After 3 months in Europe, we weren’t quite sure what to expect upon arrival at Cape Town airport. One thing is for sure, we knew we had left the land of Duomos, Lasagna and Pizza for a land filled with mystery and wild animals. Before we decided to come to South Africa, we spoke to several friends about their experiences and hands down, everyone said how majestic and beautiful the country is but that we were sure to find it gritty and dangerous as well. In this section, we will provide our honest perceptions and experience during 9 days in South Africa.
Upon arrival at Cape Town airport, we had just completed 20 hours of travel time; so, we were pretty disoriented and exhausted. Luckily, we had pre-arranged a private transfer to the game reserve, which was a 2 hour drive. We highly recommend Mitchell and his team at Western Shuttles. He provided us with the best rate (1,500 ZAR) we could find. That drive from the airport was eye opening to say the least…so much so that neither Mike or I slept a wink. We drove through industrial areas, slum districts, gorgeous mountain ranges and vineyards for miles. We immediately could see the beauty of the country and feel the danger lurking here as well. Once we arrived at Aquila Private Game Reserve (a 4-star property), we were welcomed by the staff and shown to our room which was a lovely private cottage. From the patio of our room, we could see the elephants frolicking on the reserve in the distance.
Pretty much right from the start, we knew we were in for a treat. Aquila provided us with 3 square meals a day, buffet-style and the food was incredible, specializing in traditional South African fares which mainly means A LOT of meat dishes including Eland Stew, Lamb, Kudu, and Chicken in many different preparations. Since it’s not a super large game reserve and most guests only come for 1 night, we were immediately treated very well and even had dinner on our first night with Mr. D, the General Manager of the Reserve as well as Memory, the head ranger. They informed us that a 4 night stay is quite rare and assured us that we would be given a special experience, something adventurous and exciting beyond our expectations. Please note: this was one of the “splurges” of our world tour. Safari experiences are quite expensive by nature. We’ve seen them range from $300 to $2,500 per night. While at Aquila, our premier accommodations and package cost us $600 per night.
Having never been on a safari experience previously, Mike and I didn’t know what to expect. We especially weren’t prepared for the cool spring weather, with highs of only 62F and pretty fierce winds. On our first full day, we started with a private morning safari on quad bikes. It’s quite exhilarating riding quads through the game reserve. We had the chance to see hippos resting in the water, zebra getting ready to give birth, giraffe grazing and ostriches running around. We even ventured up the mountain and had a short walkabout while learning about the topography as well as the animal tracks. The rain started to move in so we had to head back; but, we were able to wait out the weather and head out for a 4pm private safari in a large open air truck. While on the truck safari, wrapped in blankets, we came upon the elephants, some eland, zebras and springbok galloping like hell! It turns out, they were running from the Rhinos which are truly something to see. They are probably the most intimidating animals I’ve seen. We were driving back to the reserve and came across a male rhino keeping watch for his ladies and babies as they crossed by. We literally had a standoff with this Rhino and eventually, we had to turn around and find a different way home so that we could live to see another day! It was nerve wracking and yet so exciting at the same time.
We were devastated to find out about the status of the rhinos in South Africa. Poaching of these animals is eliminating the species at alarming rates. Statistics show that a rhino is killed from poaching every 8 hours, that’s 3 rhinos per day! With only 3,000 wild rhinos remaining in the world, at this rate, experts predict that rhinos will be extinct by 2026. But Aquila is passionate about anti-poaching initiatives since experiencing a poaching incident several years ago. That said, their charitable initiative and philanthropy is known as Saving Private Rhino! This organization helps game reserves throughout Africa respond to poaching incidents, they offer free transportation of orphaned rhinos to safe locations as well as providing free training to care for orphaned rhinos on site. In addition, they offer reconstructive surgery for the rhinos as well. If you have a soft spot for protecting these adorable creatures or feel compelled to help, please provide your support by emailing email@example.com!
On the 2nd day, we attempted another quad bike safari in a different part of the reserve. Aquila has over 10,000 hectors of land to cover, so there is plenty of exploring to be done. We ended up on a very sandy hill on the way to leopard country when I got my bike stuck and flooded the fuel tank so that it wouldn’t start. Thank goodness for Mike’s vast snowmobiling experience as he was able to pull me out. As luck would have it, our guide’s quad was never filled up fully with gasoline, so his bike died as well and we had to radio for help/rescue. It ended up being quite the sandy adventure to get off the mountain and get home. But hey, it wouldn’t be an adventure if it all went swimmingly 100% of the time, right?
Even after all that, we were ready for our evening safari. Unfortunately, it was raining quite heavily; but, Memory took us out in an enclosed Land Rover which made the experience awesome! We got so close to the elephants that one of them ran his trunk all the way down the length of the truck in an effort to “play” with us. We also entered the lion territory and met 7 lions rescued from canned hunting. Just to clarify some rumors, there are no lions roaming around the streets of South Africa or roaming freely around Aquila for that matter. Lions are kept in their own area of the reserve for many reasons; but, mainly to help them live a healthy life and start to live as much like “wild animals” as possible again. Memory took us for a little sunset happy hour in a beautiful part of the reserve. It was so gorgeous to experience the wilderness like that and especially to have such a knowledgeable ranger to teach us about the animals and the property.
On our last full day at Aquila, we went on a big group vehicle safari as well as a horseback safari. The great thing about riding horses out on the reserve is that we got the opportunity to get very close (within 20 meters) to certain animals like zebra, ostrich, eland and springbok. It was a real thrill trotting on a horse through the open wilderness! But one of our favorite experiences was the private BBQ or Braai as they call it in South Africa. We were treated to a wonderful Braai at a place called Stone Cottage in the middle of the Aquila reserve. Our guides took us into the wilderness, made us a bonfire, grilled us some of the best meats we’d ever eaten, and showed us a starry night sky like we’ve never seen before. The sheer number of stars brought tears to my eyes. Not to mention, the shooting stars took our breath away. It was a night I will never forget. We learned about what it’s like to grow up in the bush of South Africa and we shared stories about our own lives too. We fell in love with the South African bush culture while at Aquila.
It’s fair to say, we did not want to leave the reserve when checkout time came. We could have easily stayed another 3 days under the care of our friends and rangers. I don’t think I’ll ever find jerky or “bilton” as good as we ate there nor will I ever wake up to the sound of hippos swimming in the water in front of my bedroom again. And I know Mike will never enjoy an outdoor shower as much as he did under the starry night sky at Aquila. For anyone planning a safari in the Cape Town area, we highly recommend making Aquila your home for a few days or more. And for those of you who may not like the “rugged life” of a reserve, don’t worry because Aquila is more like a resort than a reserve. The food and drink are excellent and the spa services are better than many I’ve experienced in the US. Plus, you get a great value for your money in South Africa.
I can’t say enough about how wonderful our Safari experience was. We got to see 4 of the BIG 5 wild animals in South Africa, all while having the adventure of a lifetime!
2 teenage elephants goofing around and playing together during our evening safari at Aquila Private Game Reserve.
A little fun on our ATV safari at Aquila!
After 4 days at the Aquila Private Game Reserve, it was time for a change of pace and to check out Cape Town; so, we arranged another private shuttle from Mitchell at Western Shuttles and he drove us to our hotel, The Treehouse Boutique Hotel, located 2 hours from Aquila in the Green Point area of Cape Town. We heard Green Point was a lovely area and the recommendations proved accurate as there are numerous upscale hotels and restaurants in Green Point and it is only a short 10 minute walk from the renowned V&A Waterfront. Our hotel was small, modern and immaculate – perfect for our 4 night stay and very centrally located in a safe and convenient area of town.
Not knowing much about Cape Town before we arrived, we did not realize how imperative it is to have a car to get around. There are certainly several nice areas you can walk to and around; however, it’s very important to be vigilant, inconspicuous and we were not advised to venture far away at night on foot. That said, we spent one day walking around and exploring Green Point and Sea Point. We walked the oceanfront boardwalk all the way to the V&A Waterfront which is situated on the Atlantic shore, in Table Bay Harbour with the majestic Table Mountain as the backdrop. V&A Waterfront is known for its excellent outdoor seating restaurants, live music, festivals and exhibitions as well as a large well-equipped shopping mall and small boutiques lined up and down the harbor streets. We spent an entire day walking around and enjoying the city’s food, shops and entertainment. For great seafood and sushi on a sunny day, try the Harbour House Restaurant as it has a wonderful upstairs terrace, excellent for soaking up the sun, relaxing and people watching.
While walking around Cape Town, it’s easy to see the socioeconomic divide between the wealthier areas and the more impoverished areas. And don’t be surprised when you see barbed wire or razor wire fences surrounding many homes and hotels. It is a not-so-subtle reminder of the danger and grittiness of the Cape Town city life. But please don’t let that deter you from visiting this majestic city as it has so much beauty to offer that it’s impossible to see it all even in 4 days.
Case in point, we hired Mitchell from Western Shuttles to give us an 8 hour tour of the key Cape Town attractions as well as the Stellenbosch and Franschhoek wine countries. He picked us up at 9:30am and we headed for the mountainous coastline on our way to Cape Point, the southern tip of Africa. Along the way, we caught a glimpse of the 12 Apostles mountain range, we stopped in Hout Bay for some incredible scenic photos; but, if we’d had more time, we would’ve liked to visit its fishing harbor, beach and the quaint village with markets and restaurants.
Mitchell also advised us to take the ferry boat over to Seal Island to see the natural habitat where thousands of seals reside. We regret NOT stopping for this excursion but unfortunately, we had limited time and wine country on our mind! We did however, very much enjoy our stop in Simon’s Town at Boulders Beach and Penguin Colony. Amazingly, Boulders Beach is located in a residential area and is one of the few areas where the endangered African Penguins can be observed at close range, living and wandering freely in a protected natural environment. It was astonishing to see and we highly recommend a visit. A ticket in to Boulders Beach costs ZAR 70 each or about $5 USD.
Cape Town has numerous beaches and bays offering nature-lovers the opportunity to hike or bike the beautiful terrain or even pursue some wildly adventurous activities like paragliding, sky diving, shark cage diving and surfing. It really is an area that offers something for everyone.
But all roads eventually lead to Cape Point, the most south-westerly tip of Africa, a world heritage site that is in the Good Hope section of Table Mountain National Park. No matter which route you take to get there, it is guaranteed to be scenic. You will undoubtedly notice the vast amount of plants and flora in Cape Point as well as the breathtaking bays, hills, valleys and beaches. You also are guaranteed to see some baboons which are indigenous to the region. Entry into the park costs ZAR 135 per person or about $10 USD. And if you want to go to the top to visit the Lighthouse or just see the amazing views, you can do the FREE walk in about 30 minutes OR you can take the Flying Dutchman Funicular and get to the top in about 5 minutes for ZAR 65 per person or about $5 USD.
After we got our photos and took the Flying Dutchman Funicular back down, we knew we had to hustle in order to make it to Stellenbosch wine country. It took us about 1.5 hours to get there from Cape Point via car due to traffic and road closures but it was well worth it.
Stellenbosch is a college town known for its wine routes and deep South African heritage. The Stellenbosch Wine Routes are the largest and oldest in the country and encompass over 200 wine/grape producers. For more information, visit wineroute.co.za.
We visited one of the most famous and picturesque wine farms called Delaire Graff Estate where both the scenery and architecture are exquisite. We sat down for a romantic tasting and were surprised that a 3-flight tasting was only ZAR 50 per person. Though to be honest, the wines were not our favorite.
We also visited the Meerlust wine farm which is not known for being particularly beautiful; however, Meerlust has the only Rubicon wine in South Africa so we had to go taste it and of course buy a bottle! The red wines at Meerlust won’t disappoint if that is your thing; but, there are other more beautiful wine farms and tasting rooms in the region.
We highly recommend visiting the “downtown” area of Stellenbosch. Although very small, it is a charming town filled with restaurants, cafes, and shops that are worth taking a stroll through. After covering only 2 wine farms in Stellenbosch, it was already 5:30pm and we were scheduled to head back to the city, leaving us too little time to explore the Franschhoek wine region.
Because we weren’t able to fully experience wine country due to lack of time, we decided to hire Western Shuttles again for another fully day tour of the Franschhoek wine region. Our new driver Taliep picked us up at 9:30am for the 1.5 hour drive to Franschhoek.
This time we were ready with a planned itinerary for 3 – 4 wine farms, lunch and a stroll through the town. The name Franschhoek is the Dutch translation for “The French Corner.” Reason being, the settlers named their wine farms after the areas of France from which they were from. This valley is most known for its rolling vineyards and mountain ranges. The main street in town is lined with excellent restaurants, cafes, boutique hotels and stores. You can find local artwork, antiques, souvenirs and award-winning wines in the wine shops. It’s a small town, but we recommend leaving 1.5-2 hours to peruse the shops, buy some homemade Bilton, wine and relax over lunch in one of the many restaurants or bistros.
We also recommend the route we took for the day as it provided for a lot of variety, a wonderful excursion, excellent foods/wines and a deep desire to return in the future! We started our day at Babylonstoren with a self-guided tour of the extensive gardens on the property. It is easy to spend an hour or two strolling through this property, observing the animals and beautiful flowers. The tasting room and restaurant didn’t disappoint either. We tasted 5 wines, a few of them were award winners and I was particularly pleased with the Chenin Blanc and white varietals. The views are beautiful and the food on the menu is all farm-to-table. It’s definitely a must-visit property.
Next we went to Solms-Delta for a quick tasting and a fabulous charcuterie platter. The wines here are nothing special but they are very unique. They even have a wine fortified with grappa. If you are interested in some different varietals, this is a good pit stop on your tour.
Finally, we visited La Motte, which is one of the oldest wine farms in the region. It has an exquisite property, restaurant and tasting room. Here is where you get really tipsy as their tasting included 8 wines for ZAR 50! Yes, you read that correctly – 8 wines!!! And let me point out that all their wines are quite good, especially the red blends. This is a terrific spot to drink and have a bite at the restaurant.
We ran out of time to visit Boschendal but this wine farm also boasts an upscale farmhouse hotel, spa, restaurant and incredible mountain views. If you have time, definitely put it on your list.
That pretty much sums up our self-guided tour of the Franschhoek wine region. We highly recommend hiring a driving such as Western Shuttles so that you can really enjoy the day and the wines. That way you don’t risk driving while intoxicated or have the stress of trying to navigate your way around. There are many tour companies that offer packages to visit Franschhoek including the Franschhoek Wine Tram which is a hop-on hop-off tour through the rolling vineyards. It looks like a great experience. For a less expensive option, the Citysightseeing Cape Town “Red Bus” tour company also offers daily tours through wine country but with much fewer options and a more limiting scheduled.
Overall, if you have to choose between touring Franschhoek or Stellenbosch, we recommend Franschhoek HANDS DOWN. It has a much wider variety of wine farms, a cuter main street downtown, and steller views. However, if you can cover both areas, you definitely should.
Being from California, it’s sometimes hard to impress me considering we have the amazing Napa and Sonoma Valleys with some of the best wines in the world. Let me just say, Franschhoek gives Napa a run for its money!! We will definitely be back.
As I mentioned previously, 4 days in NOT nearly enough time to cover all the sites of Cape Town and surrounding areas. If we had 2 more days in Cape Town, here is what we would’ve liked to see: