May 29, 2006

Golf fanatics tackle Namibia’s barren dunes

By Gordon Bell

WALVIS BAY, Namibia - Elen Gubeb's tattered sandals and torn jeans don't match his pricey new Mizuno glove, but dress is not important at this home-made golf track on Namibia's desert coast, an unlikely golf hotspot.

The 20-year-old part-time caddy practices with a classic swing as the first of a group of eight players tees off from a small rocky mound nearby.

The nine-hole course dubbed the "West Side Club" has no greens or tees, water or grass. Stinging sand and gusts of wind whistle through a lone row of palm trees on the edge of the forbidding Namib desert.

"I don't work, I just play golf everyday," says Gubeb, one of thousands of youths unable to find permanent work in the poor southern African nation.

The Namib, the world's oldest living desert, and the barren Skeleton Coast limit employment options in the former German colony that for decades was under the control of neighboring South Africa.

The terrain also makes for tough golfing country, although this has not discouraged the West Side Club irregulars.

"I eat golf, dream golf, sleep golf, everything in my mind is golf," says Christof Kuludu, 23, his excited eyes peering out from beneath a blue hat.

"Sometimes I imagine myself as Ernie Els or Tiger Woods, I use my imagination and love it," he adds in faltering English, clutching his Nike shirt.

Alec Williams, director of golf at the country club in the capital city Windhoek, said interest in golf was growing fast among Nambia's youth.

The development program at the Windhoek course could not keep up with the new "wannabe" Woods.

"There is definitely growing interest and we are trying to help with development as much as possible," he said.

Williams is the only golf professional offering coaching in Namibia, but free golf balls and old sets of clubs are sent through to smaller towns, such as port city Walvis Bay.

Namibia, with just two million people, has been thrust into the spotlight with the surprise arrival of Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to have their first baby in the remote west coast region.

But Gubeb and his friends show little interest in the film stars, preferring to dream of golf greatness as they perfect their skills on a course where the roughs are rougher than most.


Kuludu says he has played the informal desert track, next to the main road between Walvis Bay and tourist town Swakopmund, for eight years.

He can play whenever he wants and there are no fees, unlike the nearby Walvis Bay club -- one of only two courses for hundreds of kilometers where grass takes tentative hold amid the creeping desert.

There are only four grass courses in Namibia -- a country slightly smaller than France and Germany combined -- although almost all other reasonably-sized towns have "courses" made of a mixture of sand and oil.

The West Side Club has neither grass nor oil but the frustrations of the game are as brutally real as on any golf course.

Cries of disapproval pierce the dry air as Gubeb tees up his ball just outside the imaginary line that separates the sand fairway from the equally sandy rough.

Players aim for a shallow hand-dug hole in the ground almost invisible to newcomers, while scores are scratched onto a piece of cardboard.

The course's nine holes range from 110 meters (yards) on the par 3s to about 350 meters for a par 5, although the distances, after many years, remain an educated guess.

The golfers carry their own tee pegs, an allowance for the state of the "fairways," and players scour the area for fear of losing their only ball.

Despite the obstacles, 19-year-old Joseph Ikela fashions a perfect draw.

"I want to make a living out of it. Here in Namibia there aren't too many golf players amongst us blacks. I want to put the country on the map."

The group's members share one set of second-hand clubs, mostly ones discarded by other golfers. The bag is worn down by the gritty desert sand and the sticks are a hodgepodge of makes and sizes.

Their second bag was stolen three months ago, while they were playing just a short sprint from the main west coast road and adjacent township.

"I know it's a rich man's game, but we just want to try," explains Gubeb over the din of laughter as a 17-year-old novice burrows the Hippo driver into the sand, gently toppling the ball from the tee.