An Experience of A Lifetime: The Big-Five African Safari, Aquila Private Game Reserve

Summer last year brought an unexpected experience of a lifetime. While I did anticipate to have a memorable safari adventure, I honestly had no idea it would instantly top the charts of my favorite travel experiences to date, even immediately surpassing my lifelong dreams of cruising through the Norwegian fjords, frolicking through the Russian palaces of the Romanovs, or going on a temple run in Siem Reap, CambodiaOur trip to South Africa was sometime in mid May to early June, which is the start of the winter season, so it wasn’t strange to get a call from our guide – Dave – the day before, telling us to anticipate rain. This, of course, was unfortunate for us as the outdoors aren’t as enjoyable when it’s muddy and gloomy; but on the day of the tour itself, just as we were picked-up by Dave from the hotel, the sun started to come out! It was a pleasant morning, as we made our first photo stop overlooking Paarl, which is around sixty to seventy kilometers from Cape Town. Pictured below was the car we were privately serviced with from Cape Town to Aquila Private Game Reserve and Spa, which can be booked through this link – offering excellent guide services. As we continued on with our 130km drive to Aquila, we were graced with a breathtaking drive through the South African landscapes. At the very moment we laid eyes on the property, I was stunned. Aquila Private Game Reserve and Spa exuded such character and was true to its safari theme all throughout. Waiting for us right by the entrance was a glass of champagne as a welcome drink. Entering the premises, we were greeted by the reception staff, to whom we paid the dues for the afternoon safari. Rates per person can be found here. While we had the option to do it on quad bikes or horseback, we decided to go with the traditional jeep game drive.We were then led to the dining hall, where a buffet lunch with the spread ranged from cheeses, bread & pastries, local dishes, pasta, vegetables, and rice – quite the complete selection.  What I loved about this lunch, aside from the food, however, was the view. The sun was out and the weather was cooperating – a total opposite of what we had expected the day before; and I couldn’t help but be thankful.  Right after lunch, we had a bit of time to roam the grounds. Only one thing entered my mind, as we got to see more of the resort: one day, I’ll be back, and have enough saved up to be able to stay for at least two nights. The ambiance was absolutely relaxing and exhibited such character that indeed, I felt I was in Africa – not that I hadn’t felt this previously, but this time it was even more-so. Now onto the afternoon safari game drive that awaited. We got onto the jeep & met our park ranger – who was absolutely fantastic all throughout, by the way – and began our little sightseeing adventure.Lo and behold, we got our first sighting – photographed from afar while submerged are hippos, who spend up to 16 hours in water. I know, this isn’t the greatest photo, but 16 hours is a long time to wait for them to come up!Fun fact that I only learned from our park ranger during the safari: never try to outrun a hippo. It’s easy to judge them instantly, as creatures who lack speed, just like I did when I first laid eyes on the animal while in Antwerp Zoo in the spring of 2014. Apparently, they can run up to a whopping 30km/h, and weighing around 2-3 tons (that’s roughly 4,000 to 6,000 pounds), they can crush a human in an instant – this, inaddition to having very sharp teeth. That being said, they’re considered the world’s deadliest land mammals, with a death count surpassing that of the Big-Five combined. Venturing into the 24,700-acre private game reserve that sits between the Langeberg and Outeniqua Mountains, we were ready to see more. Although the Big-Five (lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, Cape buffalo) are on the grounds, there was no certainty that we’ll get a glimpse of all of them during the safari. They’re out in the wild and given the size of the area, the chances aren’t high. I told myself: just seeing three kinds of animals out in the wild will be more than enough. Luckily, we were graced with the presence of the following marvelous creatures – in no order: springboks, buffalos, antelopes, rhinos, wildebeests, zebras, baboons (though quite in abundance anywhere in SA), and others I may not have gotten the chance to list down. It was the first time to see all these animals out in the wild and it was heavenly. 
We made a stop at a viewpoint, which was an elevated area that overlooked the grounds of Aquila.Some of the guests who opted to do the horseback riding version of the game drive were in the same area, and I couldn’t help but take snapshots of them.I had to pause for a moment and realize (once again) that yes, I was in Africa. The feeling was exhilarating.The lion’s enclave is separate from where the rest of animals stay, which is quite self-explanatory. So when we went through the electric barriors, it felt like that scene from Jurassic Park & the theme song started to play in my head.  We spent a good half hour or more, driving through the grounds, hoping to get a glimpse of the king of the jungle, but we weren’t lucky this time around. I told myself that we had already gotten more than we bargained for, so I was beyond satisfied. Exiting the lion’s den, we got to see more of the wildlife creatures enjoying this massive property, and dull as it may sound (but I promise you, it is not) – just watching them stand in the midst of grasslands is what I consider as one of the best moments of my life. It’s difficult to put in words, but to see it is to feel it, as cliche as that might sound. Towards the near-end of the game drive, we went to the area where the giraffes were in, and saw the three-hearted (yes, three!) animals from afar. Again, it was just simply breathtaking to look at. Onto the latter part of the game drive, we went past another safari jeep, who our park ranger radioed. Unknown to what was happening, we started to drive back to the lion’s enclave & that was when we were told that the other safari jeep was the vehicle that was regularly used to bring food to the lions on a weekly basis. Our park ranger made no promises, but said that if the lions sense the vehicle approaching, then they might appear. Once we arrived back in the lion’s enclave with the other vehicle, it took a good five to ten minutes to finally see the pride of lions from afar up, in the mountains. You might have to ultra-zoom & squint your eyes a bit to see them in the photo below, but IT WAS MOTHER FUCKING MAGICAL – pardon my french. To encapsulate how I felt back then into words is impossible, but that’s how close I can most likely get. It felt like I was in the real-life The Lion King. Look closely, and you’ll see the alpha male, who my Disney-fan self voluntarily named Simba. The pride had started to descend from the mountain, and Simba took the lead, and the vehicle that normally carried the food started to drive away. If it’s not obvious yet, the vehicle was used to lure them out, so no food was being given that day, so we automatically thought: if they come down & realize there’s no food, what if they decide we’re the food? Hahahaha – but our park ranger was confident that as long as you stay inside the jeep, you’re fine. So I was quite settled and instead foced on the grandeur of watching The Lion King unfold right before my eyes. True enough, when the alpha male (hi, Simba) reached our area and saw that hey – the vehicle is gone & we have no food, he started roaring to the rest of the pride. Again, IT WAS MOTHER FUCKING MAGICAL. Still, the rest of the pride had gone down and were within arm’s reach. As no words can ever comprehend how I felt, let me leave you with photos instead. When the time came that we had to drive away, as the safari game drive had already surpassed the originally allotted time – again, many thanks to our ranger who went out of his way to make sure we got not just a glimpse, but even a closer look at the exquisite pride of lions – we proceeded to the area where the elephants were, to end the safari. It was stunning to see as well, of course, but honestly the encounter with the lions was out of this world & quite difficult to top. As we drove back to the main area, we had a panoramic view of the resort & spa, which was a beautiful way to end the game drive. I couldn’t help but appreciate the experience we just had, seriously still on a safari-high. It was when I realized that animals are most beautiful when they are free and in the wild. Bidding adieu to Aquila Private Game Reserve and Spa, we headed back to Cape Town with happy hearts and fulfilled souls, as we drove into the sunset. To say it was one of the best days of my life would be an understatement, as this has got to be my most magical adventure yet – beyond my wildest dreams & certainly an experience of a lifetime.