When an animal reserve can boast representatives of the “big five” species — elephants, rhinos, leopards, buffalo and lions — it’s a pretty special place. While only a fraction of the size of nature reserves like famed Kruger National Park near Johannesburg, Aquila Private Game Reserve offers all of those headlining mammals in an expansive habitat and, overall, proves to be a great spot for beginner safari-goers looking to get their boots wet. But an enviable wildlife collection isn’t the only reason we’re wild about the malaria-free park found just a few hours from Cape Town. Here are the five most impressive things found at Aquila:
1. The animals. While the little kid inside of you will go ape over the aforementioned animals on your two- or three-hour trek, there is a host of other animals to gawk at along the journey. Wildebeests and zebras are everywhere. Ostriches, giraffe and springbok, a medium-sized antelope that’s beloved in South Africa, parade around the 18,532 acres, too. The family of hippos relaxing in the muddy pool isn’t terribly keen on photo ops, but the two water buffalo that essentially take up post at the entrance to the safari every day surely are. You’ll almost have as much fun watching the guides try to lure them away from the gate as you will have pointing out the wildlife.
2. The staff. With a guidebook and a pair of good binoculars, you could make out most of the animals, but what makes Aquila such a special place for wildlife lovers on their first safari is that the guides have insight and personality — not to mention a story for nearly every situation. Timothy, for example, shares real-life recollections about buffalo attacks and humorous anecdotes about being one of the only staffers who’s allowed to touch the cheetahs. If you get him to talk about the heartbreaking rhino-poaching incident on the reserve from a few years back, however, prepare for an emotional tale from a man with genuine concern for the animals’ well-being. You can show yours by contributing to the park’s Saving Private Rhino initiative.
3. The lodging. While bigger parks in Southern Africa like Botswana’s Duba and Namibia’s Mundulea Reserve provide fully immersive, multi-night excursions under the stars, Aquila is comfortable in its skin of being part game reserve, part great host. With luxury, family and private chalet options, there’s an ideal setting for just about any party. Rooms have an outdoorsy feel (fireplaces, high ceilings, outdoor showers) with upscale touches (rock bathrooms and four-post beds in the private chalets). Note: Individual quarters don’t have televisions, thus subliminally telling guests that though you don’t sleep under a mosquito net, you’re just far enough from the comforts of home.
4. The food. The dining area is in a massive, airy hall made of varied woods. A place that appreciates delicious cuisine as much as the guides enjoy conversations about big cats, Aquila’s hall delivers all-you-can-manage buffets throughout the day — the dining experience you get depends on the package you purchase. While the morning selection of pastries, breakfast meats and made-to-order omelets is fairly routine, the kitchen struts its stuff at lunch with a spread consisting of everything from oxtails and hake (a fish common to the area) to a full roster of flavorful sides and desserts. The dinner is equally as appetizing, what with tender lamb chops and fall-off-the-bone baked chicken served alongside traditional accompaniments, such as steamed vegetables and pap, a potato-like starch that can be topped with a tomato sauce or mushrooms and cheese.
5. The location. Because of its mere two-hour distance from Cape Town, Aquila is ideal for both day trips and overnight stays. Either way, the reserve’s shuttle service picks you up from your Cape Town hotel and passes through the Southern Karoo Highlands, a stunning area with mountain vistas and sensational views of vibrant local wineries. Keep your eyes peeled along the last few miles before the reserve because chances are your vehicle will have a friendly encounter with baboons coming down from the higher elevations in search of food along the roads.
Photos Courtesy of Aquila Private Game Reserve