Elephant at Aquila Reserve

Taking a Big Five Safari from Cape Town

Game reserve safari from Cape Town

South Africa is home to a number of famous game reserves, including Kruger and Kgalagadi. Though these are great parks, they have the distinct disadvantage of being annoyingly distant from my favorite city, Cape Town.

But don’t worry. If you find yourself in Cape Town longing for a glimpse of Africa’s majestic wildlife, there’s no need to travel 1200 miles to Kruger. You can skip the Mefloquine pills, too. In less than a three-hour drive from the Mother City you’ll find three malaria-free reserves that have achieved Big Five status: Aquila, Inverdoorn, and Sanbona.

Wildlife safari from Cape Town Aquila Reserve
Aquila Private Game Reserve

Taking a Big Five safari from Cape Town couldn’t be easier!

The Big Five

Wildlife safari from Cape Town rhino
White Rhino

Big Five status means you’ll have a chance to see the continent’s five most iconic game animals: elephant, rhinoceros, lion, leopard and African buffalo. “Chance” is the key word here. We’re talking about wild animals on fairly large swaths of land, so there are no guarantees. In fact, if you manage to spot (ha ha) a leopard, consider yourself fortunate. These solitary, nocturnal predators are the most elusive of the Big Five.

Choosing a Reserve for safari from Cape Town

Aquila Private Game Reserve

At 58,000 hectares, Sanbona is the largest of the three reserves, but it’s also the farthest from Cape Town (3 hours) and, since they don’t offer day trips, the most expensive. Aquila and Inverdoorn are smaller (10,000 hectares), closer, and have affordable day and half-day rates. You’ll see plenty of animals at both, so which one you visit will depend on what kind of experience you’re looking for. Aquila has a resort atmosphere (poolside bar, spa, horse and quad bike riding), while Inverdoorn is quieter and more rustic. At two hours, Aquila is the shortest drive. It also has a more varied landscape (hills and plains), which is what sold me.

Check prices for Sanbona Private Game Reserve

Check prices for Aquila Private Game Reserve & Spa

Getting to Aquila Private Game Reserve

Wildlife safari from Cape Town hills
Scrubland and hills at Aquila Reserve

The route to Aquila will take you through vineyards and orange groves to the scenic southern Karoo with its rolling mountains and desert scrub. I saw my first animals before we even reached the reserve, when a gang of marauding baboons emerged from the brush to patrol the roadside. It’s an easy drive on well-maintained roads, but if you don’t have a car you can book a transfer from Cape Town as part of your safari package. They will even fly you in on a helicopter if your budget is big enough.


Aquila offers a variety of safari options, from a basic half-day outing to a three-night package that includes two daily game drives and all meals. If you can get to the reserve on your own, a half-day safari (2-3 hours) in the morning, afternoon, or evening can be done for under a hundred dollars.  

Animals are typically more active in the early morning, but I have an aversion to alarm clocks, and opted for the afternoon safari. I did make sure to arrive before noon, however, as I wanted to enjoy my complimentary welcome drink (champagne from a metal chalice) before the lunch buffet opened at 12:15. The buffet is included in the safari price and is excellent. I stuffed myself with eggplant salad, beef curry, and a somewhat shameful array of sweets.

After lunch, I walked off my champagne/sugar buzz by conducting a mini-safari around the resort grounds. Birds tittered at the watering hole and lizards scurried up trees. As I was ogling a peacock, I nearly stumbled over a resident tortoise, who was patiently making his way across the lawn.

Wildlife safari from Cape Town rock agama
Southern Rock Agama

Shaded lounge chairs are positioned at the edge of the veldt. I sat down and stared out over the green and yellow scrub. Halfway to the hills, a large object lumbered into view. It was an elephant. And he wasn’t in a circus. Or a zoo enclosure. He was out there in the wild, picking through vegetation with his trunk. I believe this is known as a “Holy shit, I’m in Africa” moment.


Wildlife safari from Cape Town elephant
African Elephant

At the appointed time, everyone climbed aboard our 4 x 4 safari truck. It was windowless, for optimal photography, with a canvas roof to protect us from the midday sun. Our guide told us what to do (stay in the truck) and what not to do (look a lion in the eye). We then proceeded onto the rutted, rocky path at a pretty good clip. It’s a rough ride, so prepare yourself for some bone-shaking.

The first beast we encountered was, appropriately, a springbok, South Africa’s national animal. These sprightly antelopes display their joie de vivre by pronking—leaping high in the air with hang time that would make Michael Jordan jealous.  

We passed a pond full of hippopotami, but only saw eyeballs, ears, and snouts. It was a blazing hot day and these bubbas were staying underwater until the sun went down. Our guide pointed off to the right where an ostrich’s dainty head and skinny neck were rising up from the brush. It stared at us with wide eyes. “Those eyes are actually bigger than its brain,” said the guide. Close by, an eland, the world’s largest antelope, grazed, its dewlap sagging to the ground.

Wildlife safari from Cape Town ostrich and eland
Ostrich and eland

The driver turned down another path, then stopped abruptly. A massive bull elephant was blocking our way. He yielded eventually, but only after he was sure we knew who was boss. The guide explained that elephants are either right-tuskers or left-tuskers, just as people are either right-handed or left-handed. “This big boy is a right-tusker. You can tell by the wear on the ivory.”   

We went to check on an orphan white rhino next. The rangers were taking special care of him, and had just put his food out in a clearing. Other animals showed up to get in on the action: three Cape Buffalos, with their fearsome horns, and a troop of chattering chacma baboons. Later we happened upon a whole family of rhinos, rolling around in mud, coating themselves to keep cool. The father, a hulking brute, gave us a look that was not entirely friendly, and I wondered, rather nervously, what a rhino horn, backed by a couple tons of charging, armored muscle, might do to a safari truck.

Wildlife safari from Cape Town buffalos
Cape Buffalos

Three of the Big Five had been located and it was time to hunt for #4. Lions are kept in a separate area of the reserve so they don’t eat the other animals. If you want to watch a lion stalk and kill prey, you’ll have to go to Kruger or one of the other National Parks. Lions are mostly active at night, dusk, and dawn, so we had to get a bit lucky, and we did. Five of them were lounging at the base of some boulders not far from the path. One of the females stirred at our approach but quickly crashed out again. There was no danger of looking these apex predators in the eyes, since they were mostly sound asleep, dreaming of juicy springboks, no doubt.

Wildlife safari from Cape Town Lion
Lazy Lion

After a champagne/bathroom break at a weather-beaten outpost, we made our way to the hills where we spotted a giraffe and a wildebeest in the distance, and a pair of zebras (mother and child) just above us on a ridge.

Wildlife safari from Cape Town zebras

One more animal made an appearance as we headed back to the lodge. Was it the final member of the Big Five? The elusive leopard? Alas, no. It was a very cute bat-eared fox, bounding through the brush.


After the safari, you’re welcome to take a dip in the outdoor pool or hit the bar. Overnight options include rooms in the main lodge or private cottages with varying degrees of luxury.

At night there’s a bonfire—roast some marshmallows and trade stories with your fellow guests. If you’ve chosen a 2 or 3-night package, one game drive can be swapped out for a horseback or quad bike safari. You’ll also get access to the spa pools and sauna. Treatments (skin care, massage, waxing, etc.) are extra. For kids there’s mini-golf, big chess and an educational Junior Rangers program.

Booking a Big Five Safari from Cape Town

When you get back to Cape Town why not spend a couple days recovering from your adventure at the V & A Waterfront?

Or set off to explore one of these 10 Places to Visit on South Africa’s Cape Peninsula.

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