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South Africa, Botswana & Victoria Falls (Zambia)

African Queens
A gay group tours South Africa and finds a country rich in contrasts
By Andrew Mersmann
new york Blade - January 2003


The rubber on my hiking boots is melting from being too close to the campfire. But several courses of an al fresco gourmet meal followed by brilliant red wine and a Cuban cigar has pinned me to my chair. Such luxury under the vast African sky at a private game reserve is such high style I fear a nosebleed. South Africa, through the rosy red lens of a DavidTours gay travel journey, is providing a level of opulence and decadence I normally experience only through movies.

In South Africa, shantytown life in the racially segregated (practically quarantined) townships, systemic racism and a lot of recognizable if sublimated anger, makes "diversity" a far-off goal. On my tour, I experienced polar opposites of class and comfort, and abject poverty and misery. Where apartheid is still a fresh memory, the country is still a work-in-progress politically, as it struggles to establish its own identity.

In the face of the chasm between races and cultures, as well as the devastating specter of AIDS, the tenacity and hopefulness of locals is all the more inspiring. An incredibly advantageous currency exchange rate to our dollar makes travel particularly attractive.

A Johannesburg local told me that in his father's generation, a common colloquialism translated into English says that when strangers meet, they embrace and "braid cocks," indicating the figurative intimacy with which newcomers are welcomed. Where else could you find that kind of reception?

DavidTravel (949-427-0199) specializes in luxury travel for gay tourists. They will customize whatever you would line and can work with more modest budgets, too.

South African Airways (800-722-9675; www.flysaa.com) is a cramped coach experience, but the 15-hour flight to Johannesburg from New York is the shortest trip possible from the U.S. SAA provides the only direct flights to South Africa, from Atlanta and JFK.

In the Bush

African dreams are filled with wild animals and the occasional loincloth. Safari lodges are the best way to experience wildlife.

Makweti Safari Lodge (Welgevonden Game Reserve, Northwestern Province, South Africa.) is the benchmark for service and personal attention. An amazing chef spoiled us rotten, and game rangers kept us laughing (and drinking) amid astounding animal sightings. Private bungalows separated from one another by meandering paths inspired feeling alone in the bush, indeed, guests are not allowed out on the grounds after dark for fear of animal confrontations.

Sunrise and sunset game drives get us incredibly cozy with animals usually on the other side of a ravine at the zoo, and the oh-so-civilized tradition of "sundowners" (cocktails and appetizers out in the wild) becomes comfortable very quickly.

Mala Mala Game Reserve (3650 Hillcrest, South Africa;) is one of the most popular lodges. A stronger focus on animals means less attention is paid to the guests' creature comforts. The game viewing provided by the young ranger boy hotshots is unlike any other. These guys stop at nothing as inconsequential as brush, rivers or small trees to get us right next to animals. Being close enough to a lioness and her cubs to hear her lazy tongue lap across her paws as she grooms herself and her young makes a jeep full of gay men want to shriek.

Our third safari stay at Singita Ebony Lodge (Benmore 2010, South Africa;) exceeds all rational expectations. From personal plunge pools on our private decks overlooking the elephants' favorite watering hole to the outdoor showers beyond glass bathrooms, this five-star property is hard to believe. Meals and open bar are expertly tended, and a champagne reception and bush dinner amid lantern light in the wild makes for goofy photos as none of us can close our dropped jaws.

While not 100 percent gay properties, these lodges are extremely gay-friendly. No one batted an eyelash at our two jeep loads of screaming safari queens or inquiries about same-sex honeymoon packages.

The Other Wildlife

Queer life in South Africa is a large part of the nation's recent proud history, being one of the only countries in the world with gay rights written into the constitution. New decisions have made gay and lesbian adoption acceptable in the eyes of national law, and despite a few setbacks, same-sex marriage statutes appear to be near at hand. The two main cities with lively communities are Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Cape Town

Cape Town is a glorious seaside city in the shadow of Table Mountain and other lushly jagged peaks. The laid-back beach sensibility places a high priority on watching the nightly spectacle of the sun sinking into the confluence of Atlantic and Indian Ocean waters. Beaches are crowded and popular, (their summer is our winter) with nude beach Sandy Bay, and gay beach Clifton #3 both worth finding.

Where to Stay

Capetonian accommodations are a funky mix. We were pampered at the very posh Table Bay Hotel (50369 Waterfront, Cape Town 8002;) on the Victoria and Alfred waterfront opening into Africa's largest shopping mall. The hotel is surrounded by dozens of restaurants, and looks up majestic mountains.

Alternatively, Cape Town's gay village, De Waterkant in the Greenpoint district, features several small hotel establishments and the Village and Life Apartments (Offices at corner of Loader and Waterkant Streets, Green Point;), a cooperative of accommodations in are residences. Each being privately owned, (and decorated) apartments, they range from skanky to sublime, but definitely a bargain.

Dining

The Atlantic Restaurant inside the Table Bay Hotel serves multi-course meals in high-style Colonial digs. A short walk down the harbor to Den Anker (Pierhead, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town;) provides seafood so fresh it keeps the sea lions riveted.

Rozenhof Restaurant (18 Kloof St. Cape Town. 021-424-1968) is casually elegant and provided one of my best meals.

Nightlife

The bar and club establishments of gay Cape Town are scattered only steps away from one another, with trendy Bronx Action Bar (35 Somerset Road. Green Point;), Club 55 (corner Somerset Rd. & Napier St., Green Point;), neighborhood friendly Café Manhattan (74 Upper Waterkant St., De Waterkant Village;), and leather/uniform hangout Bar Code (16 Hudson Street, Cape Town; 021-421-5305) the most popular.

A short stroll also turns up the extremely popular Hothouse Sauna (18 Jarvis St., Cape Town; www.hothouse.co.za) and The Barracks (corner Highfield Rd. & Waterkant St., Green Point; www.thebarracks.co.za) one of two boy-brothels, dubbed by our group "the lobster tank" for the one-way mirror from behind which you choose your "dinner" from the holding pen of relaxing men.

The Cape Town lesbian scene is low key and women-only functions and clubs relegated to scarce one-night-a-week (or month) events, but most bars have mixed crowds. Look for Womyn Magazine on newsstands to find current events.

Johannesburg

Locals in the Johannesburg queer community are locked in cultural competition with Cape Town eager to prove their hometown is the gay Mecca. In Johannesburg, South Africa's capital, diversity and cosmopolitan life are indeed in store.

Where to Stay

The Grace Hotel (54 Bath Ave., 2196 Rosebank;) is a gem of old-fashioned hospitality. Not only will they bubble wrap and box the souvenirs you acquire, every guest gets a free neck and shoulder massage upon arrival.

Dining

Melville is a hip neighborhood with cafes and cocktail bars amid design shops and hip eateries. I had one drink at new gay bar Statement (Seventh Street, Melville; 011-482-5593) before a large meal next door at LUST: Decadent Dining (Shop 6C, Seventh Street, Melville; 011-482-6910).

Nightlife

The gay scene in Johannesburg is most alive in a conclave of several clubs sharing one cover charge, called Heartland. (Braamfontein, Johannesburg;). Among clustered bars C-Men, Therapy, Purple Fly, Club Venom, Re-Load, The Vault, and Club Giza, there is something for everyone in a perfect example of one-stop shopping. Lesbian vacationers looking for women-only events should consult Womyn Magazine's schedules. But rest assured, dance clubs are mixed and welcoming.
 

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