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South Africa, Victoria Falls (Zambia) and Botswana

The Other Down Under A South African Nature and Cultural Excursion

The Other Down Under
A South African Nature and Cultural Excursion
Frontiers Magazine, March 28, 2003
By Lawrence Ferber

Palace of the Lost City Resort in South Africa

A DavidTours [DavidTravel] group on safari in 1998

Tour member with children in Langa Township

Tour Director Christiaan with Cheryl, the lesbian CEO of of the Cape Town Board of Tourism

David Rubin, center, at the Rozenhof restaurant with author Lawrence Ferber, left, and local friend James, who is a lawyer in Cape Town.

The Ebony Lodge at Singita Private Game Reserve

Easy Nofemela, left, and Ntobeko Peni outside a project run by
the Amy Biehl Foundation

At a party in a private home owned by a couple who met while on one of Rubin's tours.

David Rubin

I'm having lunch with murderers. Two of them, in fact: Ntobeko Peni and Easy Nofemela. The pair were among a group of black South Africans responsible for stoning Amy Biehl, a white American Fulbright scholar, to death in 1993 during an angry political demonstration-turned-homicide. The fact that Biehl was an activist fighting for equality on behalf of those very killers/demonstrators was a detail lost in the fury borne by years of Apartheid's repression and poverty.

We are in a restaurant in the Langa Township, sharing chicken and samp, a local starchy side dish. Peni and Nofemela are now reformed, pardoned at the Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals, and, in fact, working for Biehl's activist mother, Linda, who set up a foundation in her late daughter's name (The Amy Biehl Foundation). Sitting at a table with them, David Rubin converses with great interest, inquiring about Peni's experiences in prison. Compact in frame, with a warm smile and manner, Rubin is founder and head of DavidTours [DavidTravel], a gay luxury tour company. He's brought a group of gay journalists--myself included--on a two-week journey to South Africa and Zambia. Our lunch is part of that journey. This is an atypical trip for Rubin, however. Rather than just immerse us in a typical DavidTours [DavidTravel] itinerary, Rubin's decided to have our troupe preview new properties, attractions and experiences.

Lunch is receiving mixed reactions. A couple of the journalists are unnerved, convinced the former killers are homophobic, joking and ribbing about us in their native tongue. But more on that later.

Summer 2001. I first met Rubin in Munich, Germany, at a convention for gay travel professionals. Between his easy, personable manner and the pamphlets depicting resplendent five-star properties--in India, South Africa, Europe and Montreal, among other locales--I was immediately intrigued by him and his company.

In the summer of 2002, Rubin invited me to join his October press-only South Africa journey. After pondering for three minutes, I said yes. Still, I had but a faint concept of the life-changing, bonding experience I was in for--and certainly not at the mountain-high level of style and luxury Rubin's company provides.

A group of two women and five men, we waited in the JFK Airport departure lounge in New York, from which South African Airways makes its nonstop trips to Johannesburg. Rubin barely made it to the gate in time, having rushed from a niece's bat mitzvah (ain't he devoted!). The flight's cramped--our business-class upgrades didn't pan out, and the SAA coach-class concept of legroom is rather--no pun intended--narrow. Happily, the flight went by fast as I whiled the hours away watching movies on my personal TV monitor.

At the Johannesburg airport, we're greeted and joined by a freckly, tall strawberry blond, Christiaan. Christiaan is an Afrikaner (or Boer), the white, Dutch-descended South Africans. They speak Afrikaans, a unique language blending Dutch and German elements. South Africa also boasts a significant white English-blooded population (it was colonized in the 17th century by the English and Dutch). Christiaan, who's gay, was our tour's tour director. Rubin considers his tour directors and his ground operators very important elements of DavidTours' [DavidTravel's] success. Rubin doesn't accompany most of his company's tours, and with these seasoned experts present from arrival to departure, he doesn't need to. Not all the tour directors and ground operators are gay, but all are gay-friendly.

Our first evening was spent at the Palace of the Lost City, an over-the-top resort property at Sun City. It's kitschy but comfortable; boxes containing wine, candy, dried fruit and sculptures were brought to my room. Sun City is wholly artificial--an extensively landscaped gambling and entertainment complex for the privileged--so I couldn't wait to move on to "real" South Africa in a couple of days. To get an immediate taste of the wild, most of the group went on a short game drive outside Sun City, and I'm glad I skipped it: Their highlight was witnessing a bird pluck the eye from a dead zebra. The serious game sightings would wait until we left for the bush.

Rubin was raised in the suburban jungle of Oceanside, N.Y. He practiced maritime then business law for many years, until finding the latter a soul-crushing venture that essentially involved representing the rich in dispute cases and making the poor cry uncle. Sickened, and aspiring to enrich people's lives rather than devastate them, Rubin looked to his first love for a new career direction: travel.

After five years of saving up, he launched his own company, DavidTours [DavidTravel]. The first official DavidTours [DavidTravel] trip was to New Orleans for Halloween in 1996. "I picked something I really knew, a city where I have a lot of friends," he recalled, "and I did that while I was still practicing law--to begin testing the market, the viability of creating a company and leaving a lucrative law practice."

He did eventually ditch the law practice, and DavidTours [DavidTravel] proved viable. (They've expanded to offering luxury cruises, wholly individualized itineraries, and even hotel booking for all budgets.)

Our third day in South Africa, we left Sun City's fabricated--albeit resplendent--enclave and headed to Makweti, our first game lodge. At Makweti, we drove around in open-air Jeeps and spotted animals big and small. Greeted by rangers bearing biltong (beef jerky) and refreshing libations, Makweti proved to be amazing, beautiful ... and malaria-free. Most game lodges are located in regions where mosquitoes carry the pesky malaria bug ... and they love injecting you with it! Here, no malaria mosquitoes.

As Rubin unpacked in his gorgeous, freestanding private cabin (complete with homemade toiletries and outdoor deck), I asked him what his five favorite cities in the world are. "Cape Town," he responded without a moment's deliberation. "Paris. New Orleans. Stockholm."

Why Stockholm?

"I have a weakness for blonds," he said, grinning. "And the stunning detail, clean lines, the look, the feel."

City number five?

"Udaipur, India. It's beautiful, gentle; you can comfortably walk around, enjoy India and Indian people."

Although we're certainly comfortable, we won't be walking over the next hour or two. The game-drive Jeeps were prepared, our rangers saddled up, and we hopped in with cameras loaded.

One or two of my group have lovers back home, but for all intents and purposes we're a pack of singles. Rubin, however, has seen all sorts of relationships, blood and otherwise, represented on his tours: singles, couples and even three-way relationships. "The mix has gone beautifully," he noted. "What we find is we have, first and foremost, people with a lust for travel. It's a passion. A lot of our clients, they love developing friendships over a week or two-week trip that in real life would take 10 or 15 years because everybody has busy lives."

We enjoyed an evening game drive, spotting numerous rhinoceroses and a cranky elephant that debated charging our Jeep. But no lions.

The next morning, we woke up very early and, before driving six hours to our next game lodge, we, in fact, spotted a few female lions. One walked directly in front of my vehicle, passing nonchalantly, unperturbed by our presence.

Our next lodges were deeper in the bush, northern malaria country at that. On the subject of malaria, there are several anti-malarial medications available. The easiest to take with fewest possible side effects and most effective bug-killing properties is Malarone. Since malaria lies dormant before it attacks--and thus can be counterattacked--the medication needs to be present in your blood before and after infection. Therefore, we take our medications a couple of days before entering the region, and must continue for two weeks afterward.

Mala Mala was the next game reserve, and it's got a reputation for placing exciting animal-filled drives before everything else. Which is not to say the rooms and cuisine and comforts were less than delectable. The drivers were quite a hot lot, too, although terminally heterosexual. That said, one DavidTours [DavidTravel] client managed to literally seduce the shorts from one of these guys, so a hot-ranger sex fantasy may not be completely fantastical. The evening's game drive lived up to Mala Mala's reputation; we saw numerous lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, elephants, giraffes, impalas and wide-eyed "bush babies," cute squirrely things with eyes so big you can see them reflecting light from hundreds of feet away. Unfortunately, our stay in Mala Mala commenced a nightmarish running joke of my tour: wake-up-call hell.

At dinner, I informed my co-travelers that I would be abstaining from the unholy 5 a.m. game drive the next morning, as I preferred to sleep. Without copious amounts of sleep, I am a cranky, vile creature. One of the group, however, thought I said something to the tune of changing my mind about the morning drive, and "thoughtfully" had me woken up. I was so furious that I couldn't get back to sleep without popping an Ambien. Know this: Lawrence Ferber loves sleep. Travel, food, redheaded boyfriend, sleep.

This wake-up-call joke continued for the rest of the trip. Any morning I was permitted to sleep in, a wake-up call would come nonetheless. I began taking every possible precaution, yet in futility. If I unplugged the phone, someone came knocking at my door. At the five-star Royal Livingstone in Zambia, I left explicit word with the staff, placed a "Do Not Disturb" sign on my door, and went to sleep. At 7 a.m., the phone rang. A polite voice on the other line said: "Excuse me, sir, but there is a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on your door. What time shall we come back to check on your mini-bar?"

Rubin shook his head in disbelief when I told him about this final incident an hour or two later. "The hotels have been terrible with the wake-up calls, waking up people inappropriately when they've been told not to," he lamented. "What I feel is I have to work on devising systems to deal with that. What I have discussed with Christiaan is we will put it in writing, who is to be woken and when. It will be given to management, we will keep a copy, and basically we will say heads will roll if this isn't followed. This is too crucial; it destroys all the hard work that's been done to create a fantastic hotel, and it's talking about the health and sanity of our clients. It really is. It's a busy tour. You need sleep. Someone may have a cold, they may be sick, and that's a very big issue."

Discussing the incidents further, Rubin explained that native Zambian staff--most lived in poverty before jobs at the Royal Livingstone rolled in--are still learning concepts of this kind of service. The Livingstone's parent company, Sun International, had, in fact, trained local staff in the art of running. Yes, running. The concept of "hurrying" was unheard of. This isn't a racist thing; the locals just didn't understand that when a visitor at a $600-a-night, five-star hotel asks for a $15 martini, or a sewing kit, or anything, you don't take your sweet time with it. You get going! By the same cultural token, Rubin felt the whole wake-up-call phenomenon deserved a little slack. After all, man existed in Zambia for some 2 million years before luxury hotels entered the picture.

"I remember several years ago I went to a store in London: Simpson's of Piccadilly. I bought a vest and brought it home and all the colors ran," Rubin proffered. "I wrote to the company saying, 'I'd like to send back the vest ... I'd like it to be replaced.' And they said, 'Once something is purchased, it's yours, we have no further responsibility for it.' At Saks [Fifth] or Nordstrom, in a minute that would have been changed, no questions asked. But it's different cultures and mentalities, so we have to do our best to find the right partners. We really say to the clients, 'Please try to leave the U.S.A. behind. Please realize the pace of the country, that English isn't often the first language. Please don't go to a restaurant and expect to be served in half an hour.'"

Still, Rubin goes to significant lengths previewing properties himself to ensure comforts are maximum and problems nonexistent. Long-term relationships with these properties and management companies are priority, and as a result DavidTours [DavidTravel] receives the best premium treatment. If there are any doubts to that end, you won't be going there. To wit: While we were at Mala Mala, Rubin visited and stayed at another high-profile lodge that was courting his business. It didn't pass muster.

"Tremendous disappointment," he groused later. "It's one of the top-rated lodges; it's almost always sold out. And from A to Z everything went wrong--the written communications saying everything would be covered, my transfers would be complimentary. Then I was told, 'No, sorry, here's the bill. If spending a couple of hundred dollars on a transfer is such a big issue, then you're not making enough money.' 'The issue is not the money,' I said. 'The issue is, Can I send a client there with confidence that what's been agreed to in writing will be followed?' Then, getting there at about five o'clock in the evening I was told, 'You missed your game drive. We'll wake you up in the morning and you'll enjoy a nice dinner tonight.'

"If I was a consumer unfamiliar with the routine of a luxury lodge I would have been very disappointed and just gone to dinner," he continued. "Instead, I said to them, 'Hey, guys, I know you have support vehicles. Why don't you find out where my ranger is and take me in a support vehicle to the Jeep so I can go on game drive?' The response was 'Sure, we can do that.' That should have been automatically offered when you're paying $650 per person per night. Then I'm on a game drive and the ranger is one of the worst I have ever had. He didn't bring the bush alive. He said nothing. There was a couple on the Jeep and they'd never been on a game drive and they learned absolutely nothing."

Barring wake-up-call issues, there were no complaints to be lodged against any of the properties we visited. That especially goes for Singita, our itinerary's final game reserve. This was a sensory paradise. Each private cabin featured several temperature-control units, a deck overlooking all sorts of wildlife at play, a pool, an outdoor and indoor shower, a living room, full and complimentary mini-bar, king-size bed, bathtub--the list of luxuries goes on. This was total honeymoonland, and many gays go to Singita for romance. If I hadn't already been convinced that DavidTours [DavidTravel] was one-of-a-kind and discriminating in taste, this nailed it. The food was also exemplary: One evening's dinner was served in the literal bush, with lanterns hanging from trees and armed rangers ensuring curious lions didn't join us.

Being close to these animals (including the "big five"--lions, zebras, elephants, leopards and buffalo), you become acutely aware that a way of life exists here that knows nothing of banking, public transportation, brand names, et cetera. It's awesome. Everything's real in ways even 9/11 couldn't impart. Granted, you're not exactly a pauper if you can afford to take one of these drives (although journalists, even worldly, traveling ones, often straddle that line!), but so much becomes trivial.

Cape Town, which is reminiscent of San Francisco, was next on the trip's agenda, and there's plenty of fun nightlife, but also lots of less-trivial reality, if you explore. The decrepit townships, created for the blacks during Apartheid, surround much of the city. I'll briefly--and to the best of my abilities--explain Apartheid: In the 1940s, the Afrikaners conceived of Apartheid as a means of holding power and enforcing racial segregation. In 1948, Apartheid laws were enacted, institutionalizing racial discrimination under a whites-only government. Whites and blacks were not allowed to marry, black labor was exploited and blacks were stripped of their land, relegated to living in hideously decrepit townships. It took until 1994, when Nelson Mandela (an activist jailed for 27 years) was elected president, for Apartheid to finally, officially end. But the townships remain, and the violence sprung from oppression lingers; blacks have a long way to go before reclaiming something even resembling equality in education, the workforce, economics and society overall. There's much to be done.

I'm a jaded New York City boy, but I admit to feeling a little unnerved while exploring parts of Cape Town. Apartheid, although gone, has left a ghostly cloud of poverty and tension.

It's not recommended to travel from neighborhood to neighborhood by any other means than a private taxi--and one you phone up at that. Hailing a taxi on the street can be dangerous, as some clever thieves have taken to pilfering taxis and hijacking passengers. Communal mini-bus "taxis," these usually rusty, and cramped vans driven by reckless lunatics (crashes are frequent) are a popular mode of public transportation. Trains--frequented by pickpockets and robbers looking for a dumb, money-rich tourist--are another option. Pay extra, take the private taxis, insisted Rubin and his many local friends. So long as the exchange rate remains in our favor, I strongly advocate this as well.

The first night, we took in Cape Town's bustling gay village, which our lodging-- Harbour View Cottages --was conveniently located within. I went back and forth between Bronx bar, a crowded disco, and 55 Bar/Club each evening.

Come nighttime, paid armed guards patrol this vicinity, and so do a number of unemployed blacks, who act as unofficial watchmen. These fellows expect tips, and wherever they can find them. If you make eye contact or speak with these guys, you risk being pressured for a tip, so remain cordial but distant. Don't make pals. One of our party, drunk, knocked on my door one night, a grinning guard all but attached to his arm.

"Do you have $20?" my friend asked.

"Uh, no, sorry."

They headed to another door. Canvassing of a whole new stripe.

On two evenings, we were surrounded by Rubin's friends--good-looking, affluent, gay. And white. Rubin, in fact, has black South African friends, but they were unable to join us due to lack of transportation. At Rozenhof, a gay-owned whorehouse-turned-restaurant, the Cape Town tourism representative--a lesbian--was with us. Another evening, we were the guests of honor at a party thrown by a very privileged couple, Thomas and Anton, in their indescribably upscale mountainside house overlooking the ocean. Why us? It was on a DavidTours [DavidTravel] vacation that they met.

"Thomas was a client," Rubin recalled with great fondness. "He went on my Christmas / New Year's tour in 1997 or 1998. He ended up signing up at the last minute; he was a single fellow traveling on his own. We had a dinner in Johannesburg, and I had about 20 friends and friends of friends, and quite magically it ended up that Thomas and Anton were sitting together. They both share an incredible passion for modern art, and the conversation was absolutely nonstop. My friend was sitting next to them and it just progressed to 'Come to my home so I can show you my art collection.' And the rest is history. To me, that's some of the most rewarding things and brings me amazing joy. Each time I see them they put their arms around me and give me a big hug. Thomas says, 'I never would have dreamed this. I gave up on finding that love of my life and I went on your tour and found him.' "

One day was devoted to confronting the images we see on the U.S. news and read about in the papers--townships and the AIDS crisis. First, we visited the Nazareth House, an orphanage for children whose parents have succumbed to AIDS. All but one or two of the children are HIV-positive themselves, and all are black. The Nazareth House is run by white Catholic nuns. I was a little apprehensive about that detail. Don't get me wrong. I'm highly appreciative of their kindness, humanity and generosity (and Sir Elton John's, whose foundation funds Nazareth significantly), but cringe about the fact they jam a glowing white Jesus--and organized religion overall--down these unfortunate black children's throats.

Gathered in the conference room to view a video about the house--portions are hard to watch, depicting children with all sorts of AIDS-related physical ravages--we had some time to talk with a pair of the sisters. The children receive no anti-retroviral medications. There's no funding for it, on a governmental level or otherwise. (The only sector of the population that does receive such government-provided medication is pregnant women, so their children might be born HIV-negative.) I asked whether the children are told about homosexuality, and how that's handled. They're not, the sisters responded with a notable dash of discomfort. One of the kids has a cross-dressing "problem," they added, and they're trying to reign him back in to "normalcy." I quietly bristled. Incidentally, South Africa's version of "Sesame Street" currently features an HIV-positive Muppet.

When we entered the Langa Township later that same day, the residents, especially the children, were welcoming, excited to see visitors. We entered some of their homes; some of these shacks are sweltering and decrepit, not befitting human life, but there's renovation at hand. Modern living units, sort of townhouses, are rapidly replacing them. And individual homes, just like you'd see in any suburb. Some township residents are becoming entrepreneurs, opening bed & breakfasts and restaurants. Not Olive Garden franchises, mind you. But I wouldn't put it past Starbucks to plant posts here a few years down the line if improvements continue.

At one of these restaurants, Lelapha (49 Harlem Ave., Langa, 27 21 694-2681), which I can't recommend strongly enough for its succulent, hearty African home cooking, we joined Biehl and the murderers. (The Biehl case and her murderers' pardoning, is documented in the film "Long Night's Journey Into Day".)

Some of the journalists were ruffled and uneasy about the erstwhile killers' presence, and kept their distance, blanching. Later, they voiced an opinion that Peni and Nofemela were making fun of us for being gay. I don't know if I buy their impression. Nofemela and Peni were speaking a language we didn't understand, and these guys have come into contact with numerous gays as part of the Biehl Foundation's work. To me, they seemed friendly and jovial.

Although Rubin was saddened that members of our party wished they were elsewhere during lunch, he was also disappointed that they didn't take the opportunity to confront the two men. "I think part of what we are here for is to be ambassadors," he said with a shrug. "These people were working for a human-rights group, to improve people's lives. ... I would have loved, just on a personal level, to connect with and confront them if [members of our party] thought they were being anti-gay. I think it would have been important for the basic core of what that organization is. If it had been confronted, I think that would have been great, and food for some great stories. I would like to see a gay press where journalists are digging their teeth in and grasping this opportunity to speak with these people. It's a secure environment--their boss is sitting there, there's no danger. Confront someone."

We spent a couple of evenings at the Table Bay Hotel, which is safely nestled in a high-end tourist area (and just eight minutes by taxi to the gay village), and which has tons of shops open until 9 p.m., and restaurants. My favorite meals in Cape Town, aside from the township restaurants, were had at the Table Bay's Atlantic Grill restaurant (rated the No. 1 restaurant in South Africa by Condé Nast Traveler) and the Rozenhof. In Cape Town, I also opted to confront great white sharks on a day expedition, on which you go to a shark-infested bay, chum for sharks, get into a cage à la "Jaws" and freak out.

Johannesburg was our final stop, and it was a little too brief. I would have loved a few more days to just bum around the Rosebank neighborhood's indoor/outdoor shopping center, eating fresh pizzas for about $3 a pop and people watching. Driving around town, we stopped at a flea-market area where medicinal herbs and other magical--literally, apparently--items are peddled. One of our group bought some crocodile fat, which allegedly possesses healing properties. The jar it's dispensed from, into a worn plastic sandwich bag, was as sanitary as, say, a filled week-old biohazard disposal unit, and it made us gag. The lucky purchaser decided to go unhealed.

We had dinner with Rubin's local friends at a great, gay-friendly restaurant, Lust, in the very queer Melville neighborhood. Over flavorful, flame-broiled game meats, including ostrich and kudu we discussed issues of racism. Many of the whites are of an opinion that racism is all gone, or no more prevalent than in American big cities. A black lesbian insisted that many blacks are refused entry into the city's gay nightlife complex, Heartland, and racism is still a serious issue.

At some point, a white male member of the dinner party tried to argue that denial of South African nationality to blacks during Apartheid was justified because they were, in a sense, squatters, having come from the rest of Africa, drawn by the great things the Europeans had created in South Africa.

I think that was the "logic" behind this person's argument. I'd actually forgotten--no, repressed--this incident until writing this article, while mining my memories for more anecdotes and details.

To be fair, there wasn't much clashing of ideologies (racist or otherwise) or personalities during our journey. Over the two-week period of the trip, our group grew into a family. Each of us had a strong character, however, and it wasn't always easy. One of my new "brothers" is a cherubic, strongly opinionated publisher. "When I saw you at the airport I thought, 'Oh, no, a nerd,'" he revealed during our final hours in our hotel, the Grace (www.grace.co.za), over cake. "But then I discovered that you can be the biggest bitch! I love you, honey!"

The chemistry for our trip had been an act of inspired serendipity. It turns out some of us simply fell into place. Still, there is an element of cultivation to Rubin's organized tours, and sometimes he must become super-attentive to these issues.

Do you ever say this person might clash with another person, so I might want to dissuade them, David? I asked. "It's a lot of feeling around and trying to find the right point to diplomatically steer someone in a different direction," he said. "We've even told people that we're not the right match. See, I don't discriminate against anyone. Anyone is welcome on our tours with the understanding we specifically market to the gay community. I use the term 'gay community and friends' very expansively. I have had men who call and ask, 'Will it be an all-men's tour?' I respond there's a certain probability it will be, but 15 of my tour directors are women and there could be women on the tour. So if you need an all-male environment, we're not the right match for you."

Months later, I know DavidTours [DavidTravel] was the right match for me. There's a tall, wooden giraffe staring at me as I type. I bought it (well, haggled it down) for around $10 at the African Craft Market, which was just a few steps from our Johannesburg hotel. I'm seeing almost all of my new DavidTours [DavidTravel] friends socially whenever possible. And I realize I could easily write another 50,000 words--longer, even--about my experiences in South Africa with them. I intend to go back, DavidTours [DavidTravel] or not. I miss the animals. I miss the where-mountains-meet-water beauty of Cape Town, and the genuine friendliness of the South African people, black and white.
 

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