South Africa’s Zulu kingdom, KwaZulu-Natal, captivated Peter Ellegard with its wild side and more gentle characteristics when he took a golf-based tour down the entire length of its Indian Ocean coastline.
Few destinations I have visited stir the soul more than KwaZulu-Natal.
The size of Portugal, this South African province encompasses some of the country’s best wildlife viewing both on land and under water. It also offers spectacular landscapes, wonderful beaches, cosmopolitan Durban, the trappings of its colonial past and the rich culture and heritage of its proud Zulu people.
The Zulus were the only native people to inflict defeat on the British Empire. An entire garrison of more than 1,000 redcoats were overwhelmed and annihilated by 20,000 spear and shield wielding, chanting Zulu warriors at Isandlwana. Yet its name has been lost in history compared with Rorke’s Drift.
Just 10 miles away, it was where 139 British soldiers holed up in a tiny, fortified mission camp and held off thousands of Zulu attackers for 12 hours until relief arrived. Their courage earned 11 Victoria Cross medals, the most for any single battle in history, and inspired the 1964 blockbuster movie Zulu. Three VCs were awarded for Isandlwana, which was the basis for the follow-up flop, Zulu Dawn.
BATTLEFIELDS. On a visit to KwaZulu-Natal, or KZN as it is known, several years ago I visited both battlefield sites. At Isandlwana, a guide vividly retold the events of 1879 as I sat on a hillside overlooking a sweeping plain and craggy hill dotted with clusters of white stone cairns and monuments, each marking where groups of soldiers had been cut down.
Fast forward to this year and I have returned to KZN to play some of its best golf courses, travelling down its entire coast from the Elephant Coast neighbouring Mozambique to its southern border with Eastern Cape province.
Before hitting the fairways, I enjoyed some magical wildlife moments in two game parks. First stop was Phinda Private Game Reserve, reached after a three-hour transfer north from Durban airport. Covering nearly 57,000 acres and established in 1991 with help from the Getty family, who still own land and have a house there, it’s run by luxury safari company &Beyond, which has six lodges in the reserve.
Arriving in the rain at the intimate Rock Lodge, there was just time to dump my bags in my suite before joining a safari drive with a couple from Durban decked out in heavyweight ponchos.
THE BIG FIVE. Previously derelict farmland, Phinda (meaning ‘The Return’ in Zulu) is now a huge conservation success that boasts a wealth of wildlife including the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) and helps sustain South Africa’s beleaguered white rhino population by exporting surplus animals to parks where poaching has taken its toll. A close relationship with neighbouring communities, who watch out for suspicious activity, means it has suffered few losses itself in recent years.
Having glimpsed a pair of rhinos on the opposite hillside, we then came across a mother and young calf framed by a double rainbow as the setting sun briefly appeared to turn the cloud-filled sky deep orange and silhouette vultures skulking in trees.
In all, we saw eight white rhinos on that safari, besides a host of other animals. Another highlight was the cheetahs, including a large male. Despite the dark, our driver/guide Ricci followed the cheetah off-road through the bush to give us amazing close-up views. In state-run safari parks, vehicles must stick to roads and designated tracks.
DAWN SAFARI. A hot bubble bath awaited me in my suite before dinner in the lodge, but sadly there was no time for a dip in my private plunge pool on the deck before taking a final, dawn safari drive and checking out the next morning.
That drive yielded more rhinos, elephants, lions, giraffe and a rare bonus – two wild dogs that had strayed in from outside the reserve.
A short drive later and I was in iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famed for its hippos. Cruise its lake on a pontoon boat to get up close and personal with families of them wallowing in the shallows, punctuated by occasional violent squabbles. In the gateway town of St Lucia, they often roam the streets at night and signs warn visitors not to approach them.
On a safari drive of the park, we saw a family of warthogs and other park residents, but its two black rhinos evaded us, as did a leopard seen on the shore by another boat while on the cruise.
From St Lucia, whale-watching tours head into the Indian Ocean and diving excursions visit Sodwana Bay for its beautiful coral reefs thronging with colourful tropical fish and the chance to encounter the majestic whale shark.
A TOUCH OF GOLF. My first taste of golf was at Prince’s Grant, a former sugar cane plantation set on ridges overlooking the Indian Ocean close to the grave of revered Zulu chief King Shaka. Having enjoyed a restful night in the 15-room, colonial-style lodge, keeping doors and windows closed to keep out inquisitive vervet monkeys, I joined club captain Peter Laverick and Golf KwaZulu-Natal director Mike McNamara for a round on the delightful course.
Several holes offer tantalising glimpses of the adjacent ocean before the par 4 15th serves up panoramic views over the beach and ocean from the tee box where you hit your drive to a fairway far below.
A 30-minute drive north of Durban, the sumptuous Fairmont Zimbali Lodge incorporates the Zimbali Country Club and its challenging Tom Weiskopf-designed course. Although on a residential estate, the course has a very natural feel with fairways and greens carved out of dense jungle and testing tee shots over jungle vegetation on some holes.
Flocks of hadeda ibis, so-named for their raucous “haa-haa-har-de-dah” call, followed us round, waiting until my downswing or after I duffed a shot before starting their taunting laughs. I was tempted more than once to kill a mocking bird…
DUEBAN COUNTRY CLUB. The resort town of Umhlanga was my base while I explored nearby Durban and its environs after picking up a rental car. At the five-star Beverly Hills Hotel, my corner suite looked out over the rocky shore and pounding surf and directly down onto Umhlanga’s red and white lighthouse. From my balcony, I could see the coast sweep around to Durban.
Durban Country Club’s course starts and ends by its historic clubhouse, overshadowed by the adjacent ultra-modern Moses Mabhida Stadium where seven games of the football World Cup were staged in 2010 to the accompaniment of mind-numbingly loud vuvuzela horns.
The undulating fairways, bounded on the other side by the sea and coastal highway, are narrow. Thankfully, they’re more manageable than on my previous visit after the club cut back bushes and trees lining every hole. Bring your putting A-game, though, as the tricky swales and aprons of its greens can ruin your score.
TROPICAL GARDEN. Nearby sister course Beachwood is also right by the coast. Many of its holes are edged by protected wetlands and despite its proximity to Durban you feel like you are playing in a giant tropical garden. A mongoose even ran across one tee in front of me.
Venturing in to Durban to eat at night, I enjoyed an amazing steak at vibrant Morningside district restaurant, Butcher Boys. For a more unusual dining experience, the Cargo Hold restaurant is in a mock ship in Durban’s uShaka Marine World aquarium. Get a table right by its vast glass walls and menacing sharks unnervingly eye you up as they glide by just the other side of the glass.
COTSWOLD DOWNS. A 20-minute drive inland from Durban brings you to Cotswold Downs Golf Club. This grand Peter Matkovich design has hosted the World Amateur Golf Championship and is set in an upmarket residential estate, laid out over hilly terrain giving glorious views to Durban and the ocean as well as several breath-taking tee shots from on high.
Abundant birdlife includes the sight of huge African crowned eagles on the wing overhead. Cotswold Hills is close to the Valley of a Thousand Hills, a stunning landscape of hills, cliffs and valleys where Phezulu Safari Park offers scenic game drives through a private reserve and a cliff-top cultural village with traditional beehive-shaped thatched huts and energetic Zulu dancing shows.
Overnight was at the nearby Makaranga Garden Lodge, a homely resort set in luxuriant, sculpture-filled botanical gardens with private balconies to relax on while listening to the prolific birds. There’s also a spa to ease aching muscles.
WATCH OUT FOR SNAKES. In KZN’s South Coast region, Selborne Park Golf Club is a beautiful course with fairways that snake through coastal forest. A former dairy farm, it was designed by the farmer and tests all skill levels but rewards you with birdieable holes and pretty vistas. Watch your step if you venture into the rough to find your ball here and on other KZN courses; a groundsman was bitten by a venomous green mamba snake at Selborne shortly before my visit.
I stayed at Selborne’s on-site hotel, but a nearby alternative is the luxurious Botha House guesthouse, a Cape Dutch-style homestead built in 1920 by South Africa’s first prime minister, General Louis Botha, as a ‘beach cottage’ for his wife with accommodation in four elegant rooms. The house stands alongside Umdoni Park Golf Club.
An unheralded golfing gem, once the exclusive preserve of South Africa’s ruling white politicians, Umdoni’s front nine is laid out around the white-fronted clubhouse, giving wonderful views of the ocean beyond a derelict windmill. Meanwhile, its back nine weaves through the pristine coastal forest of Umdoni Park and teems with birds and animals. What it lacks in length it more than makes up for in the wow factor on almost every hole.
For a new challenge and a different wow factor, certified divers can enjoy cage diving with ragged-tooth sharks and tiger sharks at the nearby Aliwal Shoal.
CASINO GOLF. An hour by road south took me just over a bridge forming the provincial border with the Eastern Cape, where I played the Wild Coast Sun golf course. Part of a lavish Sun International casino resort, this Robert Trent Jones Jr design starts off gently then bares its fangs on the par 5 12th hole, named Green Mamba, where you drive from a lofty tee box over a lake to a diagonal fairway. I bit off more than I could chew with the angle I took as my ball dropped short into the lake. At least on the signature, par 3 13th hole I made it across a ravine and waterfall to the green.
AMAZING WILDLIFE. Back in KZN, my final destination was San Lameer, a beachside residential community and resort with a revamped Peter Matkovich course laced by streams and ponds. Among memorable holes are the downhill par 4 10th, with the resort logo behind the green, and several where encroaching water makes finding the fairway fiendishly difficult. But my lasting memory is of its wildlife. Situated in a conservation area, herds of impala, duiker, reedbuck and bushbuck roam freely through the resort, often on the course itself as during my round, while above the fairways an African crowned eagle soared gracefully over the treetops from its nest.
There is excellent golf away from the coast too, with courses including Champagne Sports Resort in the foothills of the stunning Drakensberg Mountains, a course I played before. But they will have to wait until I return.
Good to know
South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) flies to Durban via Johannesburg from London’s Heathrow Airport, the journey taking around 13.5 hours including change of aircraft.
Prince’s Grant www.princesgrant.co.za
Fairmont Zimbali Lodge www.fairmont.com/zimbali-lodge
Selborne Park www.selbornegolf.co.za
San Lameer www.sanlameer.co.za
Wild Coast Sun www.suninternational.com/golf/wildcoastcuncountryclub
Durban Country Club & Beachwood course www.dcclub.co.za
Cotswold Downs www.cotswolddowns.co.za
Umdoni Park www.umdonipark.com
Phinda Private Game Reserve www.andbeyond.com/phinda-rock-lodge
Beverly Hills Hotel, Umhlanga www.tsogosunhotels.com/beverly-hills
Botha House, Umdoni Park www.bothahouse.co.za
WHAT TO DO
iSimangaliso Wetland Park http://isimangaliso.com
pheZulu Safari Park www.phezulusafaripark.co.za
Tourism KwaZulu-Natal www.zulu.org.za