By: Shirley Blevings
When the opportunity arose to participate in a golf/safari tour to Kenya, arranged by Ginny Golding’s Golfbug Adventures and Goway Travel in Vancouver, and Southern Cross Safari Ltd. in Kenya, I was definitely interested – an African safari has been on my bucket list for decades – and golfing in Kenya sounded like an adventure. I mean, who knew Kenya was a hotbed of golf?
Apparently, soon after the British colonists arrived in the 1900′s, they began developing golf courses all over the country. Today there are 38 courses approved by the Kenya Golf Union for handicap purposes – only 13 are 18-holes. Vipingo Ridge, near Mombasa, is the newest course in East Africa. Several new courses are planned or under construction and some are being upgraded from 9 holes to 18.
Valued at US$20 billion, golf tourism accounts for some 50 million tourists traveling the world to play on some of the estimated 32,000 courses – with growth potential of 1,000 new courses being built every year. Kenya hopes to grab a piece of that market.
“We are trying to promote Kenya as a golf destination, trying to educate club members to welcome visitors and accommodate them where possible,” says Louise Granger-Brown, Kenya tour rep with Southern Cross Safaris Ltd., the company that made all our ground arrangements. Golf is an elite sport in Kenya since most courses are either private or available only to hotel guests, but most clubs welcome golf tourists.
One of the most appealing features of golfing in Kenya is the variety — from courses set in tropical jungle and bordering beaches on the Indian Ocean to a course in the pine forests at 7,000 ft on the slopes of Mt. Kenya, to a course built on the slopes of an extinct volcano!
Over a period of three weeks, we played nine games of golf on seven different courses in three different regions of the country – and went on eight safaris at two different camps. Phew!
In the Nairobi area, we played two rounds at the Windsor Golf Hotel & Country Club, considered one of the top courses in Kenya, and one round at Muthaiga Golf Club, home of the Kenya Open, part of the European PGA Challenge Tour, which has hosted legends such as Sevi Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and Vijay Singh. With the fastest greens in East Africa, the par 71, 6,801-yard course was a challenge right out of the gates – on hole #2 we faced a steep uphill shot over a river on to multi-level terrain pocked with half-a-dozen bunkers – brutal!
Sigona Golf Club, just a 20-min drive from Nairobi (barring traffic tie-ups), provides lush wide fairways and ample dog legs requiring carefully thought-out shots. Just 10 min further down the highway, Limuru Country Club, the highest golf course in the Nairobi area at 7,000 ft (6,938 yards, par 71), is set amidst tea plantations and rolling farmland.
Mount Kenya Golf Course straddles the equator – golfers start out in the northern hemisphere and end up in the southern hemisphere. How unique is that! With splendid views of Mt. Kenya from every hole, this 9-hole, par 3, 2,388-yard course demands pinpoint accuracy with narrow fairways, dog legs, water and tree hazards, and lots of rough.
Great Rift Valley Lodge and Golf Resort, which opened in 2000 and has earned a reputation as one of the most challenging and beautiful championship courses in Africa, won the World Tourism Award for leading golf resort in Kenya in 2010 and 2011. Set on the slopes of a dormant volcano, this par 71, 6,580-yard course boasts high quality greens, rich bird life, grazing zebras and sweeping views of the Great Rift Valley.
Leisure Lodge Beach and Golf Resort, located in Diani Beach 30 km south of Mombasa, opened in 1998 and offers an 18-hole championship course (6,632 yards, par 72) characterized by many varieties of palms as well as giant baobab, cashew nut, casuarinas, and mango trees. Monkeys and baboons abound, but luckily seem to ignore golf balls.
I have a soft spot for this course as I scored my first hole-in-one on the par 3, 117-yard hole #5 – a definite highlight in what was otherwise a pretty dismal game. So, my name appears with several others on the hole-in-one list at a course in faraway Kenya. How cool is that!
Our fearless leader and Class A CPGA pro at University Golf Course in Vancouver, Ginny Golding, founder of Golfbug Adventures, reflected on the Kenyan courses.
“The condition of the courses, for the most part, was a welcome surprise,” says Golding. “The layouts were interesting and varied, and the wildlife on the links was a treat in itself.”
Power carts are extremely limited, and are not even available on most courses, but all courses require golfers to hire caddies. “Although they were not overly experienced for the most part,” says Golding, “you appreciated their backgrounds and their love of golf.”
Golding offers some suggestions to golfing tourists who may visit Kenya:
- allow yourself lots of time to get to the courses due to traffic
- be sure your ground transportation can handle all your luggage if travelling in a group
- expect mandatory 15-minute lunch stop for caddies – golfers are expected to buy them lunch ($3 – $5).
- budget for caddy fees and tips – approx $8 plus $2 – $5 tip
- carry a golf umbrella for sun and rain
- bring along your own towels and pencils for score keeping – the caddies come with no equipment
- bring along some clubs, gloves, balls, hats, tees, towels to give to the caddy masters
Golding concluded, “Considering Kenya is a third-world country and golf is not a huge tourist attraction, I was most satisfied with the conditions. If you do not expect to find courses the same as in North America, you will enjoy them.”
Although we encountered a variety of wildlife on many of the courses, we wanted more. So our golf forays were interrupted by game drives at Lake Nakuru National Park, Lake Elementeita and the Soysambu Reserve – located in the Kenya Lake system of the Great Rift Valley. Added to UNESCOs World Heritage List in 2011, the reserves are home to 450 different bird species, including thousands of flamingos and pelicans, and more than 15,000 wild animals.
Our stay at Little Governors’ Camp in the Masai Mara was the highlight of the trip. The Camp comprises just 17 luxury tents bordering a marsh teeming with birds and wildlife. Several families of resident warthogs wander around the site, which is visited by giraffe, elephants, buffalo and hippos. For two nights in a row, a large hippo munched grass just outside my tent.
Our two safaris a day gave us front-row seats to a staggering abundance of wildlife. Besides all the usual suspects – you name it, we saw it – we also witnessed the cycle of life – mating of lions, birth of a gazelle and death of a baby impala killed by a leopard, just minutes away from our camp. It felt like we were in the middle of a National Geographic special.
Despite the long flights and jet lag, the perpetual Nairobi traffic jams and choking diesel fumes, the dusty, bone-jarring 4WD safari rides, and the hot humid weather on the coast, a trip to Kenya, even if you don’t golf, should be on everyone’s bucket list.