Warning: Stoned Hippos

Warning: Stoned Hippos

The word “safari” in Swahili means “arduous journey,” so the Safari Tour is aptly named. Leave it to me to never take the easy way when a difficult one is offered.

Besides, the word also means “adventurous expedition,” according to Webster’s Collegiate, and I was of the age where I craved adventure. Actually what I craved was to be away from the frozen ground and the freezing wind of a Northern Ireland winter. Today, I consider any place without bellmen, room service, and at least 40 channels of cable to be an “arduous journey.” But I digress.

Many of the venues on the Safari Tour are in rural, hotel-free areas of Africa, which is to say most of Africa. The mining town of Mufulira in Zambia, is one such place. The entire population (of 225,271) waits eagerly every year for the return of the pros to play in the Mufulira Open.

The members of the host club provide accommodation in their modest houses, which due to the fact that most of them have been hired by the mining company on a short-term contract basis, are pretty spartan. No one invests in luxuries — such as carpet, air conditioning, or furniture. Basically they are camping out in the bush for years at a time, which, of course, can make anyone crazy. In at least one case, it did.

A couple of years before my visit to Muff, as it is known, a young English player named David Moore was billeted with his good friend, Gary Smith, in the home of a middle-aged couple. One night the husband came home from the club with a skinful of beer, accused David of sleeping with his wife, loaded up his .45 and chased both boys around the house. He emptied the gun through the locked bathroom door, mortally wounding David. Overcome with remorse, he then turned the gun on himself.

Having been told this story on the bus from the airport to Mufulira, I was very careful not to make eye contact with any kind of female all week. This journey was way too arduous for me, so I missed the cut and headed farther south once more, this time to South Africa.

In most places in the world where golf is played in rural areas, there is an outstanding chance that the surrounding fields will be inhabited by the kind of things you might be eating after your round. You know: cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, etc. In Africa, it is quite the other way ’round. Before you make the turn, you might be the main course at lunch for some of the creatures out there.

In northeastern South Africa, there is a golf course called Phalaborwa, which is separated from Kruger National Park by an electric fence. I used to think that this fence was placed there in order to keep the dumb animals off the golf course, but once I’d played there a few times, it became apparent that it was considerably more necessary to keep the supposedly intelligent humans out of the park.

The fence was regularly breached by the local elephant population, and this allowed all kinds of other herbivores access to the nice green grass. Naturally, the carnivores, who liked to eat the herbivores, followed suit. All this wildlife led to one of the strangest of golf hazards. Every morning, the entire golf course was covered in dung.

Rhino poop, gazelle pellets, jackal jobbies, warthog woopsie, buffalo stools, and elephant armchairs, you name it, it was all over the place. If you had a morning tee time, you had to pick your way through a veritable minefield, but by lunch time it was all gone, thanks to that sanitary little scarab, the African dungbeetle.

Every single morsel was rolled up into a golf ball-sized sphere with an egg at its center and buried under ground. This ensures that when the egg hatches, the little beetle (would that be a dunglet or a dungling?) has enough food to get it off and rolling.

The African dungbeetle is without question the creature for whom the phrase, “It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it,” was coined.

The whole survival of the fittest, eat-or-be-eaten thing is not something you normally have to worry about on a golf course, but at Phalaborwa you had to expect the unexpected. One of the members’ favorite stories was of a foursome out on the back nine, where one of the ladies’ tees nestles in the shade of a large Maroela tree.

One of these ladies set up over her tee shot and took her first look down the fairway, only to feel a warm, wet spot on her left shoulder. A red, warm, wet spot.

She looked up into the tree for the source, straight into the glassy, dead stare of a Thompsons gazelle draped over the thick bough, blood dripping from its muzzle. Standing over the carcass, looking down in a “I think your left-hand grip is too strong” kind of way, was a 400-pound lioness.

In a situation like this, the experts will tell you not to turn your back on a lion, but to walk away slowly backward, until you’re out of the area. I have no idea what the lady in question did, but I can assure you of this. If it had been me, I would have turned my back on that lion and made sure that I ran away faster than at least one of my playing partners, and I wouldn’t have stopped running until I was out of the country, never mind the area. Also, the following morning, the dungbeetles would have had a new item on their menu.

I know I have said this before, but caddies are my favorite people. African caddies are no exception, and although they spend a lot of their time working for people who consider them to be nothing but ignorant savages, I have found this to be untrue.

Most of them are honest, speak our language, and at least three or four others. I still struggle with English. Also, none of them are dumb enough to be chased by an angry hippo. The 17th hole at Phalaborwa was my favorite area of the golf course. Just short of the green on the left hand side there was a pond inhabited by a group of hippos.

You could hear them snort and watch their ears splash, as they eyed you suspiciously from their muddy hollow. These animals are maybe the most misunderstood in all of Africa, and among the most dangerous. Every year without fail at the Phalaborwa Classic, some idiotic professional golfer would mix up the term “National Park” with “Theme Park” and saunter down to the water’s edge to throw rocks at the big fat silly animals.

Hippos for the most part are docile, and they rarely leave the water except at night. They do, however — and this is where would-be Ace Venturas make their mistake — possess the ability to deflate their massive lungs, sink to the bottom and run, really quite quickly, toward the shore. It’s like watching a freight train come out of the water. They can also bite you in half like a Twinkie. “Hey where’s the cream filling?”

As I said, despite all the warnings there was at least one “hippoccasion” every year at the Phalaborwa Classic. Fortunately, no one ever got seriously hurt, but it was always easy to pick out the culprit in the bar afterwards. You just had to look for the whitest person in the room who would have an expression like a pregnant nun, and would be trying desperately not to spill a large brandy on himself. A look at the scoreboard would reveal, no matter how well he might have played the first 17, a triple or worse at the last.

Players like Nick Price, Mark McNulty, Tommy Tolles, John Daly, and Tom Lehman can verify these Phalaborwa stories and tell you plenty of their own because before they were kings, they all played in Africa.

I realize that the dark continent isn’t on everyone’s top-10 destinations — for either a holiday or beginning a career as a professional golfer. But if you’re looking for an adventure, arduous or otherwise, there’s no place I’d recommend more highly.

Besides, I’d much rather drink cold beer in warm bars than vice versa.

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