Golf travel: Connoisseur Clive holidays in Kenya, AfricaJune, 2013
Once he’s escaped the Nairobi traffic, our man enjoys a golfing safari in this African country like no other
Excuse me while I shake the red dirt of Kenya from my golf shoes.
Four of us have just returned from an exhilarating, if exhausting, golfing safari.
The very first thing that strikes the first-time visitor to Nairobi International Airport is the wall of heat that engulfs you. The second is the traffic snarled up the moment one steps outside.
Although our hotel was just a few kilometres away it took an age to get to it due to the completely mad congestion. Think Rome or Naples on a really bad day and then factor it up by 10 and you will be getting somewhere near.
Our driver, wearying with the queue, set off down the wrong side of the road, with horns blaring from oncoming drivers.
On arrival at the first-class Sankara hotel, the air conditioning comes as a delight having spun in through the swing doors. The only shame was heading back out into the gridlock of Nairobi to get to our first course.
Ideally we would have liked to have stayed and played at the Windsor Golf Hotel & Country Club, a resort course on the edge of the city with accommodation on site, although for reasons we never truly got to grips with from our golf course booking agent the hotel simply did not want our fourball on the course.
So we crawled the six kilometres from our hotel to Muthaiga golf club instead. Muthaiga is a decidedly upmarket members’ club and home to the annual Kenyan Open.
Widely rated as the best in the country it is a testing walk over the front nine as, while friendly and knowledgeable caddies are available and indeed compulsory, buggies are not an option.
The club was originally founded as a 9-hole course in 1913 and extended to a full 18 in 1928. South African designer Peter Matkovich conducted a major overhaul of the layout in 2004, bringing it up to tournament standard.
It was unfortunate that, before our visit, Kenya had been enduring the same vile weather as the UK with torrential rains which left parts many of the course sodden with tee shots plugging and greens far more sluggish than usual.
My playing partner and I found the front nine, at 3,608 yards off the medal tees, a lot tougher than the flatter, shorter back nine, although that was largely due to our caddies getting to know us.
On the 1st, a 426-yard left-to-right hole with a river torrenting past on the angle of the dogleg, after a pushed drive my caddie handed me a 9 iron and said ‘Safety! Lay up’ and pointed to a bush near the river.
I hit the shot perfectly and the ball flew high, straight and true, deep into the watery depths never to be seen again.
This is a long, lush track with monkeys skipping about many of the fairways and, if the day is particularly hot, it makes sound sense to start early in the morning or else take a break after nine and enjoy a refreshing Tusker beer and a tasty bite at the colonial-style clubhouse. Just make sure that you have bought the necessary vouchers before hand.
Kenyans delight in form filling, and bureaucracy when entering the country and hotels can become tiresome. It is the same at Muthaiga where you need to buy sufficient credit before you can spend anything at the bar. In our case this took numerous shuttle runs back to reception in order to get sufficient funds to order the number of post-round Tuskers we felt we richly deserved having played in the heat of the day.
Yet, having acquitted ourselves honourably on the course, and rewarded our caddies for their green-reading skills we headed back off into the traffic and the airport as we were bound for Mombasa and the Indian Ocean coast.
Rather than weary you with another traffic-jam anecdote I shall now make a brief mention about the caddies. They expect a tip and most members give their caddies 500 Kenyan shillings, which is around £3.80.
Given how little these guys earn during the course of a week –despite the Kenyan Prime Minister earning more than the US President, the average income in Kenya is around £490 a year – we tended to tip 1,000 shillings for a good caddy and more for outstanding work.
There is a splendid scheme that was founded in Mombasa by a young British gap-year student known as Glad’s House Charity, which aims to help the numerous homeless, parentless street children of the city.
As well as providing them with homes and education the charity aims to find many of the older ones work and caddying is one of the jobs that many of the children have taken to.
The superb Vipingo Ridge golf club, a few miles outside central Mombasa, employs a number of Glad’s House youngsters and, unlike some other clubs, pays them a fixed wage on top of their tips, so that a scrum does not form when visitors arrive as can occur elsewhere with hard-up caddies desperate for a bag to carry.
It was here that I met young Safari, a cheery, slim young Mombasan who had the ability to read greens on the splendid Baobab course with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile.
It was here that I met young Safari, a cheery, slim young Mombasan who had the ability to read greens on the splendid Baobab course with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile. There is nothing about Vipingo Ridge that I could fault, other than the fact that I wished that we could have stayed in the contemporary-Swahili style homes that are available to rent for holidaymakers with their high ceilings, plunge pools and stunning views across the course and out to sea.
The course is designed by former Kenyan Open winner, David Jones, and has four tee box positions ranging from 7,314 yards to 5,883 yards in two loops. It is a delight, with spectacular raised greens, elevated tees and water coming into play on six holes, including the superb last three.
If ever there was anywhere nature intended a golf course to be it was at Vipingo Ridge, with the fresh breezes and natural splendour of the site. Plans are now well advanced to build another 18 holes.
Enjoying a splendid lunch of a chicken Caesar salad washed down with a brace of the ubiquitous Tuskers while gazing down the 18th at the Baobab was one of the great highlights.
Golfing enthusiasts to Kenya should not miss an opportunity of staying and playing here.
Indeed, the team at Vipingo can co-ordinate helicopter and small aircraft transfers for guests who want to combine the delights of the course with the excitement of a safari.
And talking of Safari, the young caddy richly deserved his 2,000- shilling tip for his all-round excellence and uncanny green-reading skills.
We played one other course while we were in town although sadly my playing partner and I only got as far as the 9th hole as we did not tee off until midday and, unlike Vipingo, no buggies were available at Nyali, another private members’ club and very much the Mombasan equivalent of Muthaiga.
Playing golf when the temperature is touching 100˚ made play pretty uncomfortable which is a great shame as there is much to admire at Nyali, without ever approaching the drama of Vipingo.
Before the heat overtook us we had struggled with the 3,522-yard length of the front nine that has seven holes over 400 yards.
Being back at sea level there is no distance advantage to be gained here either so get used to hitting lots of driver and fairway metals, and be on your game otherwise the jungle will greedily gobble up your balls.
And if you are going to play the full 18 make sure that you go out first thing in order to enjoy the rest of your day somewhere by the ocean.
If you are heading as we did from Mombasa to the Great Rift Valley then insist that you fly direct, unlike us, who flew back to Nairobi before enduring a most tortuous bus journey. A small aircraft can fly you direct to where you want to stay and play which is most definitely the Great Rift Valley Country Club.
The Great Rift Valley is one of the great natural wonders of the world extending 3,700 miles from Northern Syria to Mozambique and is at its deepest north of Nairobi where a welcome awaits at this most excellent small hotel.
I cannot remember many courses where I have had more fun. We started early, when wild zebra were still gently ambling across the 3rd green – you can drop without penalty if your ball comes to rest in a zebra or wildebeest hoof mark.
And as the early-morning mists lifted so the full beauty of this area came into play. Lush and green with the ball flying miles through the thin air as we were now 7,000 feet above sea level, we raced round in a threeball.
Our caddies were aghast that we completed the 5,900-yard 18-hole track in two hours and 45 minutes but we were back in the bar and ready for a late breakfast that genial hotel manager, Gregory Wabuge, and his smiling staff were only too happy to deliver.
And perhaps washed down with an early yet reviving Tusker.
Air Kenya fly daily flights from London Heathrow to Nairobi
Sankara Hotel Nairobi (www.sankara.com) can arrange collection for guests from Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta international airport
www.vipingoridge.com – resort director St.John Keliher can arrange bespoke deals (email@example.com)
Great Rift Valley
Lodge & Golf Resort
www.heritage-eastafrica.com or email FOffice@riftvalley-resort.co.ke
For general enquiries contact the Kenya Tourist Board c/o its London agent on Kenya@hillsbalfour.com