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South Africa Journal

By Rex Wockner
International News Report

Cape Town: Beautiful, Cheap, Gay

Cape Town is a stunning oceanside city as beautiful as any in the world with First World gay life, a Mediterranean climate, nice hotel rooms for $20-$40 and nice restaurant meals for $4-$6.

What's the catch? It's an expensive 14-hour flight from the U.S. East Coast and, in present-day South Africa, one needs to be more concerned about crime than in the U.S. There are no other catches.
Henry James of Cape Town Tourism
Photo by Rex Wockner

The extra money you spend on air fare, you will more than recoup in savings once in South Africa. The rand changes at between 11 and 12 to the dollar these days. As for crime, take the same precautions as in Mexico, and don't go places that guidebooks and acquaintances advise against.

Which is not to suggest South Africa is a Third World country. What it is, oddly, is a First World country inside a Third World country. But to find that Third World, as a visitor, you have to go looking for it, an outing I'll detail below.

I arrived courtesy of South African Airways on a non-stop flight from Atlanta, was collected at the airport by Henry James of Cape Town Tourism and his lover Alastair Delport, and deposited at Newlands Guest House ( The guest house and owner Garth Luxton, who is gay, were very charming, though the location is a little far from the center of action.

After settling in I bopped over to the Cape Town Tourism office to catch up on my e-mail then set off with Enid Vickers for a walking tour of downtown. Enid and I became e-mail buddies during the six-month process of setting up my trip. She works for a PR agency, has many journalist pals, and somehow managed both to be my nearly constant companion during my visit and to get her work done.

Dinner was at the tasteful gay restaurant Gorgeous with Sheryl Ozinsky, the openly lesbian head of Cape Town Tourism

The next morning, feeling very jet-lagged yet frisky, I set off with the gay company Classic Cape Tours ( to the Cape Peninsula, The Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point (, via the picturesque villages of Fish Hoek and Simon's Town (the main naval port). Cape Point is stunning and feels like the complete bottom of the world, but I was even more intrigued by the wild ostriches running around and the wild baboons that jumped on top of the car in front of us.

Dinner was in the seaside village of Hout Bay at the Chapman's Peak Hotel (try the calamari) with Enid and Andrew Barnes, a reporter for ETV, South Africa's independent network. A former disk jockey at KFM, Andrew made news when he sued over the ban on gay blood donations. The case is still pending.

Before dinner, Enid and I had drinks with an editor for the Weekend Argus and his wife at Panama Jack's. I was pleased to deduce that South African mainstream newspaper journalism is objective and First-World-caliber when it comes to independence.

Day three saw me move to the more centralized Richborough Villa gay guest house (, run by Tim Curson. The room was pleasant and the breakfasts were huge. I set off early for a wine-region tour with the gay company Pieper S Cape Tours (, run by Cape Town Bears member Klaus Pieper.

The mountains and valleys of the wine region are as beautiful as any anywhere, and some of the wines would be worth the hassle of shipping them home. I spent the evening catching up on e-mail, the bane of my daily existence.

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Up the next morning at 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m. departure for the Aquila Game Reserve ( with the gay company Mike Bosch Tours ( Aquila, 180 km from Cape Town, just opened to the public. The zebras and giraffes were groovy but it'll be better when more animals arrive, which is planned. The very scenic drive to the reserve on the N1 freeway through the Hex River Valley is worth the trip all by itself.

Back in the city, it was my evening with the Cape Town Bears, who gather Saturdays at Rosie's in the Waterkant gay village. Wessel, from the Cape Town Tourism office, was my host (is everybody in that office gay?) but I ended up hanging with Klaus (the bear tour guide) and his partner Mannis. We had good food at the gay restaurant across the street from Rosie's, Robert's Cafe and Cigar Bar, then set off on a mission: to visit every gay bar in the compact gay village.

Leathermen go to Bar Code. You can dance and cruise at Bronx and Club 55. The outdoor tables at Manhattan are good for casual conversation and laid-back cruising. There are several other bars, two bathhouses, a rainbow paraphernalia store, and two apparent brothels -- your basic First World gay village. Pick up a copy of the Cape Gay Guide and the Pink Map at the Cape Town Tourism office downtown.

Sunday I moved to the upmarket "post-modern, industrial-chic" Victoria Junction Hotel ($52; located one block from the gay village -- an excellent choice for the discerning gay traveler who wants to be in the center of the action -- then embarked on one of the coolest, or stupidest, adventures of my trip. Enid, her husband David, his friends Geoff, Kathy and John, and I took the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway to the top -- utterly flat Table Mountain looms over Cape Town -- then hiked down the back side of the mountain. We arrived back at sea level six hours later, sore and sunburned. Enid said all her friends pronounced us nuts.

Enid and David made me dinner at their house (groceries are very cheap, too) and I tried to do my e-mail on her dial-up account. The sort-of high-speed access at Cape Town Tourism Internet cafe is a much better choice.

Monday was the "townships" outing. I set off with guide Ibrahim, a British woman and two Dutch women on a Legend Tours ( excursion to the suburban neighborhoods where many blacks and "coloureds" (mixed-race people) live in nice houses or awful houses or run-down low-rises or shantytowns.

There are a great many poor people in South Africa. In Western Cape province, where Cape Town is, there's a Third World country just outside of the First World city. Many of these "townships" were created by the forced relocations of the apartheid era, which ended officially only in 1994. For the most part, the townships were not pretty, but I didn't see anything worse than I've seen in Tijuana and/or on the west and south sides of Chicago. We got out of the van and walked around in one black township with a black guide we picked up once we got there. We didn't feel threatened. However, later, in a "coloured" township, Ibrahim refused to let us get out and walk, saying gang activity made that township very dangerous.

We visited a pottery factory, a recycling center where women make hats from old plastic bags, an apartheid history display, and the site where American Amy Beihl was murdered in 1993 by members of the radical black Pan Africanist Congress.

At the District Six Museum
Photo by Rex Wockner
We also visited the very impressive District Six Museum (, a definitive historical record of apartheid from a non-white perspective. I recommend the townships tour and consider the District Six Museum a not-to-be-missed stop. It wouldn't be right to come to Cape Town for the first time and just hit the beautiful beaches, the snazzy gay clubs, the wine route, the Cape of Good Hope and all the rest, and not see how the majority of people live and not learn about South Africa's unconscionable recent past.

Back in the First World, I dined at the Victoria Junction Hotel with representatives of the Pink Map, the Gay & Lesbian Association of Cape Town Tourism Industries & Commerce, the Mother City Queer Projects, Gay & Lesbian Films, and the Cape Gay Guide. At one point in our conversations, the colorful Nodi Murphy of the Gay & Lesbian Films organization, shouted, "The only fucking reason this fucking country ever got rid of apartheid is that it was BAD FOR BUSINESS!"

Later, two relatively conservative white friends of mine in Johannesburg, admitted, "Well, it's true."

However it came about, South Africa did get rid of apartheid, and today it feels like the rainbow society they are trying to build may be starting to exist. However, crime, AIDS and unemployment present extremely serious challenges.

Tuesday, bear Klaus and I visited the largest and glitziest shopping mall I've ever set foot in, went to a fancy casino where I lost 400 rand ($35), and drove along the amazing "Cape Riviera" to the gay nude beach at Sandy Bay, about half an hour out of town. The townships seemed a million miles away, even though, in reality, they were just over this or that hill somewhere.

Dinner was at the gay bar On Broadway with Henry and Alistair and Enid. Afterwards, the drag duo Mince (Keiron Legacy and Lili Slaptsilli) put on the best show of that genre I've ever seen.

Johannesburg: Hidden Charms

Rex Wockner plays with lion cubs, with permission
Wockner News Service photo by Pete Tramjay
Wednesday, eight days after arriving in Cape Town, I hopped an SAA flight to Johannesburg to visit my friend Martin and his partner Nico.

Jo'burg is not Cape Town. It's not particularly pretty, many of the central parts of the city are quite dangerous, and many people who own things worth stealing have huge walls -- often with electrified fencing on top -- around their suburban homes. Martin and Nico have been burgled seven times.

There are, however, several pockets of pleasantness outside of the city core. A few blocks of walkable streets here and there, big fancy shopping centers and malls, a snazzy casino and entertainment complex (where we saw a well-done dance and stage show called African Footprints). Enid likes Jo'burg, as do many residents who know where to go -- and who to hang out with -- to have a good time.

For strolling and sidewalk cafes, I recommend the trendy neighborhood of Melville, where I had a tasty lunch at the Full Stop Cafe with Gavin Hayward, editor of Exit, South Africa's only gay newspaper, and Daniel Somerville, former editor of the now-defunct national gay glossy, OutRight.

Klaus' lover Mannis was in Johannesburg on business and we spent an evening checking out the gay clubs with his bear buddies Howard and Pieter.

There's a block of gay bars, all owned by the same businessman, at the intersection of Henri and Juta streets in the relatively safe Braamfontein neighborhood. Look for The Vault's big neon sign. After an hour or so, we decided to be more adventurous, drove through a dangerous part of town to a slightly less dangerous part of town, and entered the gay club The Factory.

To be allowed in, you must remove either your shirt or your pants. The cover charge is 30 rand ($2.70) if you enter naked, 40 rand ($3.60) otherwise. We took off our shirts, and turned out to be the only ones partially clothed.

In the States, the fire marshal would close this joint down in a second as there were numerous passageways and winding, cramped stairwells from which no quick escape would be possible. The patrons seemed to be having a very good time.

If you find yourself in Johannesburg for any length of time, I suggest outings to Pretoria, the legislative capital (a 45-minute drive); the De Wildt Cheetah Station (a 90-minute drive) or even the awesome Drakensberg Mountains (a four-hour drive).

Of course, you could always just stay put in Cape Town -- one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, at the moment, the cheapest place I've ever been apart from Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. You could quite easily have the time of your life for $40-$50 a day -- and that includes hotel, meals and everything else. I can't think of anywhere else in the First World where that would be even remotely possible.

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