Lesbian Africansafari company turns 10
by Heather Cassell
For a decade Jody Cole, owner and operator of Wild Rainbow African Safaris, has unraveled the continent's mystery, magic, and complexity for travelers.
Cole, a 52-year-old lesbian, started out before she formed the company, sharing her love for Africa with friends as a safari guide. In 2005, she began taking travelers to Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe, to name a few of the countries through which she's trekked.
Today, more than 300 people have followed Cole across 10 East and Southern African countries in small and large groups. She's taken 50 groups on safari during the past decade.
"It has been the thrill of a lifetime to help my guests experience and appreciate the magic of Africa over these last 10 years," said Cole in a June 2 news release from Wild Rainbow African Safaris.
"Africa is a place that you feel in your soul," added Cole, who is currently on safari. "I'm looking forward to many more great journeys over the next 10 years."
For the love of Africa
The Bay Area Reporter has sat down with Cole on several occasions to talk about Africa and her experience launching Wild Rainbow African Safaris, as well as spoken with some of her guests.
Anyone who has gone on safari with her or simply spoken with her about Africa catches her passion for the continent. Many of her guests echo each other about their experience going on safari with Cole, calling it, "life changing."
"Jody is such a friendly, outgoing, warm person. She's like the living embodiment of a hug," said Shannon Wentworth, chief technology officer of Lesbian.com. "On the other side of that, she is a humble student of Africa. Even though she's been dozens of times, she still celebrates its awe and wonder with an almost childlike glee."
Wentworth partnered with Cole and her then-company, Sweet, for a Kenya safari in 2010.
"I think it was my favorite of all the Sweet trips I did," said Wentworth, who is planning on returning to Africa next year for a Kilimanjaro climb and safari with Wild Rainbow African Safaris. "I would not go to Africa with anyone else. It's truly the best way to experience Africa."
Geoff Kors, senior legislative and policy strategist for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, agreed.
"I've always wanted to go on safari and Jody's passion for it really excited me even more," said Kors, who went on safari with a mostly LGBT group to South Africa in 2012 and is considering another trip.
Describing the experience of being out in the bush in small open door Jeeps, Kors said, "You are a few feet from animals. You are right in that environment and you can almost reach out and touch them. You wouldn't want to do that, but you are that close."
Robin Lowey went on safari last year.
"It was so great. Jody is just so knowledgeable. She made us feel so safe walking around the jungle," said Lowey, founder of lesbian blog Epochalips.
"I think she's the premiere, most knowledgeable in the business, and the fact that she's a lesbian too makes it fun for queers to go," Lowey added.
As an American woman guide in Africa, Cole has accomplished what few women have achieved. Not only is she an out lesbian safari guide who owns her own company, but she's also earned the second highest level of certification from the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa. The association oversees and sets standards for professional guides.
"[It] takes me out of everyone else's realm and puts me in a more exclusive realm," said Cole, who has her eyes set on obtaining the top-level field guide certification.
In 2013, Cole, who accompanies between four and 18 clients on each trip, began taking a few adventurous and daring guests out on a morning walking trek and a nighttime game drive and overnight camping in the bush for the ultimate safari experience.
"Guests get a much more profound safari experience," said Cole about a typical safari where people go out in the morning on a three-hour game drive, return to the lodge for lunch and the afternoon off before heading back out in the evening.
On these safaris guests actually get hands-on experiences in the bush exploring and talking about everything they see.
"Sometimes we encounter game, sometimes we don't, but it's a very engaging and interactive experience," said Cole.
Generally, Cole offers a mixture of traditional and hands-on safaris as well as custom crafted trips for guests.
The politics of travel in Africa
Politically speaking, Africa is a complex continent with many homophobic countries. Cole leads tours in countries where being gay is illegal. The exception is South Africa, but that country isn't without its own problems with anti-gay violence.
"I'm very interested in speaking to my travel colleagues," said Cole about talking with the few other LGBT African safari travel companies about the politics of bringing LGBT travelers to Africa and into countries that are well-known to be homophobic.
Cole is very careful when she leads tours in Africa, especially with LGBT travelers, she said. She doesn't necessarily tell her guests not to find local LGBT people, but she encourages them to exercise good judgment.
"I would say tourists, gay tourists, come to all these countries all of the time," said Cole, who briefs her guests on local customs – such as men casually locking pinkies while walking down the street or women holding hands – and laws at the first dinner gathering. She also hasn't had a problem with lodges accommodating gay and lesbian couples.
"I wouldn't be walking down the streets of Kampala holding a woman's hand. I would never do anything like that," said Carol Steinkamp, 57, a lesbian who went to Uganda to see the gorillas with Cole last year and had her company arrange her extended trip to Kenya.
Steinkamp was a "little apprehensive" before she went to Africa, she said, but her concerns and fears melted away when she was tracking gorillas in the equatorial forest and saw them.
"It was awesome. It was great," she said.
Tourism is an important industry in Africa, so most countries won't mess with it, but it is a "very thin veil of protection," Cole acknowledged.
Until recently, Cole hadn't gotten involved in Africa's LGBT movement. After a decade of leading LGBT guests on safari, she is now getting more involved locally.
Cole is now on the board of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. In 2011, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in the name of anti-bullying and raised more than $14,000 in support of Equality California's anti-bullying initiatives. She previously served on the EQCA board.
Two years later she participated in an LGBT philanthropist tour of Africa.
As a result of Uganda's recent anti-homosexuality law, Cole has canceled a "Great Apes Safari" for that country that had been scheduled for next June, according to her website.
Dreaming of Africa
So, how does a nice Southern girl from Alabama become a tour guide in the wilds of Africa?
It was a childhood dream that she never imagined would become a reality, much less her life's passion and work.
It was 1997, and Cole was broken-hearted about the latest woman to have "done me wrong," when a close friend who had knocked on death's door several times simply asked her, "Jody, if you knew if you were going to die in a month what would your regrets be?" Cole said.
Frozen for a second, she sat there stumped by his question. Then, Africa, a distant land she never had been to, entered her mind.
She immediately began planning her first journey.
Cole doesn't remember the name of the woman who broke her heart, because she found love again with her first trip to Africa in 1998 and with her life partner, Katharine Cole, in 2002. The couple married on June 17, 2008.
"There is a tug on me, either my heart or my spirit or my soul," said Cole about her draw to Africa. "It's more, almost a spiritual draw.
"Some people are drawn to cultures and they like spending time in the cities and feeling the vibrancy of busy life around them," said Cole, who called San Francisco home for nearly 30 years before moving up north to Ukiah and then to Atlanta, Georgia in 2013. "I'm more drawn to the sounds of the wind blowing through the acacia trees, watching animals do what animals do and listening to the bugs."
That sound, the sound of existence and life is one of the things Cole loves sharing with her guests when she brings them to Africa.
To get people in the African mood, Cole asks guests to bring three things with them on their journey: an open mind, a flexible attitude, and a child-like curiosity.
"I love taking people there and watching them see Africa," said Cole. "That is the thing that turns me on the most."
To celebrate Wild Rainbow African Safari's 10-year anniversary, Cole has planned several trips in 2015, including a Mount Kilimanjaro climb and Tanzania safari, a Zimbabwe canoeing and walking safari, a Rwanda gorilla safari, a classic Kenya and Tanzania safari, and a diverse South Africa walking safari. Rates vary, but generally run between $6,200-$10,600, excluding international airfare and other items.
To learn more, visit www.wildrainbowsafaris.com.