3 of the city’s best captive wildlife experiences

When you think of a city, a ragged-tooth shark or an African rock python probably aren’t the first things that come to mind. But then you might not be thinking of Cape Town, where you can get up close to wildlife right in the city at animal parks and sanctuaries. Don’t miss these wildife encounters.

1. The Two Oceans Aquarium: Situated in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront precinct, the Two Oceans Aquarium gives a glimpse of what you might see should you go diving in one of the nearby oceans. In addition to an exhibit of sea creatures from each of Cape Town’s oceans — the warm Indian (east coast) and chilly Atlantic (west coast) — the aquarium also features a predators exhibit, a penguin exhibit, a lush kelp forest and a touch pool for the kids. Time your visit so that you can witness the frenzy of activity at feeding time. Or take the opportunity to go diving in the predator tank with the sharks — no cages, just you, a dive instructor and a few ragged-tooth sharks.

2. World of Birds: In Hout Bay, only 20-kilometres from Cape Town’s city centre, you will find the largest bird park in Africa. The aviaries here house more than 3 000 birds of 400 different species, including falcons, pelicans, goshawks, herons, kites, owls, vultures, eagles, flamingos, swans and ibises.

More than just a bird sanctuary, the World of Birds is also home to a motley collection of mammals, including baboons, meerkats, mongooses, porcupines, foxes, marmosets and racoons. The Monkey Jungle, a large walkthrough enclosure that houses 38 squirrel monkeys, allows you to be in direct contact with these inquisitive little primates.

3. Imhoff Snake Park: Roughly 40-kilometres from Cape Town’s city centre, in Kommetjie, you will find the Imhoff Snake Park. A reptile sanctuary and rehabilitation centre, the park is home to a variety of local and exotic reptiles. In addition to crocodiles and alligators, you’ll get to see a 3.5-metre-long yellow anaconda, a rattle-snake-eating Californian king snake, a Mozambican spitting cobra and an African rock python. Kids — and their curious parents — can interact with some of the less dangerous snakes.

Big 5, white lions and pure luxury: say hello to Sanbona

If you’re looking to add a Big Five safari and the chance to see incredibly rare white lions to your Cape Town holiday, Sanbona Wildlife Reserve should be top of your list.

Combining the ‘beach and bush’ is a popular option for travellers to South Africa, but if you don’t have time to fly from Cape Town to the bushveld reserves of far-flung Mpumalanga province, all is not lost.

Three hours’ drive from Cape Town you’ll find Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, in the region known as the Klein Karoo. This ancient landscape of dramatic valleys and towering mountains is a draw card in itself, but Sanbona has also crafted a remarkable 54 000-hectare wildlife reserve from this impressive backdrop.

Sanbona is home to three wonderful lodges. Tilney Manor is the most intimate option, with just six spacious suites. It’s ideal for mature travelers seeking gracious living and good conversation around the communal dinner table.

Gondwana Lodge is firmly family-friendly. It boasts a large pool, activities for kids and the option of inter-leading rooms. While parents enjoy the Relaxation Retreat spa, there’s a separate kids’ club – piled high with educational books and games – to keep younger ones entertained.

Dwyka Tented Lodge is all about romance: set in a rocky amphitheatre, these stone and canvas creations are the most stylish accommodation option on Sanbona, where private plunge pools offer a tempting option for nocturnal stargazing.

Regardless of which lodge you’re at, the highlight of Sanbona is the daily game drives that take guests deep into this remarkable wilderness. Along with the remarkable array of antelope – look out for eland, kudu and giraffe – the highlight for most guests is a sighting of Sanbona’s remarkable white lions. Caused by a recessive gene, not albinism, the white lions here are amongst just a handful living wild in South Africa. The chance to see cheetah is another highlight of Sanbona, and although they’re shy you have a better chance of spotting them than the rare Cape Mountain Leopards that prowl these valleys.

While Sanbona is home to all of Africa’s so-called Big Five – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo – game drives here are about admiring the landscape as much as the animals. Don’t get upset if there isn’t an elephant around every corner – there won’t be – so sit back and admire the landscapes and the lesser-known aspects of the wilderness that the well-trained guides bring to life.

While a handful of reserves close to Cape Town offer day-trip safaris, none of them can compete with the enigmatic wilderness of Sanbona Private Game Reserve. Book a night, ideally two, and get your fix of South Africa’s toothy furry locals.

See Africa’s Big 5 on daytrip safaris from Cape Town

Private game reserves near the city of Cape Town provide a convenient, malaria-free environment in which to spot Africa’s Big Fve — lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard. Some of these reserves are so close to the city that you can even make a day of it and head home to Cape Town as night falls.

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve: Situated three hours from Cape Town in the Klein Karoo, this five-star game reserve is home to South Africa’s Big Five, as well as a variety of antelope, cheetah, hippo, giraffe and zebra. Of particular interest at this reserve is the endangered riverine rabbit — the 13th most endangered mammal in the world — and the rare white lion. Sanbona runs a rehabilitation programme that aims to reintroduce white lions into the wild. Take an old-school approach to your safari and book a night at the tented bush camp.

Aquila Private Game Reserve: This 10 00 hectare conservancy is located two hours drive from Cape Town in the valley between the Langeberg and Outeniqua Mountains. Also home to the Big Five, Aquila offers a range of safaris, including horseback and quad bike safaris, as well as other activities such as fishing and 4×4 trails. For those just passing through, there is an option to visit the reserve for the day.

Inverdoorn Game Reserve: If you are captivated by cheetahs, this reserve should be at the top of your list. Located in the Ceres Karoo (two-and-a-half hours from Cape Town), the 10 000-hectare reserve is home to one of the world’s best cheetah rescue and rehabilitation sanctuaries. If you’re staying at Inverdoorn Game Reserve, you’ll get the opportunity to interact with the resident tame cheetahs, Velvet and Iziba. Inverdoorn Game Reserve is also home to a variety of antelope, zebra, giraffe, buffalo and the Cape Barbary lion.  The reserve offers three-, four- and five-star accommodation.

Fairy Glen Private Game Reserve:  A slightly more budget-friendly option, Fairy Glen is only an hour’s drive from Cape Town. The reserve, which is named after a dragonfly found in the area, came into being when six privately-owned game reserves joined forces. In addition to the Big Five, the reserve also boasts wildebeest, eland, zebra, oryx and a variety of African bird species. While it’s certainly close enough for a day trip, you could also stay overnight in one of the chalets.

Buffelsfontein Game and Nature Reserve: Situated on the West Coast, less than an hour from Cape Town’s city centre, this game and nature reserve started out as a 1600-hectare cattle farm. It now boasts three of theBig Five — lion, rhino and buffalo — as well as cheetah, giraffe, zebra and a variety of antelope. If you get lucky, you might also see the Cape fox, African wildcat, aardvark and honey badger. Day trip safaris are available and include transport to and from the reserve, breakfast on arrival, game drives and lunch.