Gay Johannesburg: Lay down with lion cubs

Johannesburg, South Africas largest city and economic hub, is culturally vibrant, immensely wealthy, sometimes dangerous -- and the gateway to some of the most amazing wildlife, fascinating cultures and stunning scenery on earth. While not a gay destination per se Joburg Pride drew 30,000 people in 2009, compared with the six-figure crowds in Cape Town Joburg and the surrounding province of Gauteng are gay-friendly and worth a look.

You can play with lion cubs (at the Lion Park, near Fourways), bungee between Three Mile Island-esque cooling towers (at Orlando West, in Soweto), and learn at the justifiably famous Apartheid Museum about the resilience of the human spirit. Take a township tour, then repair to the dining and clubbing havens of Melville and Greenside, Joburgs gayest neighborhoods. Its an easy drive to Kruger National Park, where accommodations cater to all budgets and seeing the Big Five on a do-it-yourself, bargain-basement safari is eminently possible.

Two Joburg stadia co-host the 2010 World Cup Soccer City, near Soweto, and downtowns Ellis Park, the setting for rugbys 1995 title match as well as for Invictus, the feel-good biopic about Nelson Mandela as ultimate sports fan.

Unlike compact, centuries-old Cape Town, seeing Johannesburg demands a car. Rentals are reasonable, but urban sprawl makes taxis unfeasible, and the metro is best avoided. Though South Africa has put 20,000 more cops on the beat nationwide since the early 2000s, street crime remains high in a country with wide disparities between rich and poor. Dress down, as the locals do, and always ask locally about safety, especially at night.

Alternatively, visitors can stage out of much quieter Pretoria, a few miles north but almost equidistant to the airport and many sights. The tree-lined streets of South Africas diplomatic neighborhoods are safe to walk, affording respite from the countrys hypersecure gated and malled culture. Pretorias Loftus Versfeld Stadium, in the leafy Hatfield neighborhood, also does 2010 World Cup duty: The United States plays Algeria here June 23 in opening-round competition.