The colorful flowers, Judy Garland, Gilbert Baker’s rainbow flag—it all swirls in my mind as I consider my identity as a gay man, an American, and someone who inherently feels more comfortable in the concrete jungle. From a standing position, the details of the low-lying groundcover blend together like a Monet painting viewed from afar, but as I shakily crouch closer to the earth, vivid details come into focus. An orchid the size of my pinky nail. A fuzzy caterpillar in shades of orange and burnt umber. I feel at ease in the company of nature’s survivors. I also question the queer community’s presence in such surroundings.
Ben Regan, an editor for BioMed Central (BMC) has researched the challenges of LGBTQ scientists working in the field. He interviewed leading scientists whose work draws them to far-reaching destinations ranging from Ecuador to Tanzania and discovered various incidents of researchers facing (or perceiving) discrimination. Regan references Yale School of Public Health’s Dr. John Pachankis, who has studied the psychological impact of staying in the closet. Dr. Pachankis concluded that “staying in the closet…puts unnecessary cognitive demands for a queer person in the field where their main goal is to be a good scientist and collect data.”
Regan provides other examples of scientists who felt that sharing their sexual orientation might undermine their research. It’s a heart-sinking prospect as I stand in the here and now, natural beauty in all its diverse wonder cascading over the landscape. Might the world’s fears of “other” evaporate if our leaders could gather in this very spot, crouch down, and watch a caterpillar crawl toward its destiny?
The following day my Big Five wish takes one step closer to fulfillment… except that it’s of the ocean variety. Grootbos partners with Dyer Island Cruises to offer guest access to the Marine Big Five (whales, dolphins, African penguins, Cape Fur seals and Great White sharks) aboard Dreamcatcher, a custom-built whale-watching vessel. Adorned with a lifejacket and waterproof overcoat, I quickly munch down several chewable Dramamine tablets as we head into the open waters.
The trained staff adeptly point out various sightings, from the circling birds above to the tiny penguins bopping in the distant waves. Then, as if summoned by Poseidon himself, the gentle giants of the sea reveal themselves. A whale and her calf move in tandem with the boat, their rhythm lulling me into an oceanic trance. Then it hits me. The smell of 60,000 Cape fur seals. Forget smelling salts, coffee, or Red Bull. Want a wake-up call? Meet up with a seal. Their deafening vocalizations add to the cacophony as we breeze by their island habitat. The great white never makes an appearance, but in the distance we see Dyer’s sister company, Marine Dynamics, captaining Slashfin, their 40-passenger shark cage vessel. Thrill-seeking tourists plunge below the surface while the crew tosses chum into the water, then retract it as copper sharks appear. I close my eyes and the Dramamine, seals, tourists, clanging cages, and briny air swirl about me as we return to shore.
That night we enjoy dinner nestled within Grootbos’s Milkwood thickets, just a short stroll from the central Forest Lodge. The winding trail opens up to a clearing glowing with lights strung from the branches above. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, the world now looks entirely new. Executive Chef Benjamin Conradie and his exceptional team deliver a four-course meal overflowing with ingredients sourced from the on-site farm. Sous vide brisket with berry chutney accompanied by Blackwater pinot noir is the highlight of the four-course meal, overshadowed only by the setting itself. The name Grootbos means “Big Forest” in Afrikaans and was chosen because of the very Milkwoods surrounding me. The trees can live upwards of 1,000 years, reminding me that Mother Nature’s resilience, or our own, should never be underestimated.