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.

Cheetah Outreach in Cape Town

Get up close to cheetahs and other wild animals just outside of Cape Town.

Here you can stroke adult cheetahs, cuddle with adorable cheetah cubs and listen to their rumbling purrs. Situated a mere 25 minutes from Cape Town, the Cheetah Outreach program lets guests meet and interact with the world’s fastest land animal. Private beach walks with the animals are also possible, as are viewings of ‘cheetah runs’ where these magnificent creatures sprint for their food, which is a rare sight indeed.

Cheetah Outreach was launched in 1997 with the primary goal of raising tame cheetah cubs to act as ambassadors for this endangered species and promote awareness. The programme runs workshops and presentations to further educate participants. Bat-eared fox encounters are also available, and children are allowed to feed and touch these unique and fluffy little animals under the watchful eye of a trained handler. So, why not do something special and visit the Cheetah Outreach program? It’s not only a fantastic experience to see animals up-close but you will also learn all about their lives in a safe and educational program that is ideal for children. Be sure to take some amazing photos while you’re there.

South Africa’s Big Five of dangerous spiders

Spiders in South Africa can be harmful in two ways: they can scare the daylights out of you but that’s about it, or their bite can land you in the emergency room. This quick guide will help you know the difference between scary but harmless spiders, and the ones that can seriously harm – or even kill.

Spiders and spider bites in South Africa: What parents need to know:

South Africa is home to over 3,000 known species of spiders, many of which are found in our homes, gardens and natural surroundings. They’re an integral part of our natural ecosystems and play an invaluable role in controlling pests. But that doesn’t mean that the mere mention of the dreaded ‘S word’ doesn’t strike fear into even the bravest of us. Therefore, knowing what these Arachnoid kings and queens are all about, how to identify them and what to do if you, or someone you know, get bitten makes all the difference. Especially with South African ‘spider season’ being upon us with spiders and spider bites in South Africa increasing during the warm summer months, it’s more important than ever to be aware and prepared!

Knowledge on spider and spider bites in South Africa is especially important when you have kids. Little ones tend to run around and explore all sorts of hideaways and hard-to-reach spots, thereby putting them at an increased risk of getting bitten by a spider. But that certainly doesn’t mean the rest of us are immune to this danger, children however have a higher risk of developing complications from a venomous spider bite, and extra precautions should thus be taken. . However, of all the spiders and spider bites in South Africa only a select few are harmful to humans. In order to equip you with the necessary knowledge on which South African spiders are venomous, namely the BIG 5 of dangerous spiders, we have prepared this spider and spider bite in South Africa guide to help you out.

South Africa’s BIG 5 of dangerous spiders:

While most of the spider species found in South Africa are harmless, there certainly are a few that are incredibly venomous. To minimise the risk, both for yourself and your children, it is extremely beneficial to know how to identify these venomous local spiders, what common signs and symptoms of these specific spider bites are and what do if someone is bitten:

  1. The Sac Spider:
Photo: Joe Lapp, used with permission.
Photo: Joe Lapp, used with permission.

Not only is this night-dwelling spider considered by many experts to be South Africa’s most dangerous spider, it is also estimated to be responsible for nearly three quarters of all reported spider bites. This certainly earns the Sac Spider the number 1 spot on the big 5 spider list.

  • How to identify them: The Sac Spider is characterised by a black head, pale yellow body and large abdomen. The arrangement of the legs is also a distinct marker with two pairs directed forwards and two pairs backwards.
  • Type of venom: These spiders have a cytotoxic venom. Cytotoxic venom affects the tissue that is destroyed around the bite and can cause considerable tissue damage. The symptoms develop gradually and often the person is unaware that he/she has been bitten until the area around the bite becomes painful and eventually forms a large lesion. It is therefore important to regularly check your child for spider bites.
  • Signs & symptoms of a bite: Because Sac Spiders are night dwellers most people tend to be bitten in their sleep. The bite is painless and often two fang bite marks, approximately 4-8mm apart, is the only marker of a bite. The bite is known to form a ‘bull’s eye’ lesion with the surrounding area progressively becoming red and swollen. An ulcerating wound can often be formed.
  • Treatment: Majority of Sac Spider bites heal spontaneously. Treatment options are often directed at preventing any secondary infection with antibiotics or local antiseptics. The wound takes approximately 4 weeks to heal, however in severe cases it can take up to a decade for the area to recover.
  • Favourite hangouts: Sac Spiders are generally found outdoors but if they are indoors your curtains, clothing, bedding and tablecloths are some of their favourite hangout spots.
  1. Black Widow & Brown Widow: AKA Button Spider:

This is probably the most well-known South African spider and can be classified into two categories, the deadly black widow or black button spider and the less venomous brown button spider. Let’s take a closer look at both of them.

  • How to identify a Black Widow spider: Shiny black body with a distinguished red spot, tear-drop or stripe on its round belly. The females are also much larger than the males, trumping them in size with a staggering 11mm compared to 4mm.
  • How to identify a Brown Widow spider: Their colour varies from cream, grey, and brown to pitch black. Brown widow spiders also have the same red spot marking on the belly.
  • Type of venom: Button spiders have a neurotoxic venom which affects the nervous system and bites are often accompanied by severe pain.
  • Sign and symptoms of a Black Widow spider bite: Black Widow spiders are far more venomous than Brown Widow spiders and therefore the bite is accompanied by an increased amount of pain. A bite from a Black Widow spider can also result in generalised muscle pain and cramps, limb pain, stiffness of the abdomen, leg weakness, profuse sweating, raised blood pressure and restlessness. These symptoms can also be exacerbated in small children, so keep a close eye!
  • Signs and symptoms of a Brown Widow spider bite: These symptoms are far milder and tend to be restricted to the bite site itself. You will experience local burning that may spread to the surrounding tissue. The bite site is typically visible and surrounded by a localised rash. This usually clears up within a day or 2.
  • Treatment: A Black Widow spider bite requires the person to be hospitalised and a close eye to be kept on the vital signs for 24hours. In severe cases the administration of an antivenom is the only effective treatment. But there is some really good news just before you start to worry, no deaths from button spiders have been recorded in the last 50 years, let’s be sure to keep it that way!
  • Favourite hangouts: These spiders are found all over South Africa, but typically reside in dark quiet places. Their favourite hangouts definitely are outbuildings and windowsills. So be sure to check your child for any bite marks after they’ve been playing around in these areas.
  1. The Violin Spider:
  • How to identify them: These spiders are found across South Africa and can be identified by their brown, and sometimes reddish-brown ‘violin shaped body’ with dark markings. These spiders range anywhere from 8-19mm in size.
  • Type of venom: Violin spiders have a cytotoxic venom and therefore affect the tissue around the bite mark. It can also cause additional tissue damage.
  • Signs and symptoms of a bite: A bite from a Violin spider is usually small and painless and it therefore often goes unnoticed until the venom starts eating away at the tissue. As with any cytotoxic spider it is important to regularly check your children for bite marks as they often won’t present with any pain. As the symptoms are progressive it usually swells after a few hours and becomes discoloured, often developing a purple centre. This is further followed by blistering and peeling of the skin, often leaving an open wound.
  • Treatment: There is no antivenom for Violin spider bites, therefore treatment involves the surgical removal of dead flesh. The main focus is preventing any secondary infection from occurring once bitten. Untreated bites can result in additional infections, necrosis and septicaemia.
  • Favourite hangouts: The Violin spider can usually be found in grassland areas as well as caves with only one known species being introduced into houses. These spiders are nocturnal in nature and therefore often wander into your clothes, shoes and bedding at night.
  1. Six-eyed Sand Spider:
  • How to identify them: True to their name the Six-eyed Sand Spider is a brown spider that is often covered in sand particles that adhere to their bodies. They are also often referred to having a ‘crab-like’ appearance.
  • Type of venom: The venom of the Six-eyed Sand Spider is both hemolytic and necrotoxic, causing leaking blood vessels and destroyed tissues.
  • Signs and symptoms of a bite: The venom elicited by the Six-eyed Sand Spider is believed to cause extensive local tissue destruction and may also result in serious internal haemorrhage. Bites can additionally cause blood vessel leakage and multi-organ breakdown.
  • Treatment: There have thus far been no reported cases of a human being bitten by a Six-eyed Sand Spider. If you do suspect that you or your child has been bitten, seek medical attention.
  • Favourite hangouts: You can find these notoriously shy spiders buried in the sand waiting for their prey to arrive. They are fond of sparsely-habited desert areas like the Namibia and Kalahari Desert. It is estimated that a Six-eyed Sand Spider can survive up to a year without food and water, so if you’re challenging these sand crawlers to a waiting game you’re guaranteed to loose.
  1. Baboon Spider:
  • How to identify them: A sub-family of the tarantula, the Baboon spider includes more than 40 individual species in South Africa alone. These spiders are characterised by their large hairy bodies, pads on their feet and the distinct resemblance their 2 last segments on their legs have to that of a baboon’s fingers. The Baboon spider is also very popular in the Western Cape.
  • Sign and symptoms of a bite: A bite from a Baboon spider will cause a localised burning sensation at the site of the bite. You will also experience additional vomiting and dizziness. Not all species of the Baboon spider are venomous, and all of them are unlikely to attack unless they are provoked.
  • Treatment: A bite from a Baboon spider isn’t fatal, but it is important that you get checked out be a doctor to treat the secondary symptoms.
  • Favourite hangouts: These spiders favour dry shrub lands and often live in burrows.

Now that you know which spiders make up the ‘Spider Big 5’, here are a couple of extra helpful tips on spiders and spider bites in South Africa and what to do if your child does get bitten by a spider:

  • Wash the area with soap and water
  • Put a cool wet cloth on the bite site to relieve swelling and pain

Seek immediate medical care if your child:

  • Shows signs of an allergic reaction
  • Experiences severe pain or cramping
  • Develops any kind of rash following a spider bite
  • The bite site starts to show signs of infection (redness, swelling, warmth, pain, pus)
  • You suspect that your child has been bitten by a black widow spider and/or any other extremely venomous spider

Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure! Here are a couple of important preventative tips for spider and spider bites in South Africa that parents can implement to protect their children against spider bites:

  • Make sure your outhouses, garages, attics, windowsills, corners etc. are free of spider webs.
  • Make sure your child wears long sleeves and pants if they are playing around these areas.
  • Inspect the area your child is playing in and make sure there are no visible signs of spiders or spider webs.
  • Conduct a thorough inspection of your child after they have been playing in areas that are prone to spiders and spider webs. Remember, when a cytotoxic spider bites your child they might not feel any pain or be aware that it even happened.
  • Take extra precautions if you know a certain area is home to a large number of spiders.
  • As allot of these spiders are night dwellers, be sure to check your child for bite sites in the morning, especially if you are in an area that’s home to a large number of venomous spiders.


Urban safari: the secret lives of Cape Town’s city animals

You need not go on safari to immerse yourself in nature and discover fascinating animals. Belinda Ashton, who runs the Wild Neighbours Urban Wildlife Initiative, explains that Cape Town has plenty of urban wildlife — you just have to know where to look for it.

Cape Town is a city of incredible natural diversity — from the splendour of our fynbos mountains to the rugged coastlines of False Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The magic of living here is that wild life inhabits the most unexpected places.

Visitors to Cape Town are often disappointed by the absence of larger mammals, but our mountains and suburbs still support surprising animal diversity — from buck like the shy grysbok and little klipspringer to hardy rodents like striped mice, Cape gerbils and subterranean mole-rats, as well as small predators such as genets and caracal. It’s hard to believe, but over 80 small mammals can be found across the peninsula!

If you take a trip along Rhodes Drive in Newlands, for example, you might be rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of a shy Cape Fox. Or if you happen to be travelling in False Bay along Boyes Drive at night, your headlights might reveal a porcupine in search of bulbs.

Cape Town consists of an intricate patchwork of green spaces that have been left as small sanctuaries amongst the built environments of our suburbs. These spaces range from parks and greenbelts to the wilder habitats of our mountains, rivers and wetlands.

The shrubby vegetation that characterises fynbos generally supports smaller species, whose habits are mainly nocturnal, so it takes some perseverance to uncover their hidden secrets. The animals often leave clues about their night-time activities. For example, small tracks through the restios (a local grass) reveal a wild cat on the hunt for rodents, while dried scat filled with bits of crushed shell are evidence of an otter’s meal.

Life in the Cape would be infinitely poorer without our wild neighbours. Just knowing they are out there living their secret lives reminds and reassures us of our own sense of belonging within this immense world.