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Today -- to celebrate the re-introduction of our seasonal direct flights to Cape Town -- we invite Matthew back to tell us about some of the incredible opportunities in Cape Town and the surrounding area for getting up close to South Africa's native wildlife.
If you're considering a winter sun holiday to South Africa's Western Cape this Christmas, find out where you can catch sight of a Cape fur seal colony, learn about rescued lions and rhino conservation efforts, spot an African Dusky Flycatcher and have a genuine big five safari experience. Over to you, Matthew...
Duiker Island and Cape Point Nature Reserve
For a nautical family adventure take a drive to Hout Bay where you can catch any number of local boat tours out to Duiker Island. You’ll see (and smell) the large Cape fur seal colony clinging to the rocky outcrop, diving into the sea and splashing around close by. For the more adventurous, book a catamaran trip and sit on the netting spread between the hulls to really feel the sea spray on your face.
After a quay side lunch, drive out to the Cape Point Nature Reserve via spectacular Chapman’s Peak Pass and stop at various vantage points for photo opportunities. The nature reserve comprises more than 7,000 hectares of fynbos-rich landscape through which cut a number of walks and trails: you may be lucky enough to see a Cape Mountain Zebra or Eland.
Park your car and stroll down to the beach at the Cape of Good Hope where the Atlantic and Indian oceans crash together in a violent maelstrom beneath the cliffs, the cause of many shipwrecks in the past. And don’t forget to visit the famous lighthouse at the tip of Cape Point itself, via the nervewracking knife edge pathway to the lookout point -- depending on the time of year you can witness the annual whale migration. Just watch out for the baboons who have become quite boisterous due to humans feeding them: follow instructions on the signs and don’t eat in their presence -- though don’t worry as the baboon guards are well trained to keep them from getting too close. No car? A knowledgeable, family-friendly guide can be hired at a reasonable cost in Cape Town (ask for recommendations from your hotel) so leave the driving to someone else.
Drakenstein Lion Park
An easy drive from Cape Town up the N1 to Paarl brings you to Drakenstein Lion Park where Paul Hart’s organisation rescues ill-treated lions from around the world, guaranteeing life-long care. The important educational message Drakenstein shares is that cuddling or walking with lion cubs condemns them to a life behind bars or worse, and so here the public are not permitted any interaction with the lions themselves.
Feeding takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons which Paul himself oversees and if you want to personally ask him questions, this is the best time to do so. Rescued and human habituated lions such as you’ll see at Drakenstein can never be released back into the wild, and so Paul’s aim is to provide the best conditions for the rest of their lives.
Unrelated males cannot be kept together and only males and females are paired (all the lions are sterilized), and in each enclosure large climbing platforms have been constructed to enrich their lives. Overnight accommodation can be prebooked within the park itself, during which you will sleep surrounded by lions in well-appointed tents. For more information on Paul Hart’s work at Drakenstein, check out his interview on Safaritalk.
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
At least half a day should be reserved for Kirstenbosch, just 13 kms from the centre of Cape Town and well-served by local buses. In the shadow of Table Mountain the area known as the Cape Floral Kingdom is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's well worth taking the free guided walking tour (about 90 minutes), which leaves the Information Desk in the Visitors’ Centre (Gate 1) at 10am Mondays to Saturdays.
Due to its huge range of native South Africa flora, (more than 7000 species including plants indigenous to the Cape area), birdlife is abundant and avid bird watchers might see the Sugarbird, the vivid Sunbirds, the African Dusky Flycatcher and Steppe Buzzard. Wildlife is shy and nocturnal in the gardens, but consider yourself privileged if you spot any of the following while exploring some of the estate’s wilder trails: Grysbok, Caracal/Rooikat, Small Spotted Genet, and Cape Fox.
Aquila Private Game Reserve
Offering the closest big five safari experience to Cape Town, Aquila is less than a two hour drive away taking you into South Africa’s Karoo region. Visit for the day, or stay overnight in a luxury chalet or bush cottage, giving you the chance to relax with an excellent meal and sundowner while listening to the sounds of Africa’s wildlife.
Home to the big five (elephant, lion, buffalo, rhino and leopard), Aquila’s program of wildlife reintroduction to the Cape region includes many other species, which you'll see on your guided safari drives. Horse riding and quad bike safaris are also available, accompanied by qualified game rangers -- no prior experience is necessary.
Aquila is home to captive bred cheetahs which are education ambassadors, serving to highlight the plight of ecosystem destruction and their survival in the wild. Utmost care is given to their welfare and guests are not permitted to personally interact, although staff are on hand to talk about cheetah conservation efforts. Aquila is situated in a malaria free zone and is therefore a great option if you're travelling with young children.
A short flight from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth will bring you to the family owned and run Kragga Kamma Game Park, home to a number of plains species including white rhino, buffalo, cheetah and giraffe, and an extensive number of bird species -- more than 200 have been documented. In light of the recent upsurge in rhino poaching throughout South Africa, Kragga Kamma offers visitors the chance to learn just how important rhino conservation efforts are in preventing the wild rhino from becoming extinct.
Kragga Kamma is 25 kms from the famous Addo Elephant National Park, (South Africa’s third largest National Park where you can view the big five close up), and is an excellent base from which to explore the Port Elizabeth area. If driving back to Cape Town via South Africa’s famous R62 Garden Route, stop off and experience the magic of waking up with the meerkats in Oudtshoorn: consider staying the night at a local guesthouse before an early morning start with local guide Devey Glinister who’ll introduce you to a meerkat family at play, following a short walk and breakfast. (Check Devey's website for details of age limits at different times of year).
For more fantastic South Africa wildlife-spotting opportunities -- including the Boulders Beach penguins and turtle-watching in KwaZulu Natal, check out Lucy Corne's Up-Close Animal Encounters, and for expert advice and opinion on anything to do with South Africa's wildlife and environmental concerns, head over to Safaritalk.net.
Virgin Atlantic operates a seasonal, daily flight to Cape Town from London Heathrow -- you'll always find the best fares on our website. For a bespoke South Africa holiday in the Western Cape, tailor-made to your exact requirements, visit Virgin Holidays.
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.