Botswana & Victoria Falls (Zambia)
Fever: A Travel Diary
Advocate - December 27, 2002
If you asked me to name 10
places I’d have liked to visit a year ago, South Africa would
not have been among them. Until I went there, my vision of
South Africa was a blurry and barely alluring montage of
ramshackle townships, antiapartheid campaigns, and racial
tensions escalating to violence. So when I was invited to join
a DavidTours [DavidTravel]
luxury gay tour to South Africa and Zambia, apprehension
struck. But I did some asking around and learned much of postapartheid life, the San Franciscoesque
Cape Town, and a thriving gay scene. In the end, away I went
along with DavidTours' [DavidTravel's] erudite owner, David Rubin, and a handful of other
After a 14-hour flight from
JFK airport in New York, we touch down in Johannesburg. Word
to the wise: Do not take South African Airways unless
youre planning on flying business or first class
(Delta and American frequent fliers can use their miles
toward an upgrade). The coach rows were so tightly packed
they could induce claustrophobia in an agoraphobic, while
food and drink service was notably infrequent for a
long-distance carrier. On the pro side, my flight was
nonstop and hassle-free, and I got to watch a bunch of films
on my personal TV monitor.
Were immediately off
to Sun City with our local tour director, Christian, a
handsome and freckly South African strawberry blond. By
trips end, half the guys want to sleep with him. From
what I hear, all of DavidTours' [DavidTravel's] tour
directorsmale and femaleare quite lovely, each
in his or her own way.
The Palace of the Lost City. Photo courtesy DavidTravel
Over-the-top and a hair
short of gaudy, Sun City is a superposh Las Vegasstyle
resort complex known for attracting major-name
entertainment. Its casino, water park, entertainment
building, and beautiful green landscape are overlooked from
the tower of the
Palace of the Lost City, my resplendent home for the next
two nights. My room is beyond comfortable, and the freebies
just keep coming: a bottle of wine, a box of trinkets,
Were shown around by
Herliane, a grandiose dame (whom David dubs the
empress of the Palace), and Charles, her screechingly
Although the untrained ear
may register the South African accent as Australian, you
actually can clock English-stock South Africans by the way
they say yes: Yay-s or
That evening, cocktails. I
ask if theres a South African specialty drink, which a
bartender, after puzzling for a moment, produces: the
springbok, a layered combination of creamy Cape Velvet and
crème de menthe liquors.
Magical yet completely
ersatz is Sun City. On the site of what was a barren land
crater, the fabricated complex is designed to look ancient.
A fictitious Lost City mythology involving an
earthquake and destroyed civilization has even been
concocted to add mystique. You can actually experience some
of this legend by standing on the
remains of a bridge every hour: It shakes with
aftershocks and sound effects. A food court, mere steps
away, prevents one from getting too sucked into myth,
This morning we visit a
nearby lion farm. Im looking forward to cuddling a cub
and having a photo taken, a highlight for many visitors,
until David Rubin gets chomped right on the throat. Always
urbane, David exclaims Ow! Ow! Ow! with
controlled calm, still holding the roaring cub, asking,
Am I bleeding? and demonstrating the smooth and
gracious charm he does in all his affairs. Now scared and
wary, I hold the cute albeit deadly young lion at arms
Back in Sun City, I frolic
in the wave pool. If blond young guys are your thing, the
eye candy cant be beat, as the white locals flock for
a little wetness during daytime. Later, a fantastic massage
in my room. It costs $40.
While the resorts
comfort and service is unquestionably five stars (and make
sure to ask for a look at the resplendent King Suite, which
Sir Elton John has graced), the food falls at least three
stars short. The Palaces breakfast buffet is
succulent, especially the crepes, but the dinners are
subpar. I get ill from tonightsgamy veal and
burned lobster bisque. The manager is apologetic and
dismisses the bill.
Today begins a whirlwind of
game safari stays. First,
Makweti Game Lodge, a malaria-free lodge about two hours from
Sun City. Surrounded by hills, with a wooden crossing bridge
and other jungle-y details, its stunningly gorgeous
and warm. Paradise. The main buildingto which you must
be escorted at night, since animals loiter around the
property (stalk, in the case of lions and leopards)is
homey and gorgeous.
A blue-headed lizard scoots
by as I suck down a cocktail, overlooking a stream. An
amazing lunch too, with juicy stuffed ostrich rolls, chicken
and veggie biryani.
On safari in an open-air
jeep (not hunting, mind youthese are all photo
safaris), we spot many of the African big five:
lions, zebras, elephants, leopards, and buffalo. One
elephant literally flaps around its enormous penis, which we
loudly discussuntil the elephant, feeling threatened
by our increasingly churlish presence, considers charging
our jeep. Our ranger, motioning to us for silence, soothes
the beast with Whats a boy, whats a
mattah, me boy? and the elephant ambles off.
Later, we stop smack-dab in
the middle of the bush for a treat: cocktails, beef jerky
(biltong, which is a major snack here), and
Our rugged, straight game
ranger guides are very open-minded, with wicked senses of
humor. The nuttiest of them, Wayne, rattles off a vulgar
epic poem over an exquisite dinner: salmon steaks, beef, and
homemade banana ice cream prepared by chef Innocence. South
African wine is compulsorythe red Shiraz is my
favorite. After the meal, a quartet of African women
surround the main campfire and sing a song.
For sleeping accommodations,
I am taken to another nearby lodge, Metsi, since Makweti is
full. My room here is top-notch but has nothing up on
Makwetis artistic single-person cabins (homemade
soaps, private outdoor showers, and stunning open views of
Plenty of animal sounds
outside as I go to sleep. Can they open doors? Mine
I wake up to find impala and
zany little birds scooting around outside my door. During a
brief morning drive, Wayne hands me a dung beetle. Im
so happy. These beetles amuse me to no endthey gather
massive balls of dung and push them around backward.
Theyre quite strong too. If you clench your fist
around one, it can force its way out with a mighty
Next we drive about six
hours out to Mala Mala, another reserve,
this time in a malaria region. Im taking antimalarial
pills, Malarone, so Im not too concerned.
Mala Malas rangers are
quite cute, young, and open to our queerness. We experience
another game drive, a really impressive one, tonight. We see
a bunch of lions taunted by baboons, and a small leopard
family. I cant believe how close we are to these
animals. The experience makes me recontexualize the idea of
brushes with greatness. Interviewing Madonna
ranked as an awesome experience, but she aint got
nothin up on a lion. It would eat her.
Dinner is again amazing,
outdoors, with a number of African songs about lost loves
and missing husbands.
Today we go to nearby
Singita, the most luxurious lodge of the
bunch. We have lunch on a deck overlooking a dry lake bed,
with elephants and baboons casually strolling by. Our rooms
view the same, and each features its own private deck, pool,
outdoor and indoor shower, and bathtub. Laundry is free at Singita, so I load the laundry basket and pour a glass of
sherry and marvel from the deck. Luxury incarnate.
The afternoons game
drive packs some excitementwe stumble upon a handful
of lions lazing in the grass. I tell you, this puts
Disneys jungle adventures to shame.
A dreamy surprise come
sundown: an elaborate dinner set up in the bush by torch and
lantern light. Some of the group are speechless, drunk with
comfort, luxury, and a whole damn otherworldliness they
never knew existed. I want to have my honeymoon here
(speaking of missing husbands!). Heading back to home base,
our eagle-eyed tracker spots a chameleon on a tree. We hold
it; it changes colors.
For breakfast I try a
scrambled ostrich egg. It has a strong, rich
eggy flavora little too much for this
novice. The shells, which are enormous and require drilling
to open, are popular souvenirs. The ostrich sausages are
more to my liking. Very sad to leave Singita.
Most of the day we spend en
route to Cape Town. Our lodging,
Harbour View Cottages, is
right in the heart of Cape Towns gay village, De Waterkant. More like apartments, the cottages come in all
different sizes and designs, from South Beachinspired
deco to, say, middle-class Virginia. Mine is right next door
to a tasty café, Village Cafe, and one block from all
the clubs and bars.
Working the crowd at Bronx bar
Hungry to be surrounded by
queers again (assuming the lions and elephants were just
bi-curious), I hit Bronx
bar, a crowded
bar and disco. The bartenders, all shirtless, slam dangling
bells every time they get a tip. Im not sure I want to
tip them after the 53rd clang. We invite some lesbians to
slam tequila shots with usthe shots here are dirt
cheap but smaller than American ones.
Then I head across the
street to 55 Bar Club, which bills itself as
South Africas only Ibiza-style club.
UmOK. The reality: two floors with a main dance area
and outdoor decks. Both clubs appear coed, which is nice,
and very diverse age wise (teens to 50s). Im told there
are lesbian-specific specialty nights around as well. Not
much race mixing, howeverapartheid may be officially
over, but its still haunting. One bar, Detour,
attracts a mix of races; the bar Rosies is for the leather
We also stop at the
Barracks, a so-called massage parlor several
blocks down. Classy. Their boys wait in a room that you look
into through a one-way mirrorkind of like a
lobster-tank-meets-interrogation-chamber. It costs $25 an
hour. less than a lobster, actually.
The group goes for a scenic
trip down the Cape Peninsula today, but Im hot to
shop, so I stay behind. On Saturdays, Cape Towns city
shops close at 1 p.m.many are located along Long
Street, Longmarket, Shortmarket, and Green Market
Streetso I call a cab and go to Claremont, a southern
suburb of Cape Town with a sizable, all-day shopping area,
Cavendish Square. This is where the locals go; tourists
generally flock to the much more expensive V&A
Waterfront, where the endless malls and shops are open daily
till 9 p.m.
Claremont is refreshing, and
I finally feel like Im in the real Cape Town.
Unfortunately, public transportation here sucks.
Theres no subway or bus system as Americans know it.
Instead, there are thief-friendly trains and scary little
crowded minivan taxis piloted by reckless
drivers and packed with dubious characters. A record store
clerk tells me, Its a hair-raising experience,
but you should try it. I opt for calling a private
cab, as David Rubin and his local friends advocate
I return to my apartment and
hit the Village Cafe for lunch. Their iced coffee is a
revelation. As I relax, I spot another member of the tour
group who, it turns out, has stayed behind as well.
Together, we walk a block down to the
Hothouse, an upscale bathhouse. Its
actually a nice place to Jacuzzi, sun, and steam, although
theres also a maze and series of rooms for more
adventurous visitors. Again, theres not much race
mixing. Theres an Asian and maybe three blacks, but
whites predominate. Very quickly a smarmy bisexual Irishman
joins me in the Jacuzzi, asking where in America Im
from. Clearly, an American accent is all you need to get
lucky in Cape Town.
We have dinner with
Davids local gay friends (all good-looking and
affluent) at Rozenhof, a gay-owned
whorehouse-turned-restaurant. Between the cheese
soufflé, lamb and goat-cheese timbale, and chocolate
nougat terrine, heart damage is inevitable. More clubbing
tonight. At 55, one of our group falls in love with a guy
from Johannesburg. Nobody seems to have trouble getting
lucky here, actually.
After everyone shakes off
their hangovers, we transfer to the very luxurious Table Bay
Hotel, which is in the heart of the posh V&A Waterfront.
It feels safe, which admittedly some of Cape Town
doesnt. The day we arrived, the headlines touted
horribleness: a 24-year-old guy and two women were
carjacked, the man murdered and the women tied to trees and
raped. Walking around outside the Waterfront, with my
headphones on, I am stared at: Headphones are a rare luxury
here. A tour like this one can make you forget that although
there are first-world comforts and industry here, there is
still plenty of third world as well. Equality under the law
has not created economic equality for most South
I stroll about the V&A
Waterfront areatons of restaurants and shops. I pick
up a bunch of locally made souvenirs at a nifty crafts
store, Indaba. I then hop a cab to one of the gay beaches,
Third Beach, a small inlet. Loads of guys hereI see
our waiter from Rozenhof.
That night, we are invited
to the home of a very rich gay couple who actually met on a
DavidTours [DavidTravel] vacation (one was Davids client, the other
a local friend). Their private art collection is amazing.
And the view! Ive been to the Hollywood hills homes of
Oscar winners, and the overlook from this place beats
Tonight theres a
brilliant drag show at On Broadway, but Im beat. Just
some dinner at the Waterfronts Den Anker
restaurant, a Belgian venue.
A township, that South
African emblem Ive seen so often on TV, is our agenda
later today. But first we go to the top of Table Mountain by
cable car. Were literally in a cloud up there, mist
wafting about. When it clears, the view is stunning. Then we
stop off at Nazareth House, an orphanage for children whose
parents have died of AIDS complications. Most of the
children have AIDS themselves.
We are reminded that AIDS is
devastating South Africa. Contributing to its prevalence is
the fact it often goes unacknowledgedwhen someone
dies, doctors attribute the cause of death to whatever
infection did them in rather than AIDS. And medicine men and
shamanswhich carry great weight in
townshipshavent helped reduce new infections.
For a while they were telling the sick that they could cure
themselves by raping virgins. Its disheartening.
Thankfully, safer-sex education is finally starting to get
out. We drive past more than a few AIDS awareness signs en
route to the township.
The Langa township is just
what I expected: poverty-ridden. To think I kvetch about a
crack in my ceilings paint! A shack we enter is
stifling, with a small electricity box they pay to use like
one would a prepaid phone, and not much else in the way of
modern comforts. The middle-aged female resident motions
hand to mouth, requesting some sort of token for our visit
(the township itself receives a payment). Another decrepit,
overcrowded home serves as a makeshift barits owner
peddles beer from his refrigerator, which people drink at a
no-frills wooden table. He nets maybe a dollar a day.
Interestingly, Coke signs are everywhere in every township
we see. Talk about aggressive marketing.
Some parts of the township,
however, are undergoing upgrading. Modern apartment
complexes and houses are springing up: As residents come
into gainful employ, they remain in the township and build
rather than go suburban.
The people here seem
genuinely happy to see us. In New York, where I live, we
greet obvious tourists with sarcastic welcome, if not
contempt. But here we are received like dignitaries or
celebrities. The kids angle to be in photos with us.
moxie, township residents have created popular restaurants
and lodgings within their homes. We visit one such
restaurant, Lelapha (49 Harlem Ave., Langa, +27 21
694-2681), and although the decor is worn, it serves one of
the best meals Ive partaken in my life. The African
specialties we sample include amagwinya, a chewy fried
bread; samp, a starchy corn dish; and chakalaka, a sweet and
spicy blend of cabbage, beans, and spices.
Were joined at lunch
by white American Linda Biehl and a two of the black South
African men who were convicted of killing Lindas
daughter, student and antiapartheid activist Amy Biehl,
during a protest-turned-riot under apartheid. The men were
later released from prison as part of the governments
healing amnesty program thats recounted in the
award-winning documentary Long Nights Journey Into
Day. Linda and her husbandwho, sadly, died of cancer
in 2002spoke in favor of getting the men released from
prison and set up the
Amy Biehl Foundation
to honor and carry on their
daughters work. The foundation has set up programs
aimed at alleviating poverty, AIDS, and crime and at
bringing black South Africans into full educational and
political equality. These men who accompany Linda, after
prison, started working with the foundation. A few of the
tour group are unnerved by their presence. To me they seem
like happy-go-lucky geezers.
Dinner back at the Table
Bays Atlantic Grill restaurant (rated the number 1
restaurant in South Africa by Condé Nast Traveler) is
heavenlyevery course, especially the char-grilled game
fish and an artfully designedthink
Miródessert plate of nougat Alaska, chocolate
mousse, and brandied apricots.
Me--in the cage in the water--with a shark
Again, I split off from the
group. Theyre headed to nearby wine country, but
Im interested in a great white shark expedition. See,
South Africas coast is burgeoning with sharks, and
every local I ask has had some sort of run-in, from their
kayak being bitten to spotting a circling fin while
swimming. Several companies will bring you out to prime
shark waters, drop a cage into the water, and put you inside
to ogle the massive, endangered creatures close up.
Cape Town Tourism puts me in touch with
Shark Projects. After a two-hour
drivethey pick me upI arrive at their lodge and,
along with almost a dozen adventurous travelers, we get in a
boat. Within an hour of chumming at sea, we spot
our first great white shark, a 10-foot shadowy mass that
rises to grab the tuna head our skipper has lured it over
with. The shark comes right up to the boats edge, and
its gnashing jaws show. Suddenly, five of the party change
their minds: theyre not getting into the cage.
Im resolute, and don a wet suit. Inside the
cagegetting in is nerve-racking; I keep thinking that
that critter could pop up and surprise meI feel very
Richard Dreyfuss. The guide yells get down, get
down, so I drop to the bottom and a shark comes right
up to the bars. I look into its eyes. Its checking me
out too. Food chain checkmate.
That night, with my
shark survivor certificate in hand, I rejoin the
group, who are drunk beyond recognition at Cafe Manhattan, a
jumping bar and restaurant in the gay village. I show them
some video of the sharks, me in the cage. Theyre
jealous. I feel strangely proud. Butch, even.
We fly into Zambia.
Its burning hot, around 99 degrees. Driven through
downtown, uniformed schoolkids walking about, we arrive at
the Royal Livingstone, yet
another Sun International property that has vitalized the
area with jobs and tourist recreation: restaurants, a
casino, a convention center, and more. Before Sun came in,
there was little here except trees and oodles of vervet
monkeys, which continue to populate the grounds. A bevy of
the small simians gather outside my porch doors trying to
cute their way inside. Were strongly cautioned to keep
them out, as once inside they quickly go, well, ape-shit,
tearing through any visible belongings for food.
That evening we get on the
African Queen, a riverboat, for a cruise down the Zambezi
River. Hippos pop their heads out of the water as we
frequent the open bar.
After a belly-bulging
breakfast we venture into Mukuni, a local village, following
a very bumpy, dusty road to get there. As we approach, an
overpacked truck of waving Zambians putters by. Their skin
is so beautifully dark.
Our Mukuni guide ducks us
into the kings throne room and discusses day-to-day
life. Interestingly, if the villagers feel their king is no
good, theres a stash of secret poison theyll
taint his food with. I ask if the king, assuming hes a
bastard, could replace the poison with Nutrasweet or baking
powder. Seems logical. The guide laughs.
We visit Mukunis
medicine woman, who performs a few songs and tries to do a
bit of psychic magic, telling us mystical things about
ourselves. She is wrong every try. While shes clearly
a product of a superstitious society, Im nonetheless
scared of being cursed: When she asks us for a
token we dont give one (David had
compensated her and the village in advance).
Later, I take to helicopter
for an aerial view of Victoria Falls, one of the seven
natural wonders of the world. Quite exhilarating, and one of
DavidTours' [DavidTravel's] signature activities. Back at the hotel I
find more monkeys loitering about my porch. Some have babies
clinging to their bellies. One mom and child monkey,
pressing against the glass door, finally sway me: I violate
our orders and toss a piece of an apple through a crack,
which results in a rush of two dozen of its brethren, like a
scene straight out of Night of the Living Vervets.
Back to Johannesburg
(Jo-burg, less formally) for our final night in South
Africa. Regrettably. Theres a major gay club happening
the following evening, called Bitch, and theres plenty
to do in this city, including major shopping in a mall and
crafts center right next to our very comfy hotel, the
Grace. Theres always something to munch on
in the Graces lobbycakes during the
Johannesburg, home of that
infamous gold mining, produces 50% of South Africas
wealth. Were staying in a neighborhood known as
Rosebank, which is quite green and well-maintained. Come
evening, we bus with a number of Davids friends to
Melville, a suburb thats home to many gays and South
African celebrities (as is Pretoria, which is supposedly the
gayest city in S.A. per capita). A camera crew for some
local station scurries about the main strip, Seventh Street,
nightly, hunting for starry glimpses the way E! might on
Sunset Boulevard. We first grab flawless, elaborate
cocktails at Statement, a new gay bar. Cute young
crowdbut thats true of almost every gay venue in
South Africa. Then a few steps over to Lust for dinner. I
sit next to Rubin van Neikerk, editor of S.A.s glossy
gay magazine, Gay Pages. Hes affable and opinionated.
Most of the Johannesburg gays at dinner, fiercely fond of
their home city, openly regard Cape Towns as
pretentious. Very New York/L.A., this.
As for AIDS in the gay
community here? We know that we live in the AIDS
capital of the world, Rubin nods, arguing that HIV
rates are lowest in the gay population here. On the
whole, your gay population is pretty neurotic.
Many locals at dinner insist
that there is more integration in Johannesburg than Cape
Town. A black lesbian, however, tells of racism: She claims
the citys main gay bar-club complex, the Heartland,
refuses many blacks entry.
A couple hours later, at the
Heartlands admission point (which gives access to
several of the clubs), there are indeed a handful of blacks
looking discouraged, loitering, unable to get in. Inside, a
white localand 99% of the crowd I see is
whiteinsists they could come in if they paid, but just
dont have the 20 rand (about $2) it costs. Racism?
Socioeconomics? Back home, on Internet boards, I find some
Johannesburgians referring to Heartland as
Apartland. The struggle for integration and
equality clearly continues, and for all the talk of how
horrible racism is in America, having been out here for two
weeks, Ive seen worse.
Trading smiles with numerous
clubbers, some tweaked, I dance the night away, mostly with
a 24-year-old doctor who joined us at dinner. I run into at
least a couple of people I spotted in Cape Towns
clubs. I have a truly great time.
We have late-afternoon
checkouts, so its shopping all day in the mall and
crafts center, African Craft Market, from which I buy all
manner of African sculptures, masks, etc. Do bargain! I
quickly gain a reputation among my peers for being a shrewd
bargainer with the sellers. All of the vendors claim
you are my first/only customer of the day! Sure.
A friend and I actually saw someone make a purchase from a
vendor, and when we approached the vendor a few minutes
later he made that same dubious claim. My advice: Pay half
whatever they ask, and begin bargaining by offering a fifth.
I pick up a bronze-laden Nigerian mask for $27it would
sell in the USA for well over $100. Same for the wooden
giraffe that cost me $10. A fantastic outdoor lunch, with
cool cocktail and fresh artisan pizza, costs less than
Loaded with new
bubble-wrapped itemswhich the Grace will do for you,
no chargewe head to the airport. Its a horrible
thing to get on the plane. Not only because this means 17
hours of that sardine-can seating (and I left my Ambien in
my checked suitcase). But this trip has changed me, and I
want to see how I might evolve given more time. Especially
at these prices, surrounded by the ambrosial spring and so
much complexity, societal transition, and humanity cradled
within the wilds from whence it sprung.