The best safaris in South Africa


Safari In The Western Cape

Best game reserves and safari parks in South Africa's Western Cape

Stuart Butler
By Stuart Butler

For most visitors to South Africa, the Western Cape is all about the finer things in life: food, wine, beaches and Cape Town — arguably the most beautiful city in Africa. For many, wildlife safaris don’t really come into the equation.

However, if you know where to look, then the Western Cape does offer the chance to pull out a big camera lens and head out in search of elephants and lions. All the famed Big Five are present in this region although in most cases they’ve been re-introduced into fairly small, fenced private game reserves. These are not zoos, but they’re also not vast wilderness zones like the ones you might find elsewhere in Africa.

If all you’re looking for is a family-friendly, short safari experience that can be easily slotted into a wine tour or a Cape Town city break, then the Western Cape fits the bill.

Safari in the Western Cape

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Jackal in Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Western Cape wildlife

Like the Eastern Cape, Western Cape contains many different habitats, and it supports a wide range of wildlife. This includes some massive marine life including some of the world’s biggest (and hungriest!) sharks. On dry land many of the larger native mammals were wiped out over the last couple of hundred years. However, today, thanks to reintroduction programmes in the region’s private game reserves, many of these animals are returning. It’s now possible to see most of the key big mammal species of South Africa here.

Western Cape is a wildlife-watching destination all year round, but try to avoid December and January which are busy tourist periods when accommodation prices rise significantly.

When to visit

The Western Cape is a wildlife-watching destination all year round, but try to avoid December and January which are busy tourist periods when accommodation prices rise significantly.


Tortoise in Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Western Cape reserves

Aquila Private Game Reserve

Named after the endangered black (Verreaux) eagle, Aquila is one of a number of small and rather stage-managed private reserves, a short drive from Cape Town. The 10,000-hectare conservancy was established back in 1999 and at the time was home to only a few antelope. Today, thanks to animal reintroduction and solid conservation programmes, Aquila Private Game Reserve is home to all of the Big Five as well as a significant number of other large mammals and birdlife.

It would be wrong to paint Aquila as a true African wilderness experience, but it can’t be faulted for quality wildlife viewing, which includes near guaranteed sightings of lions and all their friends and enemies, lots of alternative activities, easy access (you can visit on a day trip from Cape Town), and high-class accommodation.

Best for: The Big Five and big city access

Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Combine big cats with wine tasting, and you get the Sanbona Wildlife Reserve. Like the nearby Aquila reserve, Sanbona is an exclusive private conservancy that’s been restocked with the big ticket animal attractions — lions, elephants, buffalo and rhinos — and, thanks to the expert guides, all are regularly seen on safaris here. Covering more than 50,000 hectares, Sanbona is large enough to feel like a genuine wilderness, but at the same time is only a three-hour drive from Cape Town and lies close to the Western Cape’s famed wine lands. This means it’s easy to slip a Big Five safari into a wine tasting tour and a Cape Town city break.

Situated at the foot of the Warmwaterberg Mountains in the Little Karoo, Sanbona offers three reserves with all the usual luxuries.

As well as standard vehicle safaris, we recommend joining an overnight walking safari and trying a bush camping experience. Look out for the 3,500-year-old rock art depicting people and animals left by the San and Khoikhoi tribes.

Best for: The Big Five and self-drive safaris


Dwyka tented lodges in Sanbona Wildlife Reserve

Western Cape lodges and accommodation

The reserves have their own upmarket lodges and camps. See the individual park websites for details. Both reserves are close enough to Cape Town to make day trips feasible if not entirely desirable — after all, the accommodation is a major part of the whole experience.

Don’t miss

While you’re in the Western Cape don’t miss a trip to Table Mountain (as if you would!) In addition to the great views over Cape Town, its distinctive shape, known as a “sky island”, is a botanical wonderland. The plant life here is primarily fynbos, a type of shrubland that is unique to the region. There are more than 1,500 species that are found only on Table Mountain and nearby Black Table and are protected by World Heritage Site status.

About the author

Safari In The Western Cape

Stuart Butler

Stuart is an award-winning travel journalist covering safari, trekking and conservation in Africa for the Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, BBC, Bradt Travel Guides, amongst many others. He is the author of Walking With The Maasai, a journey through some of Kenya's lesser-visited Maasai lands.

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