South Africa, Victoria Falls (Zambia) and Botswana

Why is South Africa Hot? Our Luxury Guide Girlfriends Magazine

Why is South Africa Hot?

Our Luxury Guide

Girlfriends Magazine - April 2003
By Karen Opp

Out in Africa

Karen Opp finds out why South Africa is the new playground for gay and lesbian travelers.

"A dazzle of zebra, a leap of leopards, and a crush of rhinos."

Shawn, our bush guide, is reciting alternative terms for herds as our Land Rover powers down one of a chain of dirt roads criss-crossing the Sabi Sabi Reserve. It's near the end of October--South Africa's spring--and the brittle mixture of red clay and sand is looking forward to the much-needed rains.

Today we are chasing wildlife in the traditional sense. But thanks to South Africa's beautiful coastal towns, vibrant LGBT communities, and a growing number of lesbian-friendly tour operators, many travelers like myself are enduring the long flight for the sake of another kind of big game. In some circles, the tip of the African continent has become the new gay destination.

Personally, I am the kind of traveler who likes to make my own plans, read my own maps, and venture out in search of the unknown. However, after doing my homework, meeting native women, and sampling LGBT life in Cape Town, I have to be honest: I would recommend working with a travel consulting group to ensure that your travel to South Africa unfolds smoothly.

Luckily, the options are plentiful and diverse . I planned my trip with DavidTours [DavidTravel], a luxury tour operator focusing specifically on high-end gay and lesbian travel. DavidTours [DavidTravel] booked all my accommodations, flights, and activities, and supplied a tour guide (yes, a gay tour guide) who provided insightful commentary and inside knowledge on LGBT life in South Africa.

It was only 9:00 a.m. when we returned from our morning game drive to base camp, but temperatures were already nearing 100 degrees. No problem: If I had to be sweaty, dirty, and in need of a little pampering, there's no better place to be in the world than the Singita Private Game Reserve, a deluxe resort set amidst a 44,000-hectare wildlife sanctuary bordering Kruger National Park in northern South Africa.

I entered my suite through an oversized square door and felt as if I stepped into a scene from Lord of the Rings.Magical charm infused everything from the floor to the exposed wooden beams of the ceilings. The entire back wall was floor-to-ceiling glass windows, which turned the expansive horizon of the brush and its wildlife into a 24/7 television show. On the back deck, a small plunge pool, two chaise lounges, and a desk with water colors and paper awaited.

I'd like to think it was the work of elves, but I knew from Singita's brochure that each room is assigned a personal butler of sorts. (You may choose a male or female attendant.) At night, a 1.5 foot tall candle appeared at the side of my bath, and rose petals were strewn across my bed. A fresh robe lay waiting. All of this materialized while I was enjoying dinner, having a cocktail, or perusing the books in Singita's library.

Don't be afraid to ask your attendant to take care of your laundry, a service provided at no additional fee, because your dirty clothes will add up after a few days in the bush. At the cost of nearly $1,500 per night per couple, your hosts will not nitpick over the array of additional services that make staying here an almost surreal experience.

Also on my itinerary through the South African brush is Makweti, a private game lodge located on 38,000 hectares of malaria-free land in the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve. Located approximately three hours from Johannesburg by car or a quick thirty-minute flight, this private lodge is owned by a South African couple who resides in the United States. Three charming couples staff the lodge and lavish attention on every detail of your stay. The six suites of this intimate lodge are classically elegant, with oversized beds draped in mesh mosquito netting and native wildflowers in a bowl at bedside.

Handmade soaps await you in the bathroom where you can bathe in a large, clawfoot tub or a private outdoor shower. At approximately $450 a night, this experience is more affordable than Singita, although you will have to forgo a personal butler. However, you will eat like a queen as the chef of Makweti, whose name is Innocence, is one of the best I experienced in my two-week trip throughout South Africa. Masterpieces in color and taste emerge from Innocence¹s kitchen, and the meals are truly a major part of your experience here.

Whether staying at the posh Singita or at the charming Makweti, one thing you will be sure to enjoy taking part in is a Sundowner. Simply said, this is happy hour in the bush at sunset. Each lodge adds its own flourish to this event. But the basic idea is always the same: pull off into an open field (thus avoiding any leopards hiding in the trees), pull out the coolers, set out the cocktail glasses, and light the flame under the hors d'oeuvres. Now you have a happy hour fit for a queen. Imagine yourself holding your glass of wine and standing in the wilds of this distant continent. The sounds of crickets, bush birds, and the far off roar of an elephant is your cocktail music. Just remember to breathe.

You may remember this resort city from the apartheid-era song in which Bono protested, "Ain't gonna play Sun City." But today, especially if you are an "activity" traveler with interests in golf, tennis, water sports, and perhaps a little gambling, you might consider it. Set in the heart of South Africa approximately two hours from Johannesburg, Sun City is perhaps the largest adult theme park in South Africa.

Sun City consists of three Sun International hotels, the most grand being The Palace of the Lost City. Quite often compared to Las Vegas in the United States, the resort area boasts casinos, water sports, horseback riding, two golf courses, tennis, and a spa. Africa's flora and fauna are on display at a huge aviary, an alligator park, and game drives at the nearby Pilanesburg National Park. Holding a cute little cub at Sun City's lion park was one of the highlights of my trip.

After the wildlife is done with you, you can return to opulence at the Palace of the Lost City. Sun International spared no expense in developing this lavish 338-room hotel, where such celebrities as Michael Jackson, Elton John, and Tina Turner have stayed.

Built in 1992, the Palace pays tribute to the native animals with huge sculptures of the cheetah, lion, leopard, elephant, and various types of birds. The mosaic-tiled floors and tables are made from nearly 150 types of wood all found in Southern Africa; in the entry-way to the hotel, nearly six stories off the ground, an overhead mural depicts cheetahs, monkeys, and lions.

At night the Palace is enchanting. Its three towers are lit with gas flames, and word has it you can see nothing else for hundreds of miles around.

A jewel on the tip of South Africa, set against a wall of mountains, Cape Town is the must-do sojourn for the gay and lesbian traveler. With gourmet restaurants, great shopping, sea sports, and gorgeous vineyards in the surrounding countryside, Cape Town has avoided over- commercialization and maintains much of its colonial charm.

Especially appealing for gay and lesbian travelers is the "Gay Village," a popular alternative name for the De Waterkant Village section of Cape Town. Rainbow flags hang from shops, gay bar patrons pour out onto the streets at night, and a long-running drag queen show, Minced, rivals any I've seen in San Francisco or New York. Admittedly, all the bars in this little gay village are focused on one thing--men. Women looking for the equivalent of Henrietta Hudson will not find it here. I met several women at the Bronx, a boy's bar that had a fair share of girls crowded among the shirtless, tanned, and well-muscled boys. As we talked, it became obvious that even when the occasional once-a-month lesbian venues were pulled together, they never lasted more than a two- to three-month run; landlords would raise the rent or the promoters would run out of money. All that said, Cape Town has so much more to offer than the club and bar scene.

For accommodations, you might consider the convenience of the Table Bay Resort at Cape Town's waterfront. Located in the center of the waterfront, Table Bay is slightly less extravagant than its Sun City counterparts in terms of decor, but not in terms of service. If you're looking to stay in the heart of the gay village, look no further than the Harbour View Cottages. Affordably priced, these apartments can go for as little as $45 per night at the current exchange rate. With their IKEA-like style, full kitchens, living rooms, dining rooms, and patios, you may feel a bit more at ease here.

During the game drives, my travel companions and I were educated about the Big Five: the deadliest animals to humans found in South Africa. They are the elephant, rhino, leopard, lion, and buffalo. In Cape Town, I learned about the candidate for number six: the human being. Our tour guide had warned us not to wander around the city; "Always take a taxi," he said, "from point A to point B." But on my last day in Cape Town, my friend and I broke the rule. As a result, we witnessed a shooting that left a man dead on the sidewalk in front of us.

Wandering is a big no-no in this city--and truly throughout South Africa. With unemployment rates as high as 35 to 40 percent, car-jackings, muggings, and armed robbery are on the rise. They take up the headlines each morning in the local newspapers.

As a woman traveler, I was particularly concerned about rape; I had even heard horror stories about HIV-positive men who raped young girls because they believed that sex with a virgin would rid them of AIDS. According to my guide, this happens only in very remote tribal areas where elders and medicine people spread ignorance about the disease. The reality is that rape is not a major issue for most travelers. As long as you travel with a reputable guide, exercise caution with your valuables, and trust your instincts, South Africa is a safe place to visit.

For gay and lesbian travelers, South Africa holds out as an especially warm and reassuring welcome sign. Besides the personal butlers and four-course meals, one of the benefits of traveling with DavidTours [DavidTravel] was the ability to meet local gays and lesbians in many parts of South Africa. While in Cape Town, for example, I had the opportunity to meet with the director and CEO of the Cape Town Board of Tourism, Sheryl Ozinsky. Over the course of dinner with Sheryl and her partner, we discussed gay and lesbian life in South Africa.

Like Australia and the Netherlands, the country allows for partner sponsorship. This means that if you were to fall in love with someone in South Africa and wish to move to that country, you could do so if sponsored by your South African girlfriend or boyfriend. Additionally, South Africa recently passed a ruling allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children. In many ways, the laws of South Africa are more favorable to gays and lesbians than those of the United States.

While I was visiting, the South African constitutional court overturned a ruling in favor of gay marriage. However, the locals I spoke to were resoundingly optimistic that marriage rights were in their future--it was just a matter of time.

South Africa is a gorgeous, vibrant country, and so many parts are still untouched by the greedy, commercial interests of the modern West. It is also a developing country with a high rate of unemployment and has the tough job of carving out a stable identity post-apartheid. It's a magical, unopened package--just heed the warning label on the back.