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Hans Merensky Estate: Traditional South African Fare

By Michael Vlismas, Contributor

There is something about a seven ton elephant bull in the middle of the fairway that tends to slow play up just a bit.

You see, seven ton elephant bulls are usually not too partial to requests of, "May we play through, please?"

A warthog (bush pig) may well wave you through with a flick of its tail. Giraffes simply require a deft punch shot so as to avoid hitting them. And lions? Well, they pretty much go where they like on a golf course of this nature. And you're not about to argue with them.

But seven ton elephant bulls can stand all day without letting you through. And as my caddie, Charles, informed me, "It's better to wait, sir."

A German tourist had been trampled by an elephant on this course only a few weeks before I arrived, so my instincts told me Charles was right.

As it turned out, our delay was only about 15 minutes as the bull sauntered across the fairway. But in terms of slow play, it certainly beat the hell out of watching a golfer painstakingly advance the ball only 10 yards with each hack.

The people behind South Africa's Hans Merensky Estate took careful note when Walter Hagen pronounced, "You're only here for a short visit. Don't hurry, don't worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way".

With the financial backing of a local mining company, they presented a magnificent collection of fairways that carve their way through the very essence of Africa.

Located in the small mining town of Phalaborwa - a five-hour drive from Johannesburg - in South Africa's rustic Northern Province, this championship 18-hole par-72 layout affords its visitors the opportunity to play golf at eye level with the giants of the African bush.

The course, designed by the legendary Robert Grimsdell, which is regularly featured as a tournament venue on the local professional circuit, borders the Kruger National Park on its eastern boundary, one of Africa's largest and most popular game reserves.

A fence generally prevents the reserve's animals from roaming directly onto the golf course, but the wildlife is able to enter the area via the club's private game reserve to the south.

However, rangers constantly patrol the course to alert golfers to any possible dangers. There are also several warnings on the golf course that you are likely to encounter wild animals during your round.

Golfers have watched as a cheetah has brought down an impala buck a pitching wedge away from the fourth green, which is enough to make you forget that last yardage call and can certainly play havoc with the momentum of your round.

Photographs in the pro shop also document hyenas toying with the flagsticks.

So if you were entertaining any thoughts of reaching in to retrieve that Pro VI lying just an arm's length into a water hazard, then bear in mind that that's exactly what it will cost you, with most of the dams frequented by hippos and crocodiles.

The obvious drawcard of the Hans Merensky Estate is that it offers first class sporting facilities and luxurious accommodation only three kilometres away from the Kruger National Park's northern gate.

Hans Merensky is not simply a place you stop over at to play a quick round of golf and then leave. It is an experience to be savoured.

Accommodation is divided between the main hotel and 30 thatched chalets dotted around the course. The hotel is an oasis of leisure and elegance with a decidedly African feel to it.

The thatched chalets give the visitor a more intimate taste of the African bush. Each chalet is individually decorated, air-conditioned and secluded from the main clubhouse, offering some spectacular views of the bush and its wildlife.

Nothing beats having a traditional South African braai (the local term for a barbeque) on an open fire in front of your chalet, with a cold beer in your hand and listening to the spectacular sounds of the African night.

A standard chalet offers single accommodation for about $32 (roughly R350) and double accommodation for $62 (roughly R680). The luxury chalets - which feature a large bedroom with a shower, bathroom, television and phone - offer single accommodation at a rate of approximately $53 (about R580) per person per night, and $76 (around R840) for double accommodation.

The dining options are extensive, ranging from the elegant Leadwood A La Carte Restaurant, a BBQ feast in the adjacent Leadwood Lapa, or something to just fill a gap from either the Pool Bar or Golf Clubhouse.

There are also a host of other sporting facilities on offer at the Country Club, such as tennis on one of six floodlit courts, squash on one of five air-conditioned courts, two swimming pools, a gym and a sauna.

The Estate boasts its own game reserve, the Cleveland Game Park, where guests can view lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and a wide variety of other African game. And the reserve has its own exclusive eight-bed Lodge on the banks of the Olifants River.

But all play and no work can make for bad profits, so the businessman is also catered for with full conference facilities - seating up to 220 people - that can be tailored to form the ultimate in company getaways.

The neighbouring town of Phalaborwa is essentially a town of two summers, with temperatures ranging from 23 degrees Celsius to 33 degrees Celsius.

This is one of the country's youngest towns (1957), providing the charm of small town life with its open gardens and outdoor living, but still equipped with the modern amenities.

Phalaborwa owes its existence to the world's largest opencast copper mine, but it is thankfully devoid of the grey pall that smothers most mining towns.

Its centrality in the region - known as the Valley of the Olifants (Valley of the Elephant) - makes it an ideal base from which to explore the Northern Province's wide open plains, majestic mountains, indigenous forests, and unspoilt wilderness.

The Valley of the Olifants is a timeless corner of Africa, where the warm, sub-tropical climate rewards local farmers with excellent fruit crops. Relics of stone-age man, rock paintings and pottery of the indigenous Pedi and Shangaan tribes, and the bizarre Baobab tree - which legend explains was thrust upside down by angry gods - can be found dotted across the landscape.

To the south, there are the country's famous hot springs resorts, while further north, the majestic Limpopo River Valley acts as a natural border to Zimbabwe and Botswana.

The multitude of private game reserves in this area makes it one of the premier game and safari venues in the world.

The town has a rich history of gold and diamond prospectors as well as bearing the footprints of explorers from an age gone by.

It was in this part of the world where the writer Sir Percy Fitzpatrick chronicled his adventures with his faithful dog, Jock, in his book, "Jock of the Bushveld".

"It is easy enough to lose oneself in the Bushveld," Fitzpatrick wrote, and Hans Merensky is as good a place as any to do just that.

Hans Merensky Estate
Tel - (+27 15) 7813931
Fax - (+27 15) 7815649/5309
e-mail: gitw@hansmerensky.com
website: www.hansmerensky.com

Course details

18 holes, par-72, 6127 metres (3042 metres front nine, 3085 metres back nine) off the club tees; ladies 5005 metres. The course, designed by Robert Grimsdell, was opened in 1967. The green fees for 18 holes for overseas visitors are R180 (roughly $16). Clubs can be hired as well.

Michael Vlismas, Contributor

Michael Vlismas is a freelance golf writer and has covered the game for Reuters, several international newspapers and publications such as the Daily Telegraph, Golf Digest and Golf Weekly, as well as having done radio work for the BBC World Service and other stations worldwide.

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