South Africa, Victoria Falls (Zambia) and Botswana

Surprising South Africa from Troubled Past to a Prime Destination
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 water."

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" programming.

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 it.


A safari is what fills the mind of first-time Africa visitors.A 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.

Singita Ebony LodgeSingita 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 chest.

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.

City Life

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 Joburg.

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 kitchens.

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 relaxing men.

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 often.


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.

Get There

South African Airways. Reservations: (800) 722-9675 Direct flights from Atlanta and New York (JFK)

Cape Town

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.

Club 55 corner Somerset Rd. & Napier St. Green Point. Tel: (021) 425-1849.

Café Manhattan 74 Upper Waterkant St. De Waterkant Village. Tel: (021) 421-6666.

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) 425-4700.


The Grace Hotel 54 Bath Avenue, 2196 Rosebank. Tel: (011) 280-7474  

LUST: Decadent Dining. Shop 6C, 7th Street, Melville. Tel: (011) 482-6910

The Heartland (clubs & bars: C-Men, Therapy, Purple Fly, Club Venom, Re-Load, The Vault, Club Giza) Braamfontein, Johannesburg. Infoline: (086) 744-4567.

Safari Lodges

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) 765-2900.

Singita: Ebony Lodge Benmore 2010, South Africa. Tel: (011) 234-0990.


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