Aquila Game Reserve, Touwsriver, South Africa

Posted on
Feb 27, 2013
 
Posted in: Attractions

I never imagined myself to be the sort of person who’d go on safari. It’s just not in my genetics. I don’t really like the sun. Large animals frighten me. And I don’t look all that good in khaki.

Plus, I have very short legs, and I’m not particularly good at running. If things went awry (and if a lifetime of watching situation comedies has taught me anything, it’s that things will go awry), and my entire tour group found themselves running for safety, I can guarantee you that I’d get picked off.

I have absolutely zero doubts about this. I was not meant to go on safari. I was meant to sit in the southern Italian sun, eating carbohydrates while wearing fabulous shoes.

But sometimes, we ignore the things that are encoded in our DNA. This is a very good thing, for it means that we can wear skinny jeans and consume dairy and do all those other fun activities that our lactose-intolerant pear-shaped bodies were not designed for.

And so, when I found out that several of Rand’s coworkers would be heading out on safari during one of our days in Cape Town, I decided to tag along (sadly, Rand was feeling a bit under the weather, and had an afternoon speaking gig, so he didn’t join us).

Aquila Game Reserve is about a two and half hour’s drive from Cape Town (weirdly, as though the fates were trying to remind me of my origins, the name of the reserve is spelled exactly the same as a province in Italy where I have family). But the thing about South Africa is this: even watching the landscape pass from your car window is amazing.

See? I told you. The drive was a delight.

 

We arrived at Aquila at 9:30, just in time for breakfast (which was included in the price of our tour). We’d had breakfast just before we left Cape Town, so no one was particularly hungry.

I mean, no one else was. I went ahead and had second breakfast because, you know, I’m me.

It was delightful and buffet style. There were a half dozen birds flittering around the dining hall, and I watched their antics (they seemed fond of pooping on chairs) while I ate. At some point, my eyes drifted to this light fixture, which was a created from the horn of an animal (an Elan, I believe), and an ostrich egg.

Doesn’t it look just like a giant sperm? I thought so, too. I nearly choked on my eggs (no pun intended).

At ten, our tour began. It wasn’t terribly crowded – several of us had our own seats, which was good, because while I don’t have long legs, I still need my space.

See, I’m a prolific farter. But who isn’t?

Our guide was a young man named Justin, who spoke softly and had an evident fondness for the animals in the park. His English was impeccable, but soon a problem arose.

There was a cluster of Italians on our tour – a gentleman who lived in Cape Town along with several of his friends. My understanding was that they also spoke Dutch, and they were supposed to get a Dutch tour guide, as no one except for the Cape Towner spoke English. When they found out the tour was English, they looked distressed.

“Can’t you translate to them?” Justin asked.

“Come on, man,” the Cape Towner said. “I’m a tour guide for a living. I’m on vacation – please don’t make me work.”

You probably know what’s going to happen, don’t you? Yeah. I ended up helping the Cape Towner translate the tour for the rest of the Italians. It was kind of awesome. Plus, I learned to say “artificial insemination” in Italian. Which I’m sure is a phrase I will use often.

Aquila has Africa’s Big Five: elephants, lions, rhinos, Cape Buffalo, and the leopard. This has, sadly, nothing to do with how cuddly they are. The categorizations originally referred to which animals were the most difficult to hunt (yes. That was a thing. In fact, rhinos are still being hunted. More on that in a moment.), but it now refers to the five most dangerous animals for humans, period.

We saw elephants first. They were ginormous and wrinkly and I really wanted to cover them with moisturizer, then feed them peanut-flavored snacks. Which is yet another reason why I am not allowed to care for large animals.

I adore elephants. They have large noses and long memories. I can relate.

WHO’S A WRINKLY WIDDLE PEANUT? IS IT YOU? YES IT IS.

This photo does a pretty good job of illustrating how crazy-close we were to them.

From there, we went to see the rhinos.

Aquila used to have three rhinos – a male, a female, and their calf (another female). A little while back, poachers infiltrated the reserve, and chopped off the male rhino’s horn. He spent three days in agony before finally dying.

His grave is marked by a pile of rocks. The female and her calf can often be found near it.

Rhinos have been poached to near extinction for their horns. They are considered incredibly valuable, as some folks believe that they have medicinal powers. Obviously, they don’t. It’s just a bunch of keratin (the same stuff in your fingernails and hair). But people are stupid. And inhumane.

Just a single gram of horn can yield $50,000 on the black market.

I don’t believe in capitol punishment. I never have. But I do think it would be entirely fitting if the poachers had some important part of their body cut off (I’ll leave it up to the state to decide what, exactly), and then left to slowly die over three days, alone in the searing sun.

I would be okay with that.

The two females (the mother and calf) that are still at Aquila are relatively safe, as their horns are much smaller than a male’s, so worth comparably less. This, by the way, is when the discussion of artificial insemination came up. They were talking about another way to get the impregnate the female rhino. But it would cost several hundred thousand dollars.

In short, rhinos are pretty much doomed, and as usual, humans are to blame. Le sigh.

As we drove on, Justin pointed out one of the reserve’s few giraffes. Apparently they eat the same shrubs as elephants do, but the pachyderms tend to strip the trees bare, so it’s rather difficult for giraffes to find food if they are occupying the same space. So there’s only two or three at Aquila.

Still, we got to see one, and that meant that I was to share with everyone the tidbits that I know about giraffes. Mostly that they are promiscuous as heck. They apparently have sex as a means of saying hello. (This further helps to explain why my friend Dan loves them so.)

Next up: Cape Buffalo!

Nuzzle wuzzle wuzzle.

I love these animals, because their horns make them look like they are wearing powdered wigs, or possibly Napoleon-style hats.

“I … I think we should invade Russia. It just seems like a good idea.”

Our driver turned the car around so that we could quickly make an escape if the buffalo charged. Justin explained that the Cape Buffalo are the most dangerous game on the reserve, because they don’t give a signal before attacking. One second they’ll appear calm, the next they’re running into your jeep with their Napoleon-hat horns.

They didn’t do very much when we were there, though. They just sat under the trees, nuzzling each other and probably discussing how they were going to take over Eastern Europe.

Cape Buffalo: SO LIKE US.

And then … MORE ELEPHANTS! (Or maybe they were the same ones we saw before. I can’t really remember.) We drove right passed them, and everyone fell silent, until I caught this view.

I mean, come on. It was a ginormous elephant butt, RIGHT IN MY FACE. I did what any self-respecting 30-something woman would do:I giggled like I was 12.

Bad idea.

This startled the elephant, and caused the jeep driver to scoot us quickly away, but soon we were able to back up and get a better view. So I’d just like to note that I did not ruin anyone’s safari with my uncontrollable snorting.

Justin explained that the elephants were both young males, and brothers, so while it seemed like they were fighting, it was actually all in good fun.

I dub thee Lord Wuzzlebottom!

Especially for the elephant on the right in this next photo. As you can see, he was having a lot of fun.

Rand: “Awww, seriously? You took a photo of that?”
Me: “Shut up. Nature is beautiful. And sometimes it has a huge wang.”

Then we found some zebras, and took a break to pee. Pretty much in that order.

Me with a whole bunch of zebra butts.

Seriously, I was crouching on Africa, peeing not more than a hundred yards from a dazzle of zebra. Life is grand.

And just in time, too, for we were about to see the lions, and I’d need an empty bladder for that. The reserve has a huge fence dividing it, which keeps the lions away from the zebras and the springbok, and all other manner of animals that they might eat, if so inclined. Justin jumped out and opened the huge gate in the fence, making a crack about Jurassic Park.

When we found them, though they were all lounging around a den that had been built for them. There was one male, and about half a dozen females.

That is not something that The Lion King prepared me for. I figured it was 1:1. Simba & Nala 4-eva, you know?

By the way, the male lion? He was a total diva. At one point, he decided he wanted to sit on top of the den, precisely where one of the lionesses was laying, and so HE SAT ON TOP OF HER TO GET HER TO MOVE.

Ugh. He can be SUCH a bitch.

For the record, Rand does this to me ALL the time on the couch.

And then he just lay there like a total primadonna.

Hey girl.

You leaving? Okay. Laters.

Note: it looks like the lions don’t have a lot of room in these next few photos, but they actually had a huge portion of the reserve to run around. This area, near the watering hole, had a fence around it, but it wasn’t enclosed. The lions could freely leave there and explore the rest of their territory.

I realize some of you are probably still thinking: Yeah, but it sucks to be locked up like that. And it does, except that none of these animals could survive in the wild. Justin explained that these animals had been rescued from a canned hunting scheme. With canned hunting, cubs are stolen from their mothers at a young age, and hand-reared by humans. The animals don’t know how to hunt, and while they are still wild animals, they are much more docile and gentle around humans.

The animals are then released into an enclosed area, where they are hunted by perverse folks with lots of money to spend. The animals don’t stand much of a chance, obviously.

To paraphrase what I said earlier: humans suck.

The lions at Aquila were rescued from a government-infiltrated canned hunting scheme, as was this leopard.

He was not running around loose in the reserve, but in a special, quarantined area that Justin showed us after our tour. These animals, for various reasons, could not be released into the park (e.g., there were some grown lionesses that were actually the offspring of the diva male from before. They couldn’t be placed in the park with him, or there would be some freaky lion incest going on).

Among them were this cheetah and its mate, which were part of a breeding program at the reserve.

It was heartbreaking; once again, it was our fault that these animals were here, and not running around in the wild, eating other, smaller animals.

And while our drive was wonderful, it often felt less like a safari and more like a visit to a zoo. The animals were not wild; they were cared for and looked after, because many of them couldn’t survive on their own. If you are looking for a true safari experience, you might find yourself somewhat disappointed.

After our tour concluded, we returned to the lodge for lunch (which included more birds, and more pooping on chairs. By the birds, I mean. Not by us), then headed back to Cape Town.

The gardens at Aquila.

I went back to thinking about how I had bucked my nature and my genetics during my visit to Aquila. How I’d waddled my pear-shaped body over dusty rocks, and came within a few feet of animals I had no business being around.

Then I thought about all the animals that were there because we’d made it unsafe for them to be in the wild. Those who weren’t allowed to follow their true natures, to succumb to that which is encoded in their DNA.

And it made me realize that as humans, we can deny our true natures with wonderful results. But when we force other creatures to do the same, it’s truly a tragic thing.

—————

The Essentials on The Aquila Private Game Reserve

  • Verdict: It depends. I had a lovely time, and it was well worth it, but there are plenty of other drives that you can do which will offer a more authentic experience. However, if Aquila is your only opportunity to see big game animals (like it was mine), then I recommend you take it.
  • How to Get There: The reserve is about a 2.5 hour drive from Cape Town. We took a private vehicle, which ended up being about 700 rand a person (roughly $80 or so). If you are unfamiliar with Africa, the drive will zip by, as the landscape is beautiful.
    – 
  • Ideal for: Animal and nature lovers, families. If you’ve been on a lot of true safaris, this place will probably not hold too much interest for you. But if you really want to see Big Five animals, and don’t care if they are truly wild or not, then this is a great place to visit.
    – 
  • Insider tips: The jeeps are nicely shaded, but you will still want sunscreen, sunglasses, and probably a hat (they have all of this stuff available at the gift shop, but it costs an absolute fortune). If you want, you can even book a room at the reserve for a few nights (my understanding is that you get two free drives every day with the price of your room). The guides request that you wear muted, khaki-colored clothing so that you won’t alarm the animals. Admission was about 2000 rand, which seems reasonable for a three-hour tour and two meals.
    – 
  • Nearby food: breakfast and lunch are included in the price of your admission (though we barely had time for breakfast when we arrived). The meals are buffet style, and there are plenty of gluten-free and vegetarian options.
  • Good for kids: Absolutely. They were several children on our tour, and they seemed to love it. Just make sure that they are able to be quiet around the larger animals (which, clearly, I still haven’t learned at my age), and that they won’t go jumping out of the jeep.

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