10 gay adventures of a lifetime.
1 DEEP AUSTRALIA: THE OUTBACK
BY ROBERT DESSAIX
One of the first things you learn about Aboriginal paintings is that they have a powerful presence beyond the mysterious swirls and dots on the canvas. Call it what you like--taboo meanings, a hidden or sacred dimension--they won't fail to cast their spell on you.
It's the same with the Australian Outback itself. The "Dead Heart" we Aussie children all heard about--the millions of square miles of red sand spanning the island continent--isn't dead at all. It's as full of life and meaning as any of the towns and cities where we grew up (80% of our population fives near the coastline). Yet we feared the deadness as children; we all knew the stories about how it could swallow you up without trace.
For the first time it became possible early last year to cross nearly 2,000 miles of this Dead Heart from north to south, or the other way around, in a luxury train called the Ghan (since there are no real paved highways that traverse the Outback and few commercial airports). The Ghan is named after the Afghan camel drivers who led the first caravans across Australia over a century ago--not long after the first European crossing in 1861, when the legend of a great inland sea was finally disproved. This new train journey offers several levels of comfort. the rear of the half-mile-long train are the roomy private cabins with toilets and showers in Gold Kangaroo class, while up front are the cheaper Day-Night seats for the funkier backpacker crowd.
The Ghan may not quite be the Orient Express--you'll se no barons or earls dressed to kill in the dining cars or lounges there'll be no sultry waiters t take your orders, and the ambience is decidedly ungay--but on the weekly two-night journey from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Adelaide in South Australia there's no shortage of pleasures to indulge in. The good food and stopovers aside, you'll have plenty of opportunity to gaze out at the entrancing before-time-began landscape an contemplate its hidden fullness. No people, no houses, no cars, just a wilderness of river-gum trees lining ancient waterless riverbeds, acacias, spinifex grasses and spooky giant termite mounds.
While in the steamy frontier town of Darwin before departing, you'll have a chance to learn to see beyond the red-green emptiness. A visit to the amazing Kakadu or Litchfield National Parks is the best way to do it. Here in the tropical far north o Australia, the landscape is quite different from the center: monsoon forests, towering waterfalls, eerie mangroves on tidal flats, and plenty of exotic wildlife, most of which seems to be able to kill you
The creation time, or Dreamtime, stories of the Aboriginal people also differ from place to place At Kakadu, for instance, the main creation ancestor is Warramurrungundji, mother of the earth who created all the rivers, water holes, and wildlife you see around you. The deeper secrets of the Dreamtime story cannot be revealed, but you can still see Warramurrungundji, who was changed into a large rock in the park after teaching her spirit children hot to live off the land she'd created.
Around Katherine, a small, dry, slightly sinister town a couple of hundred miles south of coastal Darwin, the Ghan's passengers are all offered an excursion to the hypnotic Nitmiluk Gorge (for $40). Here you are in cicada dreaming country--a completely different creation-time story--and as you float along the river between the massive pink and gray sandstone cliffs of the gorge, your Aboriginal guide gently opens your eyes to hundreds of hidden meanings in what you are seeing. In this untouched wonderland you come to believe that you are following in the tracks of the rainbow serpent, who is said to have gouged out the gorge in the Dreamtime.
If you stop over in Mice Springs right in the center of Australia, on the second day of your journey (in either a direction), you can make a day side-trip to even more spiritually powerful places--there is no better way to describe them--at iconic Uluru (formerly called Ayers Rock) and the Kata Tjuta National Park. While Alice Springs itself (population 30,000) is little more than a collection of art galleries, pubs, and cafes baking in the sun (you can forget any Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert fantasies you may be harboring; that was a movie), it's a comfortable base for adventuring into the surrounding wilderness. By taking a walk through the Alice Springs Desert Park, which the Ghan's passengers are taken on a free excursion, you can watch the desert birds and animals feeding, breeding, and resting, and since most animals in the Outback are nocturnal, so this is an experience not to be missed.
It's at Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta, an independent journey some 300 miles southeast of Alice Springs, that the true wonder of Australia's heart is most keenly felt. The solitary walk I took in the harsh sunlight around "the rock," as 1,000-foot-high Uluru is usually called, with its overpowering aura of ancient forbidden knowledge and surreal beauty, was one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life. It's an important sacred site to the Aborigines, and hikes on Uluru are forbidden. A few miles away at Kata Tjuta, a cluster of towering orange-pink monoliths rising straight out of the desert, I had the feeling that I was clambering over the sleeping bodies of the Ancestors themselves.
How to Go Gay to the Outback
Gay-marketed Qantas Airways (800-227-4429) is by far the best way to reach Oz, with more nonstops to Australia and New Zealand than any other carrier. Depart from New York (JFK), Los Angeles, or Honolulu, with convenient connections from most North American cities, Qantas one-stop connections from Los Angeles to indonesia, India, or South Africa offer free en route stopovers in Sydney, Melbourne, or Brisbane as well. Check out the $999 Aussie AirPass that gets you round-trip air from L.A. an three flights within Australia. To book the Ghan train adventure from the States, contact ATS Tours (310-643-0044). U.S.-based Above and Beyond Tours (800-397-2681) specializes in gay Australia and organizes customize yours of the Northern Territories including the Ghan. Canada-based Footprints Travel (888-962-6211) offers customized gay tours of the Outback and Uluru as well. For info on where to stay gay in Darwin, Alice Springs, and Adelaide, go to OutTraveler.com for further listings
2 EXPLORING THE FJORDS OF GREENLAND
The Adventure: With just over 56,000 inhabitants, travelers do not head to Greenland for the city life. This remote self-governing territory of Denmark (yes, Greenland has legal gay civil unions like its motherland) is a landmass of untouched ecosystems teeming with walrus, whales, reindeer, musk oxen, white foxes, falcons, rabbits, and of course unruly polar bears. On the dramatic eastern coast of the island lies the tongue-twistingly named village of Ittoqqortoormiit (population 550, Greenland's third biggest town), center of the world's largest fjord system that encompasses over 23,000 square miles. Cruises on 100-passenger ships offer cozy cabins, lectures, good food, Zodiac rafting expeditions to stunning rock mountains rising 5,000 feet out of the water, and more icebergs than you can shake a parka at. Tip: Don't fly to Greenland itself, which can be expensive and iffy weather-wise, but grab a cruise leaving from Iceland--a cheaper and gayer way to go, since you can drink at Reykiavik's queer bars before heading north.
When to Go: The sun doesn't rise above the horizon from about November 23 to January 17, so July and August are when the flowers bloom, but be warned--temperatures still hover around 45 degrees in summer. How to
Go Gay: No gay cruises go to Greenland (surprise, surprise), but Oceanwide Expeditions (800-453-7245) has a 10-night cruise round-trip from Iceland that takes in eastern Greenland starting at $3,060 per person. Polar Star Expeditions (800-509-1729) offers a 12-night cruise from the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen, taking in the east coast of Greenland on its way to Iceland, starting at $2,860.
3 TREKKING THE HIMALAYAS
The Adventure: Incomparable, awesome, and serene, the Himalayas actually stretch from the Pamirs in Pakistan to touch the northeast corner of Burma. Of the 94 mountains in Asia above 24,000 feet, all but two are in the Himalayas. Ever since Hillary and Tenzing conquered Everest in 1953. Nepal and the eastern Himalayas have attracted thousands of mountaineers and adventurers. Although climbing Everest itself is only for the truly expert, anyone in good enough shape can enjoy the two-week (minimum) hike to the Everest Base Camp, departing from Lukla, a short plane ride from Kathmandu. Nepal's largest city. A drawn-out Maoist insurgency and a dictatorial king have scared off some, but the number of tourists visiting this scenic country has actually risen lately, and travelers for the most part are not affected by the country's politics. Tour operators continue to organize small, gay-friendly trekking and camping groups along safe routes.
When to Go: The best time to visit the Himalayas, for the clearest views, is mid September through mid December, right after the rainy season. How to Go Gay: Lesbian-owned Adventures in Good Company (877-439-4042) does a 25-day trek in Nepal from Lukla to Everest Base Camp for women, starting from $2,399. Gay-owned Kathmandu-based Parikrama Treks and Expeditions (011-441-906) hosts a 14-day trek from Lukla to the Base Camp for $995. Gay-marketed Snow Lion Expeditions (800-525-8735) also organizes 14-day treks on the same route for $2,500.
4 SCUBA DIVING IN PALAU
The Adventure: Palau's islands are mere specks in the tropical Pacific, but the country has made its mark on the scuba world in a huge way, with many seasoned divers claiming that it has the best diving in the world. Plop your head into the crystal-clear waters to view over 1,500 species of fish and 700 species of coral and anemone--including manta rays, giant clams, sea turtles, chamber nautiluses, manatees, and yes, sharks! (Don't worry, most are harmless reef sharks.) The 200-plus rock islands in the country's southern region are mostly uninhabited and brimming with empty beaches and huge mushroom shaped limestone formations. The southern island of Peleliu was the site off a dramatic battle in World War II, and it offers excellent wreck diving. Palau has under 19,000 inhabitants but sports a modern infrastructure using the U.S. dollar, and everyone speaks American English.
When to Go: Palau is always tropically warm, but avoid the stormy months of June and August (February and March are best for avoiding showers).
How to Go Gay: Undersea Expeditions (800-669-0310) organizes worldwide gay and lesbian scuba journeys, with weeklong dive trips in Palau on small live-aboard boats for $2,695 (not including airfare).
5 HORSEBACK RIDING MONGOLIA
The Adventure: An awesome expanse of space and magical light is what an adventure in Mongolia is all about. Horses are everywhere--some say that Mongolians invented horseback riding--and what better way to see the countryside than in a saddle? You can buy your own horse for about $150 (some serious riders even bring their own saddles), or rent a horse for $10 a day, or the easiest option: join a group tour. One of the main attractions is the sacred Khovsgol Nuur, an alpine lake with a surface area of over 1,000 square miles near the Russian border in a national park. It's surrounded by dozens of mountains over 6,000 feet high and replete with thick pine forests and lush meadows with grazing horses and yaks. Camp out with your horse under a planetarium-like sky or in a yurt, the traditional round tent of Central Asia. When to Go: The only good time to visit Mongolia is summer, from June to September. July is the month of the not-to-be-missed Naadam Festival, a national holiday celebrating the Three Manly Sports of archery, horseback riding, and wrestling performed by beefy, briefs-clad contestants. How to Go Gay: Mongolia-based Mongolia Gay Travel (011-976-9923-4132) organizes customized tours for gay visitors, including horseback trips. U.S.-based gay-marketed Snow Lion Expeditions (800-525-8735) has an 18-day tour of Khovsgol Nuur (including 9 days on horseback) for $3,900. And Toronto-based Footprints Travel (888-962-6211) also customizes gay adventure tours of Mongolia.
6 CRUISING DOWN THE AMAZON
The Adventure: The world's second-longest river is part of a basin containing thousands of square miles of tributaries and jungle that spans eight countries. With over 2,000 navigable miles, you can hop aboard one of the double-decked, shallow-bottomed river boats complete with air-conditioned cabins, private bathrooms, and canopied observation decks up top. There's even a washing machine for you clotheshorses who need a constant rotation of outfits! These boats tow 22-foot canoes for expeditions on the smaller tributaries for bird watching, fishing, or photography. The best route is upstream from Manaus, Brazil (a city of 1.8 million people in the middle of the basin), up into the unspoiled Indian populated Rio Negro. The sloths, monkeys, and butterflies show you why this natural treasure should be saved. And rejoice: The river's tannic acid prevents mosquitoes from breeding and sucking the life out of your vacation.
When to Go: The Amazon doesn't experience much seasonal variation, although the river is at its lowest around November, allowing for more exploration on foot. How to Go Gay: Alyson Adventures (800-825-9766 offers the only gay 13-day cruise on the Amazon and Rio Negro for $3,395 including airfare from Miami. South America Gay Travel (866-724-2988) has simple Amazon cruises starting at two nights for $460, Ecuador-based Zenith Travel (011-593-2-252-9993) is a gay-operated agency that books Amazon lodges starting around from $460 for five nights, including flights from Quito
7 RAFTING THE GRAND CANYON
The Adventure: The most spectacular natural masterpiece in the United States, the Grand Canyon approximates a nine-travel journey to the primeval center of the earth. The inner canyon is accessible only by hiking, by mule, or by rafting the Colorado River, which snakes 277 miles through this colossal chasm with over 70 major rapids, Many rafting expeditions depart from Lee's Ferry, located at the narrow northeast corner of the park, and travel over 200 miles into the canyon. (Because temperatures can soar to 118 degrees at the height of summer, we recommend the more hydrating option.) Infinite shades of pink, red, and brown stratified rock, some nearly two billion years old, tower a mile overhead as you stop to camp on the riverbanks, exploring Anasazi ruins and breathtaking waterfalls along the way. When to Go: The North Rim is closed from mid October to mid May due to snow, but the South Rim is open year-round. The best time for river rafting is April through October. How to Go Gay: Toto Tours (800-565-1241) offers a weeklong Family Values (ages 16 and up welcome) expedition for $1,795. And Alyson Adventures (800-825-9766) is gearing up for four 10-day trips this summer (and possibly five next year) at $2,595 each. If you'd rather stay dry, Olivia Outdoors (800-631-6277) offers a women-only Grand Canyon biking and walking tour.
8 ON SAFARI IN BOTSWANA
The Adventure: The southern African nation of Botswana is the gold standard for well-heeled safarigoers. Why? English-speaking, Texas-size Botswana has for-gone the ultrapackaged and crowded (six vans around one lion) safari tours of East Africa by choosing instead a higher-priced, lower-impact, and more down-to earth form of tourism, limiting the number of tourists and allowing for more of a virginal experience of the Kalahari Desert, one of Africa's great open landscapes. The nation's progressive government is tough on poachers and hunters and has set aside a whopping 17% of the country as parkland. Botswana also has Africa's most far-reaching publicly funded AIDS health care program.
When to Go: Avoid the muddy summer wet season and head to Botswana in its winter (April through August), since wildlife congregate at specific water sources during this drier season, How to Go Gay: Gay2Afrika (866-429-2237, ext 207) offers half a dozen safari packages to Botswana, starting at $2,695 including airfare from the United States, while Coda International Tours (561-791-9880) combines a South Africa and Botswana safari package for $5,095, excluding airfare. Gay-owned Heritage Tours (800-378-4555) has a weeklong Botswana safari starting at $1,995, and South Africa--based Africa Outing (011-27-21-671-4028) customizes gay safari trips in Botswana as well.
9 BIKE TOUR OF CUBA
The Adventure: One of the final travel frontiers for Americans, the Caribbean's largest island has sumptuous scenery, culture, 10 million fairly miserable (yet still charming) people, and paradoxically the world's most gay tolerant dictatorship, Cuba is a time warp stuck in the '50s--so touring it the old-fashioned way on a one- or two-week bicycle trip out of Havana is the perfect means to see the city's decaying architecture and the lush countryside of waving sugar cane, plus bicycles make organic sense given the languid tropical setting and the slow pace of island life. You'll also be surprised how robust Havana's ambiente (gay scene) is. Just head to the corner Yara cinema in the Vedado district any Thursday through Sunday night and the queens will be more than happy to tell you about the gay fiesta for that night--in venues as varied as a prerevolution country club and a banana field, with hundreds of party boys (and some girls) anxious to meet foreigners.
When to Go: Winter is delicious, but avoid the wilting heat from Hay through August. Keep in mind that June through November is hurricane season. How to Go Gay: The federal government's hard line against travel to Cuba has forced U.S. travelers to carefully go via other countries, not getting Cuban stamps in their passports nor stating Cuba as a destination to U.S. immigration. If you want to fly through Canada, try WoWCuba (800-969-2822), which offers gay-friendly bike tours of four to 12 people for roughly $1,820 a week including meals, hotels, bikes, and guides. The only organized gay tours to Cuba can be booked through Canada-based Cuba Education Tours (877-687-3817), which hosts gay-themed educational trips starting at $700 a week.
10 KAYAKING ALASKA'S PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND
The Adventure: Alaska's remarkable Prince Sound--yes the same one made famous by the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989--is one of the country's greatest wonder, with sea otters, seals, whales, and glaciers breaking off in apartment building--size chunks Windex-blue ice as well as hundreds of uninhabited islands and hidden bays. Despite the environmental catastrophe of the past, the sound is a naturalist's and camper's delight, and a slow kayak trip is the only way to experience the area up close and quietly, stopping for frequent breaks on its empty beaches. When to Go: Mid May to August is the only time to kayak the sound and the best time to visit Alaska is the always-daylight summertime (but be warned: the flies can be ferocious).
How to Go Gay: From the funky, tiny (population 300) town of Whittier--just a half day's drive from Anchorage's gay bars and B&Bs--Out in Alaska (907-347-2214) offers one day of kayaking on Prince William Sound as part of their eight-night, $2,450 Copper Canyon Adventure (which also includes visits to national parks and rafting). In the town of Valdez, try the lesbian-owned boat charter Wild Iris (907-474-4047), which can ferry you and kayaks to the sound.
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|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jul 5, 2005|
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