Originally published on Advocate.com December 27 2002 12:00 AM ET
South African Fever: A Travel Diary
Victoria Falls, rainbow and all
A luxury tour of South Africa -- with a side trip to nearby Zambia to see Victoria Falls -- is a study in contrasts. The accommodations are amazing, the safaris and shark-encounters life-changing, but the reminders of surrounding poverty and racial separation are also sobering.
If you asked me to name 10 places I’d have liked to visit a year ago, South Africa would not have been among them. Until I went there, my vision of South Africa was a blurry and barely alluring montage of ramshackle townships, antiapartheid campaigns, and racial tensions escalating to violence. So when I was invited to join a DavidTours (www.davidtours.com) luxury gay tour to South Africa and Zambia, apprehension struck. But I did some asking around and learned much of postapartheid life, the San Franciscoesque Cape Town, and a thriving gay scene. In the end, away I went along with DavidTours erudite owner, David Rubin (who also arranges independent, customized three- to five-star travel at www.valueandstyle.com), and a handful of other journalists.
After a 14-hour flight from JFK airport in New York, we touch down in Johannesburg. Word to the wise: Do not take South African Airways unless youre planning on flying business or first class (Delta and American frequent fliers can use their miles toward an upgrade). The coach rows were so tightly packed they could induce claustrophobia in an agoraphobic, while food and drink service was notably infrequent for a long-distance carrier. On the pro side, my flight was nonstop and hassle-free, and I got to watch a bunch of films on my personal TV monitor.
Were immediately off to Sun City with our local tour director, Christian, a handsome and freckly South African strawberry blond. By trips end, half the guys want to sleep with him. From what I hear, all of DavidTours tour directorsmale and femaleare quite lovely, each in his or her own way.
The Palace of the Lost City. Photo courtesy DavidTours
Over-the-top and a hair short of gaudy, Sun City is a superposh Las Vegasstyle resort complex known for attracting major-name entertainment. Its casino, water park, entertainment building, and beautiful green landscape are overlooked from the tower of the Palace of the Lost City (www.suninternational.com), my resplendent home for the next two nights. My room is beyond comfortable, and the freebies just keep coming: a bottle of wine, a box of trinkets, chocolate, fruit.
Were shown around by Herliane, a grandiose dame (whom David dubs the empress of the Palace), and Charles, her screechingly gay assistant.
Although the untrained ear may register the South African accent as Australian, you actually can clock English-stock South Africans by the way they say yes: Yay-s or yase.
That evening, cocktails. I ask if theres a South African specialty drink, which a bartender, after puzzling for a moment, produces: the springbok, a layered combination of creamy Cape Velvet and crème de menthe liquors.
Magical yet completely ersatz is Sun City. On the site of what was a barren land crater, the fabricated complex is designed to look ancient. A fictitious Lost City mythology involving an earthquake and destroyed civilization has even been concocted to add mystique. You can actually experience some of this legend by standing on the remains of a bridge every hour: It shakes with aftershocks and sound effects. A food court, mere steps away, prevents one from getting too sucked into myth, however.
This morning we visit a nearby lion farm. Im looking forward to cuddling a cub and having a photo taken, a highlight for many visitors, until David Rubin gets chomped right on the throat. Always urbane, David exclaims Ow! Ow! Ow! with controlled calm, still holding the roaring cub, asking, Am I bleeding? and demonstrating the smooth and gracious charm he does in all his affairs. Now scared and wary, I hold the cute albeit deadly young lion at arms length.
Back in Sun City, I frolic in the wave pool. If blond young guys are your thing, the eye candy cant be beat, as the white locals flock for a little wetness during daytime. Later, a fantastic massage in my room. It costs $40.
While the resorts comfort and service is unquestionably five stars (and make sure to ask for a look at the resplendent King Suite, which Sir Elton John has graced), the food falls at least three stars short. The Palaces breakfast buffet is succulent, especially the crepes, but the dinners are subpar. I get ill from tonightsgamy veal and burned lobster bisque. The manager is apologetic and dismisses the bill.
Today begins a whirlwind of game safari stays. First, Makweti Game Lodge (www.makweti.com), a malaria-free lodge about two hours from Sun City. Surrounded by hills, with a wooden crossing bridge and other jungle-y details, its stunningly gorgeous and warm. Paradise. The main buildingto which you must be escorted at night, since animals loiter around the property (stalk, in the case of lions and leopards)is homey and gorgeous.
A blue-headed lizard scoots by as I suck down a cocktail, overlooking a stream. An amazing lunch too, with juicy stuffed ostrich rolls, chicken and veggie biryani.
On safari in an open-air jeep (not hunting, mind youthese are all photo safaris), we spot many of the African big five: lions, zebras, elephants, leopards, and buffalo. One elephant literally flaps around its enormous penis, which we loudly discussuntil the elephant, feeling threatened by our increasingly churlish presence, considers charging our jeep. Our ranger, motioning to us for silence, soothes the beast with Whats a boy, whats a mattah, me boy? and the elephant ambles off.
Later, we stop smack-dab in the middle of the bush for a treat: cocktails, beef jerky (biltong, which is a major snack here), and cheese.
Our rugged, straight game ranger guides are very open-minded, with wicked senses of humor. The nuttiest of them, Wayne, rattles off a vulgar epic poem over an exquisite dinner: salmon steaks, beef, and homemade banana ice cream prepared by chef Innocence. South African wine is compulsorythe red Shiraz is my favorite. After the meal, a quartet of African women surround the main campfire and sing a song.
For sleeping accommodations, I am taken to another nearby lodge, Metsi, since Makweti is full. My room here is top-notch but has nothing up on Makwetis artistic single-person cabins (homemade soaps, private outdoor showers, and stunning open views of hills).
Plenty of animal sounds outside as I go to sleep. Can they open doors? Mine doesnt l.
I wake up to find impala and zany little birds scooting around outside my door. During a brief morning drive, Wayne hands me a dung beetle. Im so happy. These beetles amuse me to no endthey gather massive balls of dung and push them around backward. Theyre quite strong too. If you clench your fist around one, it can force its way out with a mighty shove.
Next we drive about six hours out to Mala Mala (www.malamala.com), another reserve, this time in a malaria region. Im taking antimalarial pills, Malarone, so Im not too concerned.
Mala Malas rangers are quite cute, young, and open to our queerness. We experience another game drive, a really impressive one, tonight. We see a bunch of lions taunted by baboons, and a small leopard family. I cant believe how close we are to these animals. The experience makes me recontexualize the idea of brushes with greatness. Interviewing Madonna ranked as an awesome experience, but she aint got nothin up on a lion. It would eat her.
Dinner is again amazing, outdoors, with a number of African songs about lost loves and missing husbands.
Today we go to nearby Singita (www.singita.co.za), the most luxurious lodge of the bunch. We have lunch on a deck overlooking a dry lake bed, with elephants and baboons casually strolling by. Our rooms view the same, and each features its own private deck, pool, outdoor and indoor shower, and bathtub. Laundry is free at Singita, so I load the laundry basket and pour a glass of sherry and marvel from the deck. Luxury incarnate.
The afternoons game drive packs some excitementwe stumble upon a handful of lions lazing in the grass. I tell you, this puts Disneys jungle adventures to shame.
A dreamy surprise come sundown: an elaborate dinner set up in the bush by torch and lantern light. Some of the group are speechless, drunk with comfort, luxury, and a whole damn otherworldliness they never knew existed. I want to have my honeymoon here (speaking of missing husbands!). Heading back to home base, our eagle-eyed tracker spots a chameleon on a tree. We hold it; it changes colors.
For breakfast I try a scrambled ostrich egg. It has a strong, rich eggy flavora little too much for this novice. The shells, which are enormous and require drilling to open, are popular souvenirs. The ostrich sausages are more to my liking. Very sad to leave Singita.
Most of the day we spend en route to Cape Town. Our lodging, Harbour View Cottages (www.villageandlife.com/dewaterkantvillage/index.htm), is right in the heart of Cape Towns gay village, De Waterkant. More like apartments, the cottages come in all different sizes and designs, from South Beachinspired deco to, say, middle-class Virginia. Mine is right next door to a tasty café, Village Cafe, and one block from all the clubs and bars.
Working the crowd at Bronx bar
Hungry to be surrounded by queers again (assuming the lions and elephants were just bi-curious), I hit Bronx bar (www.bronx.co.za), a crowded bar and disco. The bartenders, all shirtless, slam dangling bells every time they get a tip. Im not sure I want to tip them after the 53rd clang. We invite some lesbians to slam tequila shots with usthe shots here are dirt cheap but smaller than American ones.
Then I head across the street to 55 Bar/Club (www.55.co.za), which bills itself as South Africas only Ibiza-style club. UmOK. The reality: two floors with a main dance area and outdoor decks. Both clubs appear coed, which is nice, and very diverse agewise (teens to 50s). Im told there are lesbian-specific specialty nights around as well. Not much race mixing, howeverapartheid may be officially over, but its still haunting. One bar, Detour, attracts a mix of races; the bar Rosies is for the leather crowd.
We also stop at the Barracks (www.barracks.co.za), a so-called massage parlor several blocks down. Classy. Their boys wait in a room that you look into through a one-way mirrorkind of like a lobster-tank-meets-interrogation-chamber. It costs $25 an hour. less than a lobster, actually.
The group goes for a scenic trip down the Cape Peninsula today, but Im hot to shop, so I stay behind. On Saturdays, Cape Towns city shops close at 1 p.m.many are located along Long Street, Longmarket, Shortmarket, and Green Market Streetso I call a cab and go to Claremont, a southern suburb of Cape Town with a sizable, all-day shopping area, Cavendish Square. This is where the locals go; tourists generally flock to the much more expensive V&A Waterfront, where the endless malls and shops are open daily till 9 p.m.
Claremont is refreshing, and I finally feel like Im in the real Cape Town. Unfortunately, public transportation here sucks. Theres no subway or bus system as Americans know it. Instead, there are thief-friendly trains and scary little crowded minivan taxis piloted by reckless drivers and packed with dubious characters. A record store clerk tells me, Its a hair-raising experience, but you should try it. I opt for calling a private cab, as David Rubin and his local friends advocate repeatedly.
I return to my apartment and hit the Village Cafe for lunch. Their iced coffee is a revelation. As I relax, I spot another member of the tour group who, it turns out, has stayed behind as well. Together, we walk a block down to the Hothouse (www.hothouse.co.za), an upscale bathhouse. Its actually a nice place to Jacuzzi, sun, and steam, although theres also a maze and series of rooms for more adventurous visitors. Again, theres not much race mixing. Theres an Asian and maybe three blacks, but whites predominate. Very quickly a smarmy bisexual Irishman joins me in the Jacuzzi, asking where in America Im from. Clearly, an American accent is all you need to get lucky in Cape Town.
We have dinner with Davids local gay friends (all good-looking and affluent) at Rozenhof, a gay-owned whorehouse-turned-restaurant. Between the cheese soufflé, lamb and goat-cheese timbale, and chocolate nougat terrine, heart damage is inevitable. More clubbing tonight. At 55, one of our group falls in love with a guy from Johannesburg. Nobody seems to have trouble getting lucky here, actually.
After everyone shakes off their hangovers, we transfer to the very luxurious Table Bay Hotel, which is in the heart of the posh V&A Waterfront. It feels safe, which admittedly some of Cape Town doesnt. The day we arrived, the headlines touted horribleness: a 24-year-old guy and two women were carjacked, the man murdered and the women tied to trees and raped. Walking around outside the Waterfront, with my headphones on, I am stared at: Headphones are a rare luxury here. A tour like this one can make you forget that although there are first-world comforts and industry here, there is still plenty of third world as well. Equality under the law has not created economic equality for most South Africans.
I stroll about the V&A Waterfront areatons of restaurants and shops. I pick up a bunch of locally made souvenirs at a nifty crafts store, Indaba. I then hop a cab to one of the gay beaches, Third Beach, a small inlet. Loads of guys hereI see our waiter from Rozenhof.
That night, we are invited to the home of a very rich gay couple who actually met on a DavidTours vacation (one was Davids client, the other a local friend). Their private art collection is amazing. And the view! Ive been to the Hollywood hills homes of Oscar winners, and the overlook from this place beats all.
Tonight theres a brilliant drag show at On Broadway, but Im beat. Just some dinner at the Waterfronts Den Anker restaurant (www.denanker.co.za), a Belgian venue.
A township, that South African emblem Ive seen so often on TV, is our agenda later today. But first we go to the top of Table Mountain by cable car. Were literally in a cloud up there, mist wafting about. When it clears, the view is stunning. Then we stop off at Nazareth House, an orphanage for children whose parents have died of AIDS complications. Most of the children have AIDS themselves.
We are reminded that AIDS is devastating South Africa. Contributing to its prevalence is the fact it often goes unacknowledgedwhen someone dies, doctors attribute the cause of death to whatever infection did them in rather than AIDS. And medicine men and shamanswhich carry great weight in townshipshavent helped reduce new infections. For a while they were telling the sick that they could cure themselves by raping virgins. Its disheartening. Thankfully, safer-sex education is finally starting to get out. We drive past more than a few AIDS awareness signs en route to the township.
The Langa township is just what I expected: poverty-ridden. To think I kvetch about a crack in my ceilings paint! A shack we enter is stifling, with a small electricity box they pay to use like one would a prepaid phone, and not much else in the way of modern comforts. The middle-aged female resident motions hand to mouth, requesting some sort of token for our visit (the township itself receives a payment). Another decrepit, overcrowded home serves as a makeshift barits owner peddles beer from his refrigerator, which people drink at a no-frills wooden table. He nets maybe a dollar a day. Interestingly, Coke signs are everywhere in every township we see. Talk about aggressive marketing.
Some parts of the township, however, are undergoing upgrading. Modern apartment complexes and houses are springing up: As residents come into gainful employ, they remain in the township and build rather than go suburban.
The people here seem genuinely happy to see us. In New York, where I live, we greet obvious tourists with sarcastic welcome, if not contempt. But here we are received like dignitaries or celebrities. The kids angle to be in photos with us.
Showing entrepreneurial moxie, township residents have created popular restaurants and lodgings within their homes. We visit one such restaurant, Lelapha (49 Harlem Ave., Langa, +27 21 694-2681), and although the decor is worn, it serves one of the best meals Ive partaken in my life. The African specialties we sample include amagwinya, a chewy fried bread; samp, a starchy corn dish; and chakalaka, a sweet and spicy blend of cabbage, beans, and spices.
Were joined at lunch by white American Linda Biehl and a two of the black South African men who were convicted of killing Lindas daughter, student and antiapartheid activist Amy Biehl, during a protest-turned-riot under apartheid. The men were later released from prison as part of the governments healing amnesty program thats recounted in the award-winning documentary Long Nights Journey Into Day. Linda and her husbandwho, sadly, died of cancer in 2002spoke in favor of getting the men released from prison and set up the Amy Biehl Foundation (www.amybiehl.org) to honor and carry on their daughters work. The foundation has set up programs aimed at alleviating poverty, AIDS, and crime and at bringing black South Africans into full educational and political equality. These men who accompany Linda, after prison, started working with the foundation. A few of the tour group are unnerved by their presence. To me they seem like happy-go-lucky geezers.
Dinner back at the Table Bays Atlantic Grill restaurant (rated the number 1 restaurant in South Africa by Condé Nast Traveler) is heavenlyevery course, especially the char-grilled game fish and an artfully designedthink Miródessert plate of nougat Alaska, chocolate mousse, and brandied apricots.
Me--in the cage in the water--with a shark
Again, I split off from the group. Theyre headed to nearby wine country, but Im interested in a great white shark expedition. See, South Africas coast is burgeoning with sharks, and every local I ask has had some sort of run-in, from their kayak being bitten to spotting a circling fin while swimming. Several companies will bring you out to prime shark waters, drop a cage into the water, and put you inside to ogle the massive, endangered creatures close up.
Cape Town Tourism puts me in touch with White Shark Projects (www.whitesharkprojects.co.za/). After a two-hour drivethey pick me upI arrive at their lodge and, along with almost a dozen adventurous travelers, we get in a boat. Within an hour of chumming at sea, we spot our first great white shark, a 10-foot shadowy mass that rises to grab the tuna head our skipper has lured it over with. The shark comes right up to the boats edge, and its gnashing jaws show. Suddenly, five of the party change their minds: theyre not getting into the cage. Im resolute, and don a wet suit. Inside the cagegetting in is nerve-racking; I keep thinking that that critter could pop up and surprise meI feel very Richard Dreyfuss. The guide yells get down, get down, so I drop to the bottom and a shark comes right up to the bars. I look into its eyes. Its checking me out too. Food chain checkmate.
That night, with my shark survivor certificate in hand, I rejoin the group, who are drunk beyond recognition at Cafe Manhattan, a jumping bar and restaurant in the gay village. I show them some video of the sharks, me in the cage. Theyre jealous. I feel strangely proud. Butch, even.
We fly into Zambia. Its burning hot, around 99 degrees. Driven through downtown, uniformed schoolkids walking about, we arrive at the Royal Livingstone (www.suninternational.com), yet another Sun International property that has vitalized the area with jobs and tourist recreation: restaurants, a casino, a convention center, and more. Before Sun came in, there was little here except trees and oodles of vervet monkeys, which continue to populate the grounds. A bevy of the small simians gather outside my porch doors trying to cute their way inside. Were strongly cautioned to keep them out, as once inside they quickly go, well, ape-shit, tearing through any visible belongings for food.
That evening we get on the African Queen, a riverboat, for a cruise down the Zambezi River. Hippos pop their heads out of the water as we frequent the open bar.
After a belly-bulging breakfast we venture into Mukuni, a local village, following a very bumpy, dusty road to get there. As we approach, an overpacked truck of waving Zambians putters by. Their skin is so beautifully dark.
Our Mukuni guide ducks us into the kings throne room and discusses day-to-day life. Interestingly, if the villagers feel their king is no good, theres a stash of secret poison theyll taint his food with. I ask if the king, assuming hes a bastard, could replace the poison with Nutrasweet or baking powder. Seems logical. The guide laughs. No.
We visit Mukunis medicine woman, who performs a few songs and tries to do a bit of psychic magic, telling us mystical things about ourselves. She is wrong every try. While shes clearly a product of a superstitious society, Im nonetheless scared of being cursed: When she asks us for a token we dont give one (David had compensated her and the village in advance).
Later, I take to helicopter for an aerial view of Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Quite exhilarating, and one of DavidTours signature activities. Back at the hotel I find more monkeys loitering about my porch. Some have babies clinging to their bellies. One mom and child monkey, pressing against the glass door, finally sway me: I violate our orders and toss a piece of an apple through a crack, which results in a rush of two dozen of its brethren, like a scene straight out of Night of the Living Vervets.
Back to Johannesburg (Jo-burg, less formally) for our final night in South Africa. Regrettably. Theres a major gay club happening the following evening, called Bitch, and theres plenty to do in this city, including major shopping in a mall and crafts center right next to our very comfy hotel, the Grace (www.grace.co.za). Theres always something to munch on in the Graces lobbycakes during the afternoon.
Johannesburg, home of that infamous gold mining, produces 50% of South Africas wealth. Were staying in a neighborhood known as Rosebank, which is quite green and well-maintained. Come evening, we bus with a number of Davids friends to Melville, a suburb thats home to many gays and South African celebrities (as is Pretoria, which is supposedly the gayest city in S.A. per capita). A camera crew for some local station scurries about the main strip, Seventh Street, nightly, hunting for starry glimpses the way E! might on Sunset Boulevard. We first grab flawless, elaborate cocktails at Statement, a new gay bar. Cute young crowdbut thats true of almost every gay venue in South Africa. Then a few steps over to Lust for dinner. I sit next to Rubin van Neikerk, editor of S.A.s glossy gay magazine, Gay Pages. Hes affable and opinionated. Most of the Johannesburg gays at dinner, fiercely fond of their home city, openly regard Cape Towns as pretentious. Very New York/L.A., this.
As for AIDS in the gay community here? We know that we live in the AIDS capital of the world, Rubin nods, arguing that HIV rates are lowest in the gay population here. On the whole, your gay population is pretty neurotic.
Many locals at dinner insist that there is more integration in Johannesburg than Cape Town. A black lesbian, however, tells of racism: She claims the citys main gay bar-club complex, the Heartland, refuses many blacks entry.
A couple hours later, at the Heartlands admission point (which gives access to several of the clubs), there are indeed a handful of blacks looking discouraged, loitering, unable to get in. Inside, a white localand 99% of the crowd I see is whiteinsists they could come in if they paid, but just dont have the 20 rand (about $2) it costs. Racism? Socioeconomics? Back home, on Internet boards, I find some Johannesburgians referring to Heartland as Apartland. The struggle for integration and equality clearly continues, and for all the talk of how horrible racism is in America, having been out here for two weeks, Ive seen worse.
Trading smiles with numerous clubbers, some tweaked, I dance the night away, mostly with a 24-year-old doctor who joined us at dinner. I run into at least a couple of people I spotted in Cape Towns clubs. I have a truly great time.
We have late-afternoon checkouts, so its shopping all day in the mall and crafts center, African Craft Market, from which I buy all manner of African sculptures, masks, etc. Do bargain! I quickly gain a reputation among my peers for being a shrewd bargainer with the sellers. All of the vendors claim you are my first/only customer of the day! Sure. A friend and I actually saw someone make a purchase from a vendor, and when we approached the vendor a few minutes later he made that same dubious claim. My advice: Pay half whatever they ask, and begin bargaining by offering a fifth. I pick up a bronze-laden Nigerian mask for $27it would sell in the USA for well over $100. Same for the wooden giraffe that cost me $10. A fantastic outdoor lunch, with cool cocktail and fresh artisan pizza, costs less than $4.
Loaded with new bubble-wrapped itemswhich the Grace will do for you, no chargewe head to the airport. Its a horrible thing to get on the plane. Not only because this means 17 hours of that sardine-can seating (and I left my Ambien in my checked suitcase). But this trip has changed me, and I want to see how I might evolve given more time. Especially at these prices, surrounded by the ambrosial spring and so much complexity, societal transition, and humanity cradled within the wilds from whence it sprung.