The sun was setting over the Thanda Safari, a luxury private game reserve in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa (thandasafari.co.za). Shocks of gold brushed the African plain and the two lions mating mere feet from the safari vehicle. The lovemaking lasted only about half a minute. The female, aglow in the amber light, growled, shrugged off the male, then turned around on her backside. The male walked a few steps away and roared in staccato bursts across his domain.
I gasped and grabbed the hand of my friend Ivan in the seat beside me; in the other hand, I filmed the scene with my phone. This was an extraordinary act to witness, our guide whispered to us from behind the wheel. It was one of the reasons he loved his job so much — one never knows what one will find out among the wildlife.
It’s a mantra that holds true in the real world as well. Nowadays, travel can be a hell of an experience — delayed and canceled flights, logistical and emotional hurdles related to COVID-19, irate and sometimes hostile fellow passengers. But it is also a journey of awe and transformation. Especially after a prolonged period of isolation and lockdown, nothing compares to the experience of encountering other cultures, places, and people. As author Hans Christian Anderson wrote, “To travel is to live.”
I was reminded of this quotation in May when I visited South Africa for the first time: a two-week press trip to Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town, with a weekend on safari. I had never traveled to Africa before, and it was truly one of my most magical experiences to date. This was in part due to the extraordinary sights of the safari — imagine meeting with a Zulu elder, being serenaded by women with traditional African music and garb over dinner, and encountering a group of elephants, with babies holding on to their parents’ tails, all in the same day. But it was also due to the company I kept.
As background, many travel articles list the various sights and attractions of locales but often gloss over the behind-the-scenes of a press trip. The only comparable experience I can imagine is a reality show: a group of strangers, representing different publications and destinations, are thrown together for a period time to travel. Cliques can form, and there’s inevitably a bit of drama at times. But I had the good fortune to make a great friend from my group, the aforementioned Ivan Quintanilla, a talented writer and content creator who runs a popular travel blog and Instagram (@travelingiq).
For queer people, in particular, travel and friendship go hand in hand. We travel with friends for camaraderie and safety, and the bonds we form while we see the world can last years or even a lifetime. Friendship also eases the burdens of travel. To wit, my journey to South Africa was not the easiest one. I had a 6 a.m. flight from Los Angeles to Newark, with a 10-hour layover in New Jersey. At the last minute, supply chain issues related to airline fuel resulted in the cancellation of our connecting flight to Johannesburg. We were routed instead to Zurich, where we had another half-day layover.
Initially, it was nerve-wracking for me to contemplate all this time in the air. Other than short flights to Mexico, I had not been on planes much since the pandemic began. In addition to masking and other COVID-19 concerns, I’m also tall, which makes flying even more uncomfortable.
Exhausted and irate at the Newark airport, I began emailing Ivan; we had not met in person before, first connecting over a group thread. But we agreed to get dinner at the terminal before our improbable flight to Switzerland. Over pizza and wine, we immediately hit it off. It turns out we had some friends in common — shout-out to the incomparable Ravi Roth (@raviroundtheworld), who was a ray of light for me on a previous press trip to Barcelona. But we also just had great rapport. Suddenly, the two-day journey ahead didn’t seem so daunting.
Thanks to an inside connection within our group — several of us were in the same boat, er plane — the journey was actually fun. During our layover in Zurich, we were welcomed by the Dolder Grand, a five-star hotel overlooking Lake Zurich (thedoldergrand.com). There, we enjoyed an exquisite lunch at its Saltz restaurant, where a tap of a “champagne button” summoned glasses of bubbly. We were also offered rooms for a shower and nap and even use of the property’s luxurious 4,000-square-meter spa. It was the best layover of my life. Afterward, we headed back to the airport and finally boarded our flight to Johannesburg in South Africa. Sadly, we missed a day of our itinerary due to the flight issues; I had been especially looking forward to the Apartheid Museum, which we had to miss. But we hit the ground running. We checked into our charming boutique hotel, the Voco Johannesburg Rosebank (ihg.com), and had a delicious brunch at its restaurant, the Proud Mary. Then, we learned about Johannesburg through a walking tour, JoburgPlaces (joburgplaces.com), where we visited statues of both Mahatma Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for over two decades, and former president and late legendary activist Nelson Mandela. We concluded the day with a “sundowner,” evening drinks, on the rooftop of the Radisson Red (radissonhotels.com) before grabbing dinner downstairs at the Oui Bar & Ktchn. Ivan and I tried to find some gay nightlife but couldn’t locate much; we ended up dancing the night away at the Great Dane, which didn’t appear very queer but still felt welcoming.
Our next destination, Durban, similarly didn’t have much gay nightlife. We spent one night playing pool and chatting with some locals at Club Altitude, where we met the owner of Cine-X, a gay-oriented adult entertainment store also known for cruising. But the centerpiece of our trip there was Indaba, a major global tourism conference. Our group broke ground there; we threw an LGBTQ+ mixer that attracted dozens of folks from the travel industry. I met out folks from Africa helming queer film festivals and LGBTQ+ centers, as well as foreigners trying to spark a renewed interest in travel after the pandemic. I sat in a media panel where the speaker explained how the economic impact of COVID-19 wasn’t just empty hotels and restaurants. Even the man selling ice cream on the beach makes his livelihood from the people who visit. I left with a renewed sense of how the lockdown truly affected us all.
In Durban, we stayed at the Maharani (southernsun.com), an affordable hotel with an amazing (included!) brunch buffet. The restaurant, Vigour & Verve, also has excellent dinner options, including bunny chow, a local dish in which bread is filled with curry (Durban has one of the largest populations of Indian descent outside of India). The property is seaside, and I marveled every morning to watch the sun rise and set over the Indian Ocean. This stretch of shore is known as the Golden Mile, which makes for a lovely morning jog.
The highlight of my trip to Durban, however, was a visit to a hotel just outside of the city in Umhlanga, the Oyster Box (oysterboxhotel.com). What began as a cottage in the 19th century has grown into a celebrated historic property overlooking the coast and its famous red-tipped lighthouse. Make sure to stop by its Palm Court in the afternoon for High Tea, with sweet and savory treats spread under crystal chandeliers that once hung from England’s Savoy Hotel. A runner-up was a day trip we took to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site (thecapturesite.co.za), which boasts a beautiful steel sculpture and visitor center dedicated to the life of the renowned leader who helped end apartheid.
Durban is also within driving distance of Thanda (about three hours), which, in addition to its Big Five safari (referring to the lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo), offers luxurious accommodations. I stayed in a cottage with a fully stocked bar and a patio with a pool. There are also options to glamp in a tented camp and share a larger lodge for groups and wedding parties.
Other than the safari, my favorite part of South Africa was Cape Town, which is most certainly the queerest city on the continent. There, Ivan and I grabbed cocktails at Café Manhattan (manhattan.co.za), a more casual gay watering hole, before partying at Zer021 Rooftop (zer021.co.za), which is popular with queer BIPOC folks. Other popular sites include Beefcakes (beefcakes.co.za), a retro cabaret club featuring hot guys and drag shows. The more adventurous can also check out the Shaft Cruise Zone (shaftcruisezone.co.za).
In daytime, the city is a stunner. We got the best views with a lift from NAC Helicopters (nachelicopterscapetown.com), which offer breathtaking sights of Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula (I get vertigo, but a helpful hug from Ivan helped me conquer my fears.) We then hopped onto motorcycles with Cape Sidecar Adventures (sidecars.co.za), which showed us on-the-ground views of the city during its sunset.
A popular lookout point is also the peak of the famed Table Mountain, which can either be hiked or accessed by aerial cableway. Unfortunately, cloudy conditions prevented us from taking this excursion. For a jaw-dropping indoor experience, however, don’t miss the Zeitz MOCAA (zeitzmocaa.museum), a stellar museum of contemporary art. Outdoors, the Woodstock Street Art Walking Tour also provides on-the-ground sightings of street murals guided by a local artist (viator.com).
Another popular day trip? The Franschhoek Valley, renowned for its vineyards and tastings. Take the charming wine train (winetram.co.za) to sample some of the best. When you’re back in the city, reserve a table at Gold (goldrestaurant.co.za), an incredible 12-course culinary experience that includes drum and history lessons tied to African culture and dance. Other great dining spots include the farm-to-fork Babylonstoren (babylonstoren.com) in Franschhoek and, in Cape Town, the Cabo Beach Club (cabobeachclub.co.za).
Perhaps my favorite moment, however, occurred during my final day in Cape Town. Ivan and I decided to throw a “gay pool party” at our hotel, the Mount Nelson (belmond.com), which was also one of the finest hotels I’ve ever stayed in; the bed was pure luxury. Of course, the pool party was just us. We popped open a bottle we had just purchased from the Warwick Wine Estate (warwickwine.com) and toasted to a beautiful conclusion to our adventure together. We had made some amazing memories. In addition to our pictures and souvenirs, I flew home the next morning knowing I also found a friend.
This article is part of Out's September/October 2022 issue, out on newsstands August 30. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.