To see the king of the jungle stand tall and proud on Animal Planet may get the nerves tingling, but can it compare to being just a few feet away, those fierce eyes staring right back at you? We bring you an encounter with the Big 5 and more, where else but in splendid South Africa

Children growing up through the ’90s were fortunate enough to have been gifted a masterpiece in Lion King, that only added to the existing fascination with the African wilds. So when one is lucky enough to visit Africa, what else would be top of the list but a game reserve adventure! On a wildlife trail through the popular Aquila Private Game Reserve, we had our hearts racing and our cameras clicking away as the impressive animals of Africa presented themselves, one by one.

Situated two hours away from beautiful Cape Town, Aquila makes for a memorable wildlife getaway for enthusiasts touring the Western Cape. Family-friendly, though a hotspot for honeymooners, it presents an opportunity to experience the beautiful beasts in a more tamed manner, the thrill though, none the lesser. So with our luggage checked in and the initial acquaintance with our fabulous, rustic, stone-walled rooms made, we headed out to explore our wild sides. Coated and booted to the tee to brave the harsh winds of the African spring, the open-air vans seemed uninviting but the warm blankets provided made up for it. Thus, began the Aquila game drive, undertaken once late afternoon and once early morning. And we just had to do it both times, as each offers a unique experience, with the animals choosing to graze in the cool mornings while the afternoons are more for their R n R. While the reserve houses the top 5 – the lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant – it goes on to include the giraffe, hippo, zebra, springbok, antelope, wildebeest, warthog, and ostrich as well. Our excitement only builds as we begin with the tranquil hippos, which are anything but. From educational inputs and trivia thrown in by efficient guides, we learn of how the hippopotamus is the single largest killer over the Big 5 put together. The two-horned rhinos (unlike the single-horned Indian counterpart), on the other hand brought forth the serious issue of poaching which is a matter close to the heart for Aquila and the Western Cape as a whole. Having lost a rhino to horrid poachers, the existing crash serve as a symbol of the strong fight that the team put up (and continues to), with Saving Private Rhino- an initiative with full-time security, semi automatic weapons and bullet proof vests for the staff. As the van moves on, one can look forward to sighting a lone giraffe standing tall in its fashionable print; we learn of how the being sleeps for just 4.5 hours a day, even with upright slumbers being recorded, especially in older individuals. The king of the jungle, on the other hand, can rest for 18 whole hours, staying true to his title. A majestic creature indeed, with a furry mane and striking eyes, the lion casts furtive glances at the van while his consort feasts on her horse carcass, looking powerful in her comparative simplicity. Note that the animals are fed at different sites of the reserve, greatly reducing the danger of an attack on visitors. But prudence trumps ignorance, where guides ensure a safe, yet close enough distance is maintained. As a pair of African elephants near, the van is revved up quickly and the largest living terrestrial beings are allowed to carry on their path. Further on, a mowed-down gate adds a touch of intrigue as we are informed of this being the handiwork of the Cape buffalo; the one who continues to elude us.

To have seen the zebra gathered together reminded us of Marty in the much-loved Madagascar, and it’s interesting to learn of how zebras form concentric circles in times of danger to protect their young ones by placing them in the middle; look from the top and you see a dazzle, the term that defines a group of zebras. Just as no two zebras share the same stripes, so also does each leopard bear its unique spots. Though unfortunate to have missed them in the wild, we caught a glimpse of a sleeping beauty in the rescue and conservation centre across the road, while on a morning stop over, where we also saw crocodile play dead to the tee. Regular sightings of a variety of deer, blue and black wildebeest, and over 170 species of birds, enrich the Aquila safari, replete with a nice little spread of niblets served with chilled wine and juice to compliment the bright sunset.

An early morning with the beasts can certainly contribute to a wild appetite which is best tamed with the sumptuous buffet at Boma, Aquila’s African style restaurant. With wood and electric fires lit, the spacious area created a warm atmosphere for us to sit back and enjoy some traditional corn fritters over a cup of robust African coffee. Among the interesting Aquila activities, the horseback and quad bike safaris ignited the adventurous spirit within, with the gleaming red bikes being our obvious choice. Led by a guide, a group of us headed into the wild reserve wondering who and what we may encounter along the way. As luck would have it, the mighty bovine decided to reveal itself in the distance, with its peculiar bull horns that bear a shield known as a ‘boss’, impenetrable sometimes even by a rifle bullet. Upon returning, a rhino-elephant confrontation played itself out – with the tusker firmly guarding his territory – thus bringing our exhilarating ride to a fulfilling end. If you’re looking at a one or two-day adventure, then overnight and fly-in safaris are also on offer at the reserve.

Kruger may be South Africa’s first and largest national park, yet Aquila – in its infant years – does well to offer a comfortable insight into the wildlife of Africa, presented against the dramatic canvas of the Klein Karoo Mountains. Rock, thatch and wood are in keeping with Aquila’s respect for the environment which we took pleasure in, though a “bare-all” shower in the outdoor bathrooms, we decided, would be best attempted under friendlier temperatures!

While the ‘no room telecom facility’ was a bit of a challenge, the malaria-free Aquila experience was one we won’t be forgetting that easily. And with exciting plans to expand in the near future, animal lovers can certainly look forward to a wilder trip soon.

This travel feature was published in Dogs & More Magazine, Nov-Dec 2012, used here with permission from the publisher