South Africa, Victoria Falls (Zambia) and
Surprising South Africa from Troubled Past to a
The Orange County Blade - March 2003
By Andrew Mersmann
"Look at them. They all have
perfect asses! Perfectly round high asses. Not just
the cute young guys, but even the old men and the
straight guys too. It must be something in the
Yes, traveling to Southern
Africa with a gay and lesbian tour group was going
to bring a whole new meaning to wildlife spotting
that never makes it onto "Animal Planet"
DavidTours [DavidTravel], the tour planning
company headed by David Rubin that specializes in
luxury travel for the "gay community and friends"
set up an almost blindingly opulent two-week tour
of South Africa and Zambia. The trip provided
exposure to quite an array of experiences, with an
easy division between outdoors safari-type days and
metropolitan city days. This indoor/outdoor schism
is one of so many polar opposite pairings gathered
into a single journey that it inspires a kind of
traveler's schizophrenia. The society is about
contrast - dizzying contrast that seems impossible
to blend or reconcile. The racial divide that was
so institutionalized during apartheid is still a
recent and fresh memory, accommodated in law if not
in practice. While white South Africans are
cautious in referencing the past, most adults were
born into apartheid and it is not shaken
effortlessly. Like all bias, it was taught, and
unlearning a lifetime's lessons is slow going. The
changes affect every level of life in the country,
and the comfortable visitor can be quite impatient
for the societal transformation to be complete,
minimizing the incredible progress since 1994's
changes in the government.
The AIDS statistics coming
out of Africa - particularly the Sub-Saharan
southern part of the continent - are horrible. Just
brush your comfort level up against one personal
experience with a face and a life those numbers
represent, and you can never be the same. It is
heartening to see massive public education
programs, much broader than in this country, with
AIDS and safer sex messages on every highway,
restaurant and gas station wall and school office,
with free condoms offered everywhere. It is perhaps
equally disheartening to notice that, of the
fourteen official languages in South Africa, all
the information is exclusively in English.
The rarified air of this
five-star trip made cultural ills almost disappear,
for good or not. The fifteen-hour flight into
Johannesburg via South African Airways is a cramped
coach experience, but the trip really begins after
touching down. SAA provides the only direct flights
to South Africa from the United States, so while
too cozy for comfort, the shorter trip is worth
safari is what fills the mind of first-time Africa
visitors. Lions and tigers and - okay, not bears
(until you get to the bars in larger cities) -
rhino and elephants and even dung beetles. Bouncing
through the scrub in an open jeep pursuing the
perfect photo proves to family and friends that you
really did get within five feet of a mother leopard
and her two cubs. The African sun is hot this time
of year (our winter is their summer) and returning
to the lodge after a dawn game run mandates
hydration and relaxation. The exclusive lodges we
stayed at provided open bars and pampering of a
level not easily found in any locale. While not 100
percent gay properties, these lodges are extremely
gay-friendly, and didn't even bat an eyelash at our
two jeep loads of screaming safari queens.
Ebony Lodge in the Sabi Sands Reserve near Kruger
National Park exceeds all rational expectations.
This is absurdly divine. From personal plunge pools
on our private decks overlooking the elephants'
favorite waterhole to the outdoor showers beyond
the all glass bathrooms, the water features alone
make this five-star property hard to believe.
Sunrise and sunset game drives provide ample
opportunity to take in the "big five" (lions,
leopards, elephants, rhino and Cape buffalo) as
well as a huge array of ruminant (grazing) animals
and birds. "Sundowners" are the delightful stops
mid-drive to have a drink or three and a few finger
foods from the jeep's fully loaded ice
Mala Mala Game Reserve in the
same vicinity has a stronger focus on animals and
less attention is paid to guests' creature
comforts. Rooms are anonymous and bland, on par
with any hotel chain, but the game viewing provided
by the young ranger boys with a cowboy attitude is
unlike any other. These guys will drive their jeeps
to hell and back to get you right next to animals.
Having lived their entire lives with jeeps around
them, the game seem unfazed and allow vehicles to
approach nearer than we dared hope.
An easy drive from the
Johannesburg airport is Makweti Safari Lodge, in a
malaria-free zone that still provides amazing
animal access. The staff of Makweti provides
personal attention to the tiniest detail. Private
bungalows separated from one another by meandering
paths inspire the feeling of being alone in the
bush. Indeed, guests are not allowed out on the
grounds after dark for fear of animal
confrontations. Gourmet meals appear on the dining
room table in the art-festooned main building. The
staff could teach a clinic in graciousness to
hospitality staff the world over.
The two cities we spent time
in were Cape Town and Johannesburg. The locals of
these two, particularly in the queer community, are
locked in cultural competition eager to prove their
hometown is the gay Mecca of South Africa. A local
sums it up by saying "Joburg" has the cosmopolitan
life, Cape Town has the beach.
In Johannesburg, the capital
of the country, diversity and cosmopolitan life are
in store. The Grace Hotel in the Rosebank district
is a perfect home base with understated opulence
and a well-practiced focus on service. A South
African told me the night before our Joburg arrival
to search high and low for crocodile fat, a natural
healing balm and antiseptic that also removes eye
wrinkles and dark circles. Lord knows the bags
under my eyes put me in danger of exceeding the
airline's carry-on limit, so the quest begins. We
stop the world's largest bus at a medicine market,
a very organic swap meet under a freeway overpass.
Our guide has a quick exchange in one of the
several locally spoken languages, and a toothless
man whips aside a filthy tarp to grab up an equally
filthy old salad dressing bottle, filled with
gelatinous goo, and with a wide smile, assures me
this is crocodile fat. A bent and rusty coat hanger
is used to fish out a couple of hunks and drop them
into a small Ziploc bag. I was well past any desire
to actually have the fat of any beast, but was
cornered by the transaction already well underway
and the bus full of our group who were waiting for
me to satisfy my quirky quest. My twenty rand (two
bucks) quickly disappeared into a pocket, and I was
back aboard, forbidden by the group to open the bag
for the fishy smell that threatened to seep through
even the plastic. Needless to say, it never made it
anywhere near my face, and the dark circles persist
- it couldn't be any sketchier than Botox, right?
Relatively certain of US Customs' dim view of
animal products, the Ziploc bag remained in
The gay scene in Johannesburg
is most alive in a conclave of several clubs
sharing one cover charge, called Heartland. Of the
clustered bars, there is something for everyone in
a perfect example of one-stop shopping. Melville is
a hip neighborhood with cafes and cocktail bars
amid design shops and hip eateries, one of the
toniest being LUST: Decadent Dining.
Cape Town is a beach city,
with all the laid-back ease that implies. In the
grand shadow of Table Mountain, Lion's Head and the
Twelve Disciples peaks, Cape Town is the bottom of
the continent. Azure waters crash in the blending
of Indian and Atlantic oceans, and in the same
country as the lions (et al), penguins frolic in
the surf. The beaches are soft sand and popular,
with nude beach Sandy Bay, and gay beach Clifton #3
both worth finding on a map.
Capetonian accommodations are
widely available at many levels. The very posh
Table Bay Hotel on the Victoria and Alfred
waterfront opens into Africa's largest shopping
mall, is surrounded by dozens of restaurants, and
looks up at Table Mountain with the same
jaw-dropping awe as the guests. The gay village, De
Waterkant in the Greenpoint district, features
several small hotel establishments and the Village
and Life Apartments, a cooperative of
accommodations in residences clustered in the area.
These apartments run the gamut from skanky to
sublime, but are a bargain alternative and include
The bar and club
establishments of gay Cape Town are scattered only
steps away from one another, with trendy Bronx
Action Bar, Club 55 Dance Club, neighborhood
friendly Café Manhattan, and leather/uniform
hangout Bar Code topping the popularity list. A
short stroll also turns up the extremely popular
Hothouse bath house and The Barracks, one of two
boy-brothels, dubbed by our group "the lobster
tank" for the one-way mirror from behind which you
choose your dinner out of the holding pen of
With a constitution that is
unique in all the world in its attention to gay and
lesbian rights, an incredibly advantageous currency
exchange rate, and some of the most incredible and
diverse experiences to be found on the planet,
South Africa is a destination to be sought after
and relished. Locals say off-handedly that once you
have come to South Africa, you never really leave,
a part of your heart is forever left behind. It
actually feels like that part belongs there. I
can't wait to go back and visit it, again and
DavidTravel 310 Dahlia Place,
Suite A, Corona del Mar, CA. Tel: (949) 427-0199.
DavidTravel custom designs
worldwide travel planning for independent or group
travel and all budgets.
South African Airways.
Reservations: (800) 722-9675 Direct
flights from Atlanta and New York (JFK)
Table Bay Hotel 50369
Waterfront, Cape Town 8002. Tel: (021) 406-5000.
Village and Life Apartments
Offices at corner of Loader and Waterkant Streets,
Green Point. Tel: (021) 418-6081.
Bronx Action Bar 35 Somerset
Road. Green Point.
corner Somerset Rd. & Napier St. Green Point. Tel: (021)
Café Manhattan 74
Upper Waterkant St. De Waterkant Village. Tel:
Bar Code 16 Hudson Street,
Cape Town. Tel: (021) 421-5305
Hothouse Sauna 18 Jarvis St.
Cape Town. Tel: (021) 418-3888.
The Barracks corner Highfield
Rd. & Waterkant St. Green Point. Tel: (021)
The Grace Hotel 54 Bath
Avenue, 2196 Rosebank. Tel: (011) 280-7474
LUST: Decadent Dining. Shop
6C, 7th Street, Melville. Tel: (011)
The Heartland (clubs &
bars: C-Men, Therapy, Purple Fly, Club Venom,
Re-Load, The Vault, Club Giza) Braamfontein,
Johannesburg. Infoline: (086) 744-4567.
Makweti Safari Lodge
Welgevonden Game Reserve, Northwestern Province,
South Africa. Tel: (011) 837-6776.
Mala Mala Game Reserve 3650
Hillcrest, Republic of South Africa. Tel: (031)
Singita: Ebony Lodge Benmore 2010, South Africa.
Tel: (011) 234-0990.
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