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Coming in at number 9 on Golf Digest’s top one hundred courses in South Africa, the Jack Nicklaus designed St Francis Links is set in a spectacular wind-swept dunescape covered with indigenous grasses and gorgeous fynbos, outside the prestigious village of St Francis Bay.
An hour’s drive from Port Elizabeth, the magic of this seaside course can be evidenced by Nicklaus’ words at its opening in 2006, when he said that it may be not just the best course he has ever designed, but the best he has ever seen.
With no two holes the same, the dramatic layout of the undulating links course combines every element of shot-making, with its sloping greens, challenging fairways and fierce rough. In the true spirit of links golf, St Francis is often battered by potent seaside breezes considerably ramping up the difficulty factor on a course, which can yield great rewards or be the demise of all but the most superhuman golfer.
Dotted by bunkers reminiscent of the famed St Andrews Golf Club in Scotland, the course looks and plays as if it has been there for centuries, but its historic feel is complemented by immaculate playing surfaces and world-class clubhouse facilities.
The wide variety of holes will see the golfer using every club in his or her bag as they make their way through the natural contours of this majestic 18-hole layout.
Green fees range from R250 to play with a member, to R510 for a walk-on visitor.
The Tsitsikamma region embraces a large swathe of Afromontane forest and rugged coastline within the Tsitsikamma National Park, which is interspersed with tracts of fynbos and commercial tree plantations.
It’s situated on the eastern edge of the Garden Route, between Nature’s Valley and Eerste Rivier, and is accessed along the N2 which runs through the area. Tsitsikamma is a Khoi word meaning ‘place of abundant (or sparkling) water’, and refers to the Indian Ocean to the south and the many rivers and streams in the area.
To the north, it’s bordered by the Tsitsikamma Mountains that spill their verdant cloak of thickly knitted trees and woven vines across hill and dale as they descend towards the sea. In the plunging gorges, rivers of dark water splash and tumble through secret places where creatures of the forest cavort and flutter in a timeless ritual of natural life.
Along the coast the forest pushes onto the white sandy beaches and rocky shore to greet the foaming breakers of the ocean.
Settlement in the area is on a small scale - even the main centre of Storms River Village is just a small clearing in the trees.
From a visitor’s perspective there’s plenty to do here. The Tsitsikamma National Park is well known for its wild coastline, the Storms River Mouth, and its many hikes, which include the popular Otter Trail.
Other multi-day hikes in the region are the Tsitsikamma Trail, through the mountains inland, and the Dolphin Trail, along the coastal cliffs. The area in general, with its deep gorges and towering trees, is a treasure trove of adrenaline pursuits that include bungee-jumping from Bloukrans Bridge, gliding through the tree tops or above waterfalls on a series of ziplines (cable slides), abseiling the steep cliffs, and tubing through the Storms River Gorge.
It’s the forests themselves that add that extra touch of magic to the region. The tracks and paths offer a unique opportunity to enter the realm of an enchanted natural world. The large Outeniqua Yellowwoods are the pillars of the forest, towering above any other living thing by far.
Some of these majestic trees are over 800 years old and standing next to one is a humbling experience. Bird watching here is rewarding and a flash of green or crimson may announce the sighting of a narina trogon or Knysna turaco.
Closer to the spongy forest floor, the smaller creatures are no less spellbinding. Butterflies bob in the pillars of sunlight that penetrate the canopy, chorister robin-chats rustle through the leaf litter, and the Knysna dwarf chameleon makes its way hesitantly through the vegetation.
Throughout the undergrowth chortling streams and still ponds reflect the delicate fronds of tree ferns. Here frogs breaststroke beneath a surface stained the colour of bourbon by the tannins and humic acid leached from the fallen leaves.
All around, wisps of old man’s beard drape the wrinkled bark and conjure up faces of wizards, and the patchwork mosses and lichens combine to form their cloaks. On fallen branches and leaning stumps, bracket fungi are natural receptacles filled with fallen rain where insects quench their thirst. The scene is embraced by an eternal peace that even the cicadas seem reluctant to disturb, their characteristic incessant screech curtailed to short periods of intermittent chirring.
With mountains, forests, rivers, and a coastline alternating between glinting beaches and rocky outcrops, Tsitsikamma is a diverse natural playground.
Look out for
Tsitsikamma National Park - is the number one reason to visit the region and is situated off the N2, 10-minutes drive west of the Storms River Village. It’s a spectacular marine reserve where the indigenous forest grows right onto the rocky coastline. The coastal portion of the park stretches 80km along the shore and 5km out to sea protecting not only life in the inter-tidal zone but that of the deep sea too, while the inland expanse protects the forests, fynbos, and mountain catchment areas. There are various short hikes, a boardwalk to the famous suspension bridge over the Storms River Mouth, snorkelling, scuba diving, a boat trip up the Storms River, a restaurant, and a curio shop. For people wanting to spend more than a day there are campsites and chalets positioned along the shore.
Hiking trails - a few well-known hiking trails start and finish in this area. The Otter Trail, which starts at Storms River Mouth and ends on the beach at Nature’s Valley, is one of South Africa’s most popular trails. The Tsitsikamma Hiking Trail starts at the Nature’s Valley Rest camp and ends at either Storms River Bridge or Storms River Village. The Dolphin Trail is a guided and portered hike with upmarket accommodation.
Tsitsikamma Canopy Tours - is exactly that - a tour of the forest canopy near the Storms River Village. It’s a combination of an adrenalin activity plus incredible views of the forest from a unique tree top perspective usually reserved for birds and monkeys. There are 10 slides that allow tourists to glide from tree to tree, stopping on platforms attached high up the trunks of giant Yellowwoods. Distances above the forest floor reach 30 metres. The guides are fun and informative. Booking is essential.
Bloukrans Bridge - this is Africa’s highest road bridge, and the world’s highest single-span arch bridge, with a central span of 272m, and a total bridge length of 451m. Statistics aside, the single reason it’s popular with visitors is because it’s home to the highest bungee jump in the world (216 metres). If the bungee is too much to contemplate there’s also a 200m zipline called the "Flying Fox" and a 400m bridge walk out onto the central arch. For the meek there’s a restaurant with a fabulous view. They’re open 7-days-a-week from 09h00-17h00.
Storms River Adventures - offer a 3 hour ‘Woodcutters Journey’ in an open vehicle down the Storms River Pass where oxwagons outspanned more than a century ago. Qualified guides enlighten passengers about the history and flora and fauna of the area. There are 3 trips daily and require a minimum of 6 people.
Tsitsikamma Falls Adventures - offer a thrilling zipline (cable slide) over waterfalls, with the longest glide being 211m. Those into adrenalin activities will love this adventure, and can also abseil 30m down a cliff into a fern cove. They take all ages, from 3 years up, and do tours 365-days-a-year in all weather conditions. Tours start at 08h00 and depart every 30 minutes, with the last tour leaving at 16h00.
Blackwater Tubing - depending on the water level, adventurers may be kloofing on low water, or white-water tubing on high water. Kloofing entails about 50% walking and 50% paddling, carrying the tube over shallow sections and leaping off rock faces that may be as high as 8 metres into pools below. It’s offered by Tube 'n Axe Backpackers from October to April and is a 5-hour trip that includes a lunch braai.
Storms River Village - is where all the adventure companies operate from and walks and mountain biking routes in the Plaatbos Nature Reserve start here.