the experiment but proved several hoof prints too far. I was very grateful for a local rule allowing golfers to lift and replace balls from animal footprints without penalty when one of my pitches ended up in a zebra hoof indentation on one green.
FEW GOLFERS. On the Great Rift Valley golf course, where the par-5 17th is one of the stars with its blind approach to the green over a scrub-filled “valley of death”, you are actually more likely to see animals than other golfers. The club has only 40 active playing members and the lodge has just over 100 rooms and suites. Activities besides golf include guided horse riding and mountain biking, plus game and wildlife walks through the Eburu Forest.
You can even see wildlife on courses close to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. As I played the magnificent 7,277-yard course at Windsor Golf Hotel & Country Club, troops of curious Sykes’ monkeys scampered across fairways and took to the soaring trees that frame many of the holes when I got close.
Laid out through a coffee plantation and bird-filled indigenous forest, lorded over by a palatial, colonial-style clubhouse, and with elegant lodge-style accommodation buildings mirrored in lakes by the 9th and 18th greens, you can easily imagine you are in the middle of the African jungle instead of just 25 minutes from the bustling metropolis.
MUTHAIGA. Closer to the city centre is the challenging Muthaiga Golf Club course, although once again you could be in a tropical wilderness of lush woodland, lakes and ponds – save for a few holes alongside the highway that splits the two nines, linked to each other by a bridge.
Monkeys are also a common feature on the 4th and 5th holes of this lovely course, which is host to the annual Kenya open, although my wayward shots must have scared them off when I played.
Golf in Kenya is far more than merely sharing fairways with the local wildlife, though. The country has more than 40 courses, nine of which are international-standard, mostly clustered around Nairobi and along the coast, with plans for several more.
WATER AND SUN BLOCK. Straddling the equator, Kenya offers year-round golfing weather but is also hot, particularly by the coast which is generally a few degrees warmer than Nairobi and the Rift Valley. Take lots of water when you play, as most courses are walking courses. Slap on plenty of sun block too, as the sun is strong even early in the morning. The rainy seasons are March-May and November-December, but you can still play golf then – and even avoid the downpours, as we did. Another strong selling point is its value for money. Green fees typically range from just $30-$45 for a round, with caddy fees less than $10, plus optional tip.
MOST SPECTACULAR. At Vipingo Ridge, a celebrated new kid on the block by Kenya’s coast that opened in 2009, you might even have a former street kid as your caddy. The resort, set on rolling hills just behind the coastal strip 35km north of beach holiday favourite Mombasa, has teamed up with UK charity Glad’s House to take young men and women from the streets, as well as from local communities and sports clubs, and train them as caddies.
With the manicured fairways and greens of its David Jones-designed Baobab Course commanding extensive views to the Indian Ocean and punctuated by lakes and cascading streams crossed by arched stone bridges, the course is arguably Kenya’s most spectacular.
DEMANDING FINISH. The streams and lakes alongside the dogleg par-4 16th, and par-3 8th and 17th holes, together with those edging the par-4 9th and 18th holes as they climb up towards the striking clubhouse, make for memorable and demanding finishes to both nines. Sloping greens on most holes add to the test.
After your round, dine in style on the clubhouse terrace, enjoying the sweeping vista over the 9th and 18th holes from atop the ridge.
Vipingo offers luxury villa accommodation looking out over the resort’s own paved airstrip and the coastline, where it has a private beach club with bar and restaurant. The 2,500-acre gated estate, sprinkled with stately baobab trees that lend their name to its existing course, has plans for a second championship course.
NYALI GOLF. Close to Mombasa, Nyali Golf & Country Club is one of the country’s longest-established clubs, with a history going back some 80 years. A friendlier challenge than more recent developments, its pretty parkland design features native trees including palms, casuarinas and flame trees, resplendent in bright red blossom in spring.
The welcome sight of the grand clubhouse and the prospect of a cold post-game Tusker beer on the veranda revitalise your swing for the uphill par-3 18th hole.
Stay just minutes away at the all-inclusive Voyager Beach Resort, a ship-themed hotel that appeals to families and has a white-sand beach and evening entertainment. Nearby attractions include Africa’s largest crocodile farm and Haller Park, a former quarry wasteland turned nature park.
If you want a change from the themed buffet restaurant evenings, you can dine at the Captain’s Table – we dined with the cruise captain, aka the general manager – or savour freshly-caught seafood at a la carte seafood restaurant, the Smugglers’ Cove.
KAREN BLIXEN’S ESTATE. Further down the coast is Leisure Lodge Beach & Golf Resort, with a 15-year-old course featuring 88 bunkers and fruit trees that attract monkeys and birds.
Another notable Nairobi course, Karen Golf Club, is situated on the site of author Karen Blixen’s famous coffee estate near the city’s Wilson Airport, where flights from the Maasai Mara land.
Right on the airport doorstep, the indoor/outdoor Carnivore restaurant is an institution that has been serving guests since 1980 and is an absolute must try. Whole joints of meat from legs of lamb and pork to exotic fare such as ostrich and crocodile are roasted on traditional Maasai swords over a huge charcoal pit.
ALL YOU CAN EAT. There are no menus to choose from. Once diners take their seats on the zebra-striped chairs, waiters bring all the meat dishes in a constant procession, continually carving until diners admit defeat. Carnivore is known as the “Ultimate Beast of a Feast” – and you certainly don’t go hungry!
The five-star Sankara Nairobi hotel offers a serene escape from the frenetic capital. Here, at the rooftop Sarabi Supper Club, you can enjoy tapas-style dishes and sip cocktails while gazing out at the city skyline.
Nairobi’s relentless traffic is a nightmare, often stationary from dawn to dusk. Even short journeys can take hours. However, a carefully-planned itinerary flying directly between the main golf centres (the Great Rift Valley Lodge also has its own airstrip), can avoid much of that hassle – allowing more time to savour Kenya’s golf courses, its beaches and its wildlife. And, like me, you may be lucky enough to enjoy a close encounter of the furred kind.
Good to know
Kenya Airways operates daily overnight flights from London Heathrow to Nairobi, with economy return flight to Nairobi prices from £728.95 including tax. Visit www.kenya-airways.com or call 020 8283 1818 to book.
Nyali Golf & Country Club
Green fee: £32; caddy fee: £5
Vipingo Ridge, Baobab Course
Green fee: £38; buggy fee: £5
Great Rift Valley Lodge & Golf Resort
Green fee: visitors £24, guests £12
(caddy or buggy service not usually offered)
Muthaiga Golf Club
Green fee: £29; caddy fee: £5
Windsor Golf Hotel & Country Club
Green fee: £47; caddy fee: £5; buggy fee: £29
More information on Kenya’s golf courses can be found on the Golf in Kenya website: www.golf-kenya.com
Heritage Hotels operates seven resorts and camps across Kenya. They include:
• Voyager Beach Resort – 236 rooms (called cabins) located on the shores of the Indian Ocean. A double room with garden view costs from £111 per night on an all-inclusive basis.
• Great Rift Valley Lodge & Golf Resort – 78 villa rooms and 25 junior suites with views overlooking the spectacular expanse of the Rift Valley. Double rooms start from £330 per night, including breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner.
• Mara Intrepids – 30 luxury tents located by a river in the heart of the Maasai Mara, featuring four-poster beds and en-suite bathrooms. Double rooms start from £750 per night including breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, three game drives, guided nature walk and airstrip transfers.
• Sankara Nairobi is a five-star, contemporary hotel in Nairobi. Rooms cost from £199 per night, bed and breakfast.
SAFARIS AND GOLF
Family-owned Exotic Golf Safaris specialises in designing tours to fit every type of golfing tourist, combining golf with East Africa’s spectacular scenery and wildlife.
Transfers can be arranged by Private Safaris, part of the Kuoni Destination Management group.
KENYA TOURISM BOARD
For more information on visiting Kenya, contact Kenya Tourism Board on 020 7367 0931 or visit www.magicalkenya.com