Before coming to South Africa, I booked a few activities through my hotel, The Westin Cape Town. Staff at the travel desk set up a private tour of the Cape Peninsula and a safari with Aquila Private Game Reserve. Yesterday was my day to visit the game reserve.
In the morning, a van came around to pick us up from the hotel. I was the only one going from The Westin, but a few gentlemen has already been picked up from another location. Since the game reserve is 1.5 hours away by car, we needed to get an early start. My pickup time was 6am, but the shuttle showed up at 5:45, luckily I was ready to go at that time.
After picking me up, we then made way for another hotel, followed by a few stops around the city at different locations where other guests boarded the van. In total 11 people were with our group in the vehicle, and it was now after 7am.
Driving to the game reserve is impressive. South Africa lies on a major tectonic plate fault that has pushed up large mountains around Cape Town. Travelling to Aquila puts you on a major highway moving through the mountains almost all the way to the reserve. The sight of these mountains early in the morning with clouds rolling over the peaks, it is nothing short of spectacular.
Once you arrive at the reserve, employees greet everyone with a drink; champagne or grape juice is offered. Since I’m not a big fan of alcohol, I chose the grape juice which was interesting. Not bad, but I don’t know that I’d choose it again. Keep in mind that on your way to Aquila you pass miles and miles of vineyards, when I say grape juice I’m talking about vineyard style, sparkling, bottled grape juice, not supermarket stuff.
As you drink your welcoming beverage, staff check you in at the front desk. Aquila is a hotel/resort so the grounds are beautiful, staff is friendly and effecient, and the check in is done at the same desk as the hotel check in. After waiting a few minutes for other guests too get checked in, I paid for the game drive and made my way to the provided buffet breakfast. This is a combined breakfast for arriving guests and hotel guests so it does get a little busy, but the food is fairly decent.
After breakfast, everyone is asked to gather at the safari vehicles to start the game drive at 10:15am. Now this is where you get the first inkling that this is a bit of a tourist trap. The vehicle I was riding in had around 20-25 people in it, and there were at least 6 vehicles on the drive. Aside from this group of 100+ people, there are also horseback safaris and ATV (quad bike) safaris. Each one of the larger vehicles has a guide that will stop along the way and give information, answer questions and drive the truck.
Once we entered the reserve, we drove maybe a few hundred feet from the entrance and stopped to see hippos. This would be the point where I realized this was not going to be what I had hoped. Throughout the day you will drive all over the place, from animal to animal. Despite all the driving, you never venture out of visual range of the main visitor complex, and this is a little dissapointing. Not at all what I was expecting. You don’t actually experience a long distance adventure, you just drive across a large enclosure and duck behind a large hill at one point before swining around through the lion enclosure and back to the visitor center.
I was more than a little dissapointed with the adventure. I was hoping to have a smaller group, drive a longer distance and see animals more in their natural environment. Reality was that these animals were in a very large enclosure which we could drive around in. The game reserve is not a small place, it covers something like 4000 acres, but this is quickly covered in a vehicle. Overall I wasn’t thrilled by what was offered, but we must keep in mind this is a day trip from Cape Town, there are appearently larger and better places but they require a 3+ hour drives to reach and cannot be done in a single day.
I do not want to dog on Aquila too much though, the game reserve serves a purpose as more than a tourist trap. Attached to Aquila is a small area across the road where pens hold other animals. This is called ARC, an animal conservation area where injured and at danger animals are rescued and attempted to reintegrate either to the wild or to their game reserve. Currently two female lions are being cared for among others. These lions were brought up in the canned hunting industry, raised by humans for the purpose of being huntedand now have been rescued. After a failed attempt to integrate the lions to the pride of lions on site at the reserve, the two orphans are being held and protected until they can find a perminent home or wild pride that will accept these two beautiful animals.
So, while I found the experience of the safari to be a little touristy and underwhelming, I cannot deny the good being done at the reserve either. If you ever want to see animals up close without a cage in between you, this is certainly a good way to do it, just realize it may not be exactly what we have come to expect from an African safari.