Tuesday 20 March 2018

Karl MacGinty: Three weeks, two tournaments, 10 flights, six hours in Rwanda airport and goat for dinner

Padraig Harrington of Ireland waits to play his second shot at the par 4, 17th hole with his stand-in caddy Pat Cashman of Ireland
Padraig Harrington of Ireland waits to play his second shot at the par 4, 17th hole with his stand-in caddy Pat Cashman of Ireland

Karl MacGinty

The flight attendant kicked the pedal on the heavy trolley, hauled it another couple of seats up the aisle and braked it expertly. Smiling, she turned to me and said in a lilting African accent: "What will you have for dinner, sir, chicken or goat?"

"Sorry, did you say goose?"

"No sir, chicken or goat!"

"Chicken please," I responded, instantly regretting my choice.

Lifting the blistering-hot, foil-topped package off my tray, I offered it back to her, saying: "Can I change my mind? I'd really like to try the goat."

Life's all about choices. Mine to fly with RwandAir for the lion's share of the trek from Dublin to the first European Tour event of the year, the Volvo Golf Champions in Durban, South Africa, raised eyebrows, hilarity or grim warnings.

No matter that RwandAir are Africa's 'Airline of the Year' or that their Boeing 737 'Next Generation' jets have that fresh-out-of-the-factory feel.

Michael Hoey, who makes 70-plus flights a year in pursuit of his profession on Tour, appeared distinctly unimpressed.

"Statistically, the vast majority of air crashes are caused not by mechanical failure but by human error," he intoned. "I find it interesting that to save a few hundred euros, you're prepared to put your life at risk."

The Ballymoney native has a wickedly dry sense of humour.

Economy is the real name of the game for most golf writers, who invariably fly budget to heavenly venues. By day, we walk some of the most exclusive turf on the planet but usually return to Spartan motel rooms at night, maybe stopping at some burger joint along the way.

For some, finding the cheapest route to tournaments is a sport in itself.

Getting to Durban, then taking in the HSBC Championship in Abu Dhabi on the way back, presented an almost irresistible challenge. On Thursday January 2, the 10-flight epic began in Dublin. It would take in Budapest, Dubai, Kigali, Johannesburg and Durban, then back, on a cheerful list of carriers like Wizz Air, Mango and Kulula, all for just €1,042.

Okay, the final leg home today is on Ryanair... but nothing's perfect.

My first encounter with RwandAir was in the check-in area at Dubai Airport at 3.30am on Sunday, January 5... it was an eye-opener.

Three hours before departure, there weren't many passengers about. Yet the few already there brought so many suitcases, packages and large metal boxes, simply getting to the desk through a forest of trollies was difficult. Walking down the ramp, I was struck by how small our aircraft looked alongside the intercontinental jets parked nearby... this could be a long six hours.

In fact, the plane's interior was bright and cheerful. Though full, the cabin was more comfortable than the cramped, cheerless cattlewagons budget travellers endure in Europe.

As the plane rose with the desert sun, we were served a hearty breakfast. There was music on the sound system to while away the journey across 1,000 miles of Saudi Arabia, then nearly 2,000 more into central Africa.

From the air, Rwanda looked fascinating. Gleaming tin roofs winked as we descended. Kigali, a smart modern city, I'm told, could be seen sprawling lazily across distant hills.

The overhead screens announced we were arriving in "the land of a thousand hills and a million smiles".

A broad smile greeted me at the transfer desk in the crowded arrivals area at Kigali's passenger terminal. "Yellow card, please," said an immigration officer after perusing my passport and my 'Transit Visa'.

"Sorry, what's that?"

He shook his head and motioned me towards the nearby transit lounge. "You will remain in there, please," he said politely.


Visitors to Rwanda and several other countries in the region are required to be vaccinated against Yellow Fever. Should you spend more than six days there and not have a yellow card proving inoculation, other countries threatened by the disease, including South Africa, will turn you away.

Off to the lounge I went, treating myself to coffee and 'cake' for $4, not bad in view of the massive slice of Black Forest Gateau which appeared on my plate.

Kigali is just 200 miles south of the equator but at 5,000ft elevation and with a cooling breeze off Lake Victoria, it was an idyllic 28 degrees. As I gazed through the open window of the lounge, an urge to nip out for a walk vanished when a security guard appeared outside with an Alsatian straining on the leash.

Rwanda is roughly half the size of Ireland but with over 12 million people, it's densely populated. It has recreated itself since the bloody civil war which in 1994 saw approximately one million Tutsis massacred by Hutu militia.

Yet it's now a tourist hotbed, with hundreds of thousands visiting annually to commune with gorillas in the high mountains. Over the six hours there, I chewed the fat with staff and fellow travellers. Their charm, good humour and fluency in English and French is striking.

How can people so warm, friendly and well-educated have such a bloody recent past? "I suppose others ask the same question about the Irish," suggested a colleague from Ballymena a few days later in Durban.

Upon arrival in Johannesburg, the RwandAir idyll is shattered when my suitcase fails to appear. Yet my bag, completely cocooned in clear plastic, appears at my Durban hotel 36 hours later... naturally, after I'd bought socks, jocks, a polo shirt, razor, toothbrush, toothpaste and shampoo.

The Rand is so weak these items cost a fraction of the price at home. Eating out also is astonishingly cheap. For €20 you can have a fillet steak, a bottle of wine and still leave an acceptable tip at the famous Butcher Boys restaurant on Durban's swanky Florida Road.

And when four visiting golf writers bump into each other in the bar at the Hilton Hotel, 15 large beers and one Diet Coke later, the tab is 486 Rand, less than €33! Yet the company on the European Tour is priceless.

For example, the banter stirred at Butcher Boys by the brave decision of diminutive English caddie John Roberts to order a 'Ladies Steak' (weighing just 200 grams instead of a manly 300) became so hot, his New Zealand colleague Jason Jacobs roared: "John, you couldn't even club a seal!"

Durban is a thoroughly modern and handsome port city on the Indian Ocean, yet after dark it's unsafe for visitors to go out alone.

Meanwhile, Durban County Club is spectacularly located. The ocean surf pounds a huge beach on one side, while two towering sports stadiums flank it on the other. The 85,000 seater Moses Mabhida Arena was built for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, while the 55,000 capacity Kings Park, known throughout rugby as 'The Shark Tank', is home to the KwaZulu Natal Sharks.

Measuring a modest 6,689 yards, the par 72 golf course at Durban Country Club is an absolute gem. Swept by stiff ocean breezes, it offers a phenomenal cerebral challenge and familiarity certainly helped Louis Oosthuizen retain his Volvo Golf Champions title.

A combination of food poisoning with the staggering heat and humidity of Durban struck down two Irish caddies in mid-round, Padraig Harrington's brother-in-law Ronan Flood on Friday and Hoey's bagman Gerry Byrne on Sunday. Irish golf photographer Pat Cashman (65), who holidays every winter in Durban, was enjoying a day out at the golf when called into the fray by Harrington on the sixth hole, allowing Flood go for medical attention.

Harrington's known Cashman since his boyhood but that didn't stop him have a laugh at my expense later on in the round. "Hey Karl," he called loudly from the fairway, "You notice I asked Pat to caddie for me, not you?"


Physically, it was a relief to swop the heat and humidity of summer in South Africa for the winter cool of the Arabian Gulf. Like Dubai, their less wealthy neighbour, Abu Dhabi, richest by far of the Arab Emirates, invests vast sums in its bid to become one of the world's foremost holiday destinations. Few places on earth are safer, more secure or more anodyne. If Disney did countries, this would be it.

Sure, the HSBC Championship bubbled with charisma and even controversy as Pablo Larrazabal splendidly squeezed out Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy.

But there's something welcoming, wild and potentially dangerous about Africa that gives every visit there an edge.

As we prepared to take off from Durban Airport for Johannesburg in the middle of a spectacularly violent electrical storm, many on the plane thought: 'I've seen this movie, never expected to be in it!'

That's Africa: something to remember at every turn... like that first taste of goat. It's darker than chicken, more tender than turkey and a great healthy option. Maybe RwandAir are ahead of the pack.

Irish Independent

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