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OutServe Magazine | December 14, 2012

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Let’s Go! South Africa

Let’s Go! South Africa
David Small

By David Small & Angelina Leger

Tucked away on the upper edge of the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is a young nation struggling to beat back the desert, poverty and hunger ravaging much of the continent. The locals walk the streets in leather sandals or barefoot, feet calloused and toughened by generations of hardship and hard work. If you’re headed to Africa in your military capacity, you may end up here. But the first time traveler to the region ought to consider Cape Town, a safari, and an overnight in Zambia to see Victoria Falls — one of the seven wonders of the world. Here, we take you out of the conflict zone and to these sites.


The African safari is one of the most sought after vacations on earth. View the “Battle of Kruger” on YouTube, a video shot by a tourist showing a pack of lions attacking a herd of buffalo, capturing a baby buffalo and then winning a tug of war with a crocodile over the calf only to be counterattacked by the buffalo herd, who rout the lions and rescue the baby.

Now, imagine seeing something so savage and raw in person. A leopard, perched in a tree, dines on an antelope it had just killed for breakfast. A pack of four cheetahs capture a grey duiker and rip off its limbs as it cries. Another leopard sits tall on a mound, its half-eaten warthog lunch, steps away.

These images were not on YouTube. They were 10 feet from our safari jeep. For those with softer hearts or weak stomachs, witnessing the cruelty of nature can be an emotional, gut-wrenching experience. For adventure seekers, being amid the inherent danger and thrill will get your blood pumping fast. For everybody, the majesty of being with these wild, ferocious and beautiful animals in their natural habitat, completely removed from society as you explore the birthplace of humanity, is a bucket list event.

Originally conceived to control hunting in 1898, Kruger National Park is an expansive, publicly conserved game reserve in South Africa. The fences came down in the early 1970s, allowing game to migrate between both public and private conserved areas.

The 65,000-hectare Sabi Sand is privately conserved land abutting the Greater Kruger National Park, located north of Swaziland between Mozambique and the South African state of Mpumalanga. The area is rich with wildlife, including the “big five”: rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard and elephant.

Sabi Sand also has a reputation for being the luxury South African safari destination, its lodges maintaining standards that compare to the best resorts in the world. It is a place where the rich and famous mingle with adventure travelers who enjoy style, grace and uncompromising elegance. The most famous of the lux lodges are Singita and Londolozi.While costs can be exorbitant, the experience is the greater value. There are a few different ways to go on an African safari. One can follow the herd as animals migrate, hopping from lodge to lodge with porters who run ahead delivering luggage to the next overnight, self-serve camp. Or, one can thoroughly immerse in a single place, seeing all there is to see around one area. Rhino Africa set us up with the latter at what is one of the premier properties with which they do business: Chitwa Chitwa.

After the grueling logistics to get as far away from society as possible, we arrived in the dead of night at Chitwa Chitwa, a romantic, luxurious retreat in the heart of Sabi Sand.

Reborn from the ashes of a devastating fire a few years ago, the opulent yet unpretentious lodge was named for an old giraffe bull residing there when the lodge was simply a family retreat for its owners, the Brinks.

The lodge has eight guest suites, all outfitted with private wading pools that overlook the largest perennial lake in the area. The lake is populated with hippos, and crocs, with the occasional elephant herd passing by. Artwork throughout the lodge is primarily personal creations by Maria Brink, the owner. Décor brings the outside in and is firmly grounded with an Africa-meets-Italy chic, juxtaposed with stonework, thatch, wood and glass.

Chitwa Chitwa is managed by two couples who live on site and rotate responsibilities. Rocker-turned-hospitality expert Natalee Whittington sat down with OutServe Magazine to talk about what it’s like living in the bush.

“There’s an old stigma, but we’ve gotten a lot better since the new South Africa came into being,” Whittington said. “There are not lions running around in the street. We have electricity, running water and air conditioners.” She described the darkness and the stars at night while we sipped Nelson Mandela’s favorite wine, Vin de Constance, from the lodge’s extensive wine cellar. “There’s no dogs barking or sirens. Just the sounds of hippos honking,” she said.

Chitwa Chitwa is family friendly—both kinds of family. Most lodges don’t allow children under 12, and Whittington said the lodge is open to diverse clientele, including gays and lesbians.

All agree the best reason to visit Sabi Sand over other spots is the leopards. Tristan Dicks, a Chitwa Chitwa safari guide, said guides connected by radio track animals and find interesting situations to observe out in the bush. Sabi Sand is purportedly the benchmark location for the most experienced guides to work.

“Botswana, the Okavango Delta and East Africa during migration are other good safari locations,” Dicks said.

After four game drives over three days, the only animal among the big five we missed was a rhino. Dicks said the hardest animals to find are aardvark and pangolin, but the fact we saw cheetah, wild dog and a honey badger is rare. Dicks, who has worked at other lodges, said Chitwa Chitwa has a more social atmosphere than most, and that the nearby dam is a huge asset providing a permanent water source.

From the lodge’s expansive outdoor common space, he has seen all big five in one day, wild dog, a leopard on the deck, and cheetah and lion kills.
Every day on the game drives and bushwalks, we observed, learned and connected with nature. In between activities, the lodge provided a quiet, sumptuous retreat to recover from the emotional stir of witnessing the circle of life. Sundowner in hand, we raised a toast to our hosts, Rhino Africa, for guiding us through these seemingly fantastical memories.


Sunset cruise on the Zambezi River straddling the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia

Our representative at Rhino Africa worked with South African Airways to schedule our complex itinerary, a task we couldn’t have done easily ourselves. The downside to not knowing all our options and doing the research ourselves, however, became apparent on the flight over.

We departed Washington-Dulles squeezed into steerage on a dated Airbus 340, uncomfortably seated in our 19 inch seat with a metaphorical chicken in our laps. The flight was 18 hours and included a stop in Senegal halfway through to refuel. In the future, opt for the direct New York flight.

Like Carrie Bradshaw, we wanted to arrive stunning and impossibly fresh looking— impossible given the torturous flight. So as they say in the Book of Mormon musical’s Uganda—hasa diga eebowai.

We arrived in September, the first week of their spring. Temperatures were moderate and chilly in the early morning. Any earlier in the year, we’d have hit their rainy season. Any later in the year, we’d have had to deal with heat and mosquitos. It was the perfect time to go.

The logistics of getting to a worthy destination in Africa are something to behold. The Jo’burg stop was simply out of necessity. The industrial  area where we stayed was geared toward the overnight guest. Having said that, the D’Oreale Grande Hotel was lovely and welcoming.

The next morning, we were onto another flight. By the time we arrived in Livingstone, Zambia, we had been traveling for three days and had seen nothing but airport. Most people either hop to Victoria Falls on their way in or out of their travels, an easy stop.

The view of the falls from Zimbabwe is prettier, but requires a second entry visa back to Zambia. The Zambian side of the falls has a handful of river lodges along the Zambezi River and a number of sleeping options in downtown Livingstone. Heading to Zambia, by the way, requires a yellow fever shot and a suggested malaria regimen.

An hour’s drive from Livingstone, much on bumpy dirt roads, found us at the Royal Chundu River Lodge for the night, enjoying an evening cruise on the Zambezi River. After soaking up the colorful sunset and South African wine, we enjoyed a traditional African dinner in the boma before heading off to our huts for the night.

With the mosquito net down over the bed and the patio wall open allowing the chilly African air into our rooms, I finally had a good sleep. Beware, however, of the monkeys if you sleep with the windows open.

After seeing the majesty that was Victoria Falls, it was onto another flight. Don’t expect posh lounges and duty free shopping at Gucci in these smaller airports. Likewise, don’t expect much in the way of security either. One security screener asked another tourist for a cigarette upon seeing them in her bag in the scanner.

Another puddle-jump later, we arrived in Nelspruit, South Africa. We were headed to Sabi Sand, the private game reserve made up of private homes, farms and commercial lodges that share a border with Kruger National Park.

Unable to fly a charter after dark to Sabi Sand’s unlit dirt runways, we traded a 20-minute flight for a three-hour drive, much of which was, again, on bumpy dirt roads.

On safari we stayed off the grid at Chitwa Chitwa. Cell phone service was sparse in the bush and Wi-Fi nonexistent. Be wary of signing up for an international cell plans as companies in South Africa don’t partner with the likes of AT&T and others. Look at a trip such as this as an opportunity to escape.

The staff at Chitwa Chitwa were gracious hosts and always in contact with our consultants

Leaving safari, we went to Cape Town, where we enjoyed the convenience of being back on the grid at MannaBay, a luxurious guesthouse owned by the same folks as Rhino Africa. Other overnight options in Cape Town include all the normal hotels of any big city, and getting around town was easy with our guides from Rhino Tripping or the abundant, albeit seemingly unregulated, taxis.

Departing Cape Town to get back to D.C. meant our 10th plane in as many days. While every second of the trip was monumentally worth the effort, Africa can be a logistical nightmare. Without the care and feeding by our friends at Rhino Africa, we would have had the stress of planning a very complicated trip. We highly endorse the services of a local company as being an imperative when traveling to Africa.

Editor’s Note:

We would like to point out that as unpleasant as the 18-hour flight was from D.C. to Johannesburg, South African Airways (SAA) did what they could to make it as comfortable as possible, given the seats and route we selected (pick your seats wisely, they get more narrow toward the rear of the plane). After voicing our concerns following the first flight, their attentive staff gave us complimentary access to their business lounge. While customers should not have to voice discontent to receive good service, SAA did make amends in the end. It should be noted that the remaining eight legs of the journey, mostly intracontinental, were pleasant. Convenience being the key in air travel, it’s easy to see why SAA is the official airline of the Rainbow Nation.


After a few days living extravagantly and off the grid on our safari, we were ready for city life once again. Our trip brought us to the southwest end of South Africa, Cape Town, a city where extreme beauty and opulence have endured the country’s years of political turmoil.

No such site in Cape Town reminds people daily of the changing nation than Robben Island, visible from most spots around town. Originally a leper colony, this island housed a notorious prison, once the keep for South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. The prison is now a museum accessible via a ferry. Plan your visit when you have a full day, due to limited space and a ferry schedule that can change.

Other reminders of the socioeconomic turmoil plaguing the nation are the various townships throughout the city, vestiges of Apartheid. They are a distinctly different side to Cape Town that should not be skipped. We visited two, Langa and Imizamo Yethu. As we passed through by car, residents encouraged us to take pictures, but not from the car as if they were animals in a zoo. Time permitting, we highly recommend a walk through a township with a smart guide, like our Leon or John, to educate you on the politics of the country and the inconceivable policies that have kept the township residents in squalor for so long.

An orange-breasted sunbird, indigenous to the Cape peninsula of South Africa, sits atop a pin cushion protea flower, related to the King Protea national flower of South Africa, in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, where tourists and locals alike gather on a warm spring day.

Rhino Tripping, owned by our hosts at Rhino Africa, took charge of our stay in Cape Town. We went to Table Mountain, a world heritage site and one of the new seven wonders of nature. Centered squarely in Cape Town, Table Mountain forms part of the Table Mountain National Park. Approached via a cableway, it gives you the best views of the peninsula in all four directions and a view of two oceans.

The view on one side looks over the winelands where a booming viticulture industry has made its way to the international market. In between every cove and crevice carved by Lion’s Head and the 12 Apostles (two other mountain formations) are suburbs and villages of Cape Town waiting to be explored.

For the balance of the day, we toured the Iziko South African History Museum and the National Art Gallery surrounding the Company Gardens, and took a walk past Parliament.

Our second day trip brought us around Hout Bay, Seal Island and along Chapman’s Peak Drive, which felt like driving Highway 1 in California. The spectacular scenic route winds its way along the coast, with Fynbos-covered mountains on one side and the crashing waves of an azure Atlantic on the other. We drove through Cape Point Nature Reserve, seeing wild ostrich, eland (the largest antelope in the world) and cheeky baboons. We stopped at the old lighthouse on Cape Point and at the Cape of Good Hope, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet (at least that’s what they say to tourists—the oceans actually meet up the coast a ways). We paused for lunch in Simonstown, where we witnessed Boulders penguin colony on the beach, home to African penguins. A good way to see the 3,000 African penguins is from a wooden boardwalk at Foxy Beach. There is no other place you can get this close to a colony of breeding penguins, whether by walking, swimming or boating.

Also in Simonstown lies South Africa’s modern but dilapidated fleet of Naval vessels. Bought in a political deal, there isn’t enough money to maintain them. While the pirating epidemic doesn’t reach as far down as Cape Town, South Africa’s military does participate in policing the seas.

Cape Town has a good week’s worth of activities for the traditional tourist. The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront is home to a number of restaurants, an aquarium and Old Biscuit Mill MarketKirstenbosch Botanical Gardens lets visitors see things indigenous only to South Africa, like the stunning varietals of protea, including the King Protea, South Africa’s national flower.

A good way to see the 3,000 African penguins of Boulders penguin colony in Simonstown is from a wooden boardwalk at Foxy Beach. There is no other place you can get this close to a colony of breeding penguins.

A day trip to StellenboschPaarl and Franschhoek, known for their noble cultivars of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, will allow sampling of the finest wines in the Cape Winelands.

Our home for the duration was MannaBay, a lavish boutique hotel owned by the founders of Rhino Africa. In the heart of Cape Town’s affluent City Bowl neighborhood and blocks from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology Rugby Club—the second oldest in the nation—MannaBay sets the bar for contemporary luxury. It has only seven suites, and guests indulge in an intimate experience and roam the full expanse of large anterooms, ornate lounges and a quiet library. A small wading pool and a stocked bar overlooking the Atlantic beyond a glittering cityscape offer you a way to cool off and relax after a day of touring. The team there makes you feel quite at home, as if you’re simply visiting a friend’s house for the weekend. Settle in with a good book or DVD copy of The Lion King.

When asking a Cape Townian where to go out for a night of gay debauchery, we often received a response that indicated how much the city is intermingled. With a constitution only 15 years old, inclusive of same-sex marriage, the nightlife tends to be quite mixed.

As one local put it, “Cape Town is extremely gay friendly, and you may not actually find a gay bar per se. Rather you’ll be accepted anywhere in the city. Be who you are. Cape Town is one of the greatest holiday destinations in the world.” Another local I spoke with shunned the idea of businesses marketing to solely a gay clientele as obsolete in today’s inclusive South Africa.

Having said that, there’s still a gayborhood in Cape Town. The De Waterkant District in the Green Point area tends to have a high concentration of gay folks for nightlife activities. To residents, it is simply the village.

Recommendations from locals were plentiful in this friendly city. For understated, civilized gay appeal, check out Alexander Bar. For burgers with sexy male waiters and campy drag, visit Beefcakes. If you’re more into clubbing and cruising, check out Crew Bar or Beulah. There are other options as well, but these were the most talked about.

A number of local restaurants cater to the discerning foodie. Café Paradiso is one we checked out, with its scrumptious food and flowing wine. Impress the in-laws at the Greenhouse with its top-class, creative meals. Sniff sea air and clink glasses among yuppies over Mediterranean dishes  at Bungalow. At what is by far the best chain restaurant I’ve ever experienced, one can start “turning Japanese” with the opulent tasting menu at Nobu on the waterfront. Manna Epicure is the choice for a morning break over coffee or for ladies who lunch. Meat being one of the preferred dishes of the country, visit Carne SA in the City Bowl. The slow-baked lamb shoulder ravioli is revered.

A night out on “The Platinum Mile” of Camps Bay feels a bit like walking the strip in Miami Beach, with trendy cocktail bars and restaurants spilling onto the sidewalk across the street from the white sand of the Atlantic Ocean. This is an area for the bold and beautiful to meander. While not distinctly gay, the vibe was perfect for a sundowner—and where there’s alcohol and a beach, there’s bound to be a few men holding hands. Grab a bite at Codfather for some fresh fish, then hit the bars on the strip.

If you’re looking for more of a “gay beach,” the place to go is Clifton Third Beach, with its powdery sand dotted with boulders and oiled-up, muscled men in Speedos. Be in tip-top shape or feel completely inadequate. The nude beach frequented by gays and lesbians is Sandy Bay, but it’s a hike. There are plenty of other beaches in Cape Town, as diverse as the city. Ride horses on Long Beach, go surfing on Witsands, pretend you’re James Bond or Jinx Johnson coming out of the water in Hout Bay, or check out the lighthouse in Milnerton.

The juxtaposition of wealth to poverty, government graft to their inclusive-of-gays constitution, and unmatched beauty and nature to the squalid conditions of the townships, plus a world-class wine region and two oceans, make Cape Town one of the most intriguing places either of us have visited, a fascinating and satisfying destination to explore.


OutServe Magazine Meets Rhino Africa

We sat down with Rhino Africa founder Rhino Africa David Ryan on the patio of his plush guest house, MannaBay, to get his perspective on traveling to Africa. His company offers luxury, tailor-made tours, specializing in 40 destinations in eastern and southern Africa and the Indian Ocean islands. They are unique in their destination expertise.

Sustaining Africa

People generally don’t travel to Africa for its history or architecture; it’s for the wildlife. So, with the South African government bogged down in socioeconomic problems, lacking the political will and resources to protect the country’s wildlife, many in the private-sector travel industry have stepped up to ensure the country’s greatest asset is protected. Check out what we learned.