by Sasha Alyson
South Africa is becoming know as a gay-friendly destination for world travelers.
Long know for its powdery white beaches and wilderness game parks, South Africa has in a single decade established another reputation: As a gay-friendly destination for the international traveler.
President Nelson Mandela included gay equality in his vision of the new South Africa, and the 1996 constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation. The last remnants of an ancient anti-gay legal code were declared unconstitutional in May. Some observers even expect South Africa to soon legalize same-sex marriage.
The cities: Johannesburg, built inland over the world’s largest gold deposits, is South Africa’s largest city. Stop here if you’re eager to buy African art, whether at a flea market, or a modern mall. But Johannesburg has little charm, high stress levels, and remains limited in what it offers the gay visitor.
South Africa’s gay epicenter is laid-back Cape Town, on the southwest coast, where Victorian, Moslem, and Dutch architectures come together in a surprisingly successful meld. A B&B that captures the city’s charm is Lady Victoria Guest House (1 Kelvin Street, Upper Gardens; phone/fax 23 3814), where you can sip a drink on the verandah while the owner advises you on the best gay-friendly restaurants, bars, and beaches. Any international gay guidebook will point you to many other choices.
When to go: South Africa lies south of the equator, so seasons are reversed. Summer (December to February) has just begun. In Cape Town, expect summer temperatures in the 80’s, with occasional, and spectacular, afternoon thunderstorms. This is peak season, with hotel prices 60-80% higher than off-season. But if urban life and beaches are your goal, summer is the time to go.
Those more interested in wildlife should consider the drier winter months (June or August — but not July, when school vacation fills the parks). Prices drop; so do leaves, giving you a better view of the animals. Moreover, wildlife concentrates around the watering holes during this period, increasing your odds of seeing the South Africa’s full variety.
What to do: Certainly you’ll want to explore Cape Town’s bustling Victoria & Alfred waterfront, then pick up a current gay guidebook to explore the nightlife. But you’ll have missed much of South Africa’s magic if you stay in the cities.
South Africa’s beaches stretch for hundreds of miles. Serious swimmers or surfers will be happiest on the eastern coast, around Durban, washed by the warmer waters of the Indian Ocean. In Cape Town, beaches to the west (the Atlantic) are spectacular, but the water is chilly. To swim, sail, snorkel, or windsurf, head for False Bay, southeast of town. A full-day trip there takes you to one of the world’s biggest penguin colonies outside Antarctica.
Cape Town, sitting at the southern tip of a mountain range, is dominated by the ever-visible Table Mountain. A cablecar ride to the top would be a highlight for any visitor; pack a picnic, and stay for the sunset. Then hike around the top to enjoy panoramic views; you may spot small antelopes or even a baboon. Warning: In peak season, you can wait hours in line for the cablecar. Ask locally about conditions before you make plans.
For wildlife, head northeast to Kruger National Park, where you can camp for as little as $10 a night (to really see wildlife, budget another $25 for a ranger-led excursion), or pay $500 for elegant game-lodge accommodations. Whether on a backpacker or luxury budget, do try to get to Kruger; will you ever have another chance to see giraffes and black rhinos in the wild?
Getting around: Avoid renting a car on your visit to South Africa. First, they drive on the left side of the road; easy to remember on a straight highway, but not when turning a corner with traffic on both sides, and a honking driver behind. Worse, you’ll be amidst locals driving too fast, tailgating too close, and frequently too drunk.
Moreover, South African cities are often surrounded by neighborhoods where you really don’t want to end up by accident. It’s too easy to make a wrong turn driving in a new environment. Train, bus, cabs, and airport shuttles will prove safer, and less stressful, and often cheaper.
Making your plans: With a few exceptions (rental cars, game lodges, and clothing come to mind), South Africa is a bargain right now for American visitors. You can enjoy an excellent dinner for $25; sleep in a comfortable B&B for $60 a night.
Although South Africa has eleven official languages, neatly ranging from Afrikaans to Zulu, English is the lingua franca. Without a major language barrier, you can save money by making your own travel arrangements. But most of us find it more enjoyable to be with a compatible group on a trip like this; and those without the time for careful advance planning will discover too late what they’ve missed. Classic Cape Tours (www.classiccape.co.za/), a gay-friendly company based in South Africa, offers several appealing itineraries.
My guess is that Cape Town will become as popular a gay destination in the new millenium, as Sydney did in the nineties. You can still be the first on your block to pay a visit.