From dolphins to dassies, caracals to klipspringer, and hartebeest to hippos: discover the incredible variety of animals we share the Mother City with!
One of South Africa’s biggest selling points is our abundant wildlife and yet, the general opinion seems to be that in order to see it, you need to journey outside of Cape Town. But, unbeknownst to many, the Mother City is alive with wildlife and, no, we’re not talking about the sozzled students stumbling about Long Street. We’re talking about wild beasts, the likes of which starry-eyed tourists travel tens of thousands of kilometres to witness and take brave “selfies” with.
True, we may not have lions roaming our streets, contrary to mislead foreign perceptions, but we do have baboons cavorting on the side of Sir Lowry’s mountain pass, dassies (rock hyrax) sun-bathing on exposed boulders, caracals prowling our peninsula, zebras mowing the lawns on the slopes of Table Mountain, ostriches in fields on the West Coast, and noisy African Penguins sharing the sand with beach-goers at Boulder’s Beach.
Between July and December, our coasts receive annual visits from Southern right and hump-backed whales, some of which come so close to the shore that you can hear them singing to each other and blasting water from their blowholes. To get even closer to these mammoth marine mammals, Dyer Island Cruises and Simon’s Town Boat Company offer frequent whale watching cruises from Kleinbaai and False Bay respectively. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for smaller critters, such as African penguins, Cape fur seals, dolphins, and, if you’re really lucky, Cape clawless otters.
We also have sharks in our bays, the nocturnal spotted genet roaming our mountains, porcupines in our backyards, mongooses in the veldt, and the mightiest of antelopes, the Eland, in the Cape Point National Park. There are even hippos in Rondevlei wetlands, which, with over 230 different species of birds, is one of Cape Town’s most prolific bird-watching spots.
Rondevlei Nature Reserve
Address: Grassy Park / Zeekoevlei, Cape Town
Contact: 021 706 2404
The Cape peninsula and surrounding flats, mountains, valleys, and even urbanized areas are riddled with pockets of nature that have persisted or been preserved in spite of our tireless efforts to dominate them. The Table Mountain National Park, for example, which is literally on the city’s doorstep, is home to rock hyrax or “dassies”, Eland, Red Hartebeest, Cape mountain zebra, the critically endangered Table Mountain ghost frog, tortoises, more than 20 snake species, and a glittering array of beautiful bird species, many of which aren’t found anywhere else in the country.
Table Mountain National Park
Address: 5821 Tafelberg Road, Table Mountain (Nature Reserve)
Phone: 086 132 2223
Slightly further afield, but no more than an hour’s drive from the city, there’s the Cape Point National Park to the south and the West Coast National Park to the north. Both afford visitors the spectacular coastal views for which our world-famous city is known and are home to a staggering diversity of mammals, reptiles, and birds.
Cape Town is bursting at the seams with wildlife and birdlife. So, look up from your travel apps, camera’s viewfinder, out the window, and beyond the sweeping views; examine the rocks, ravines, cracks, crannies, fields, farmlands, sky, rivers, lakes, and the glittering ocean surface; look for movement or a break in the uniformity and the Cape’s glorious and abundant wildlife will be revealed to you.
Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on Earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?
– Brian Jackman, award-winning British author and journalist
The steep rutted dirt track levelled out and the thick vegetation that had hemmed in the road grew sparse and then fell away, revealing a breath-taking and quintessentially African vista. Before the safari vehicle yawned a vast open expanse of rolling green plains punctuated by enormous fig trees under which white rhino sought respite from the sun.
Like an imagined scene straight out of an early Wilbur Smith novel, the plains were alive with wildlife. A single glance revealed upwards of five different species of animals, from waterbuck, which look as though they’ve sat down on a freshly painted toilet seat, to warthogs with faces that only a mother could love. Rhino moved about on the plains like giant grey tanks, slowly grazing at the lush grass as the late afternoon sunlight filtered through the air, lending a bluish tinge to the mountains in the background. Overhead, gaudily coloured European Bee-eaters wheeled and swooped.
The Fig Plains, as they are aptly called, was our first real introduction to the incredible abundance of wildlife in the Welgevonden Game Reserve and it was such a spectacular and breath-taking greeting that I couldn’t wait to see what my stay at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa would show me. I was right to be excited: before the end of the day, we’d see the most elusive member of the Big Five.
The Welgevonden Game Reserve
The Welgevonden Game Reserve is a 35,000-hectare slice of heaven located an approximate three hours’ drive from Johannesburg in the Waterberg region of the Limpopo Province of South Africa. This rare malaria-free reserve is home to Big Five game – elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and buffalo – as well as just about every other species of African animal you can think of, big and small.
Birdwatchers: prepare to annoy the living daylights out of your fellow explorers as you make the ranger stop the vehicle every few hundred yards for a new bird sighting. But, at the end of the dusty road and a drive filled with adrenalin-laced game viewing, is the heart of the operation: the luxurious five-star Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa. It was to this veritable oasis of luxury that I had been invited to write an article about their offering.
A Home for the Heart
The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa consists of a beautifully appointed main lodge (which functions as a reception, guest lounge, and restaurant), a spa, a “boma” for dinner under the stars, a curio shop, and a luxurious collection of rooms, suites, and a villa (accommodates six people), every bedroom of which has views over the lawns and watering hole that lie directly in front of the lodge.
Mhondoro has clearly been built with this in mind: offering guests an immersive wildlife experience that continues even after you’ve alighted from the safari vehicle, retired to your room, and gotten into your pyjamas. This is a true story: many of the photos I took of wildlife were taken from the vantage point of the villa’s master suite (and in my pyjamas). In fact, one of my favourite pastimes between game drives was sprawling out on my ridiculously large balcony with a glass of bubbly to watch the warthogs rolling in the mud and the baboons chase and pester each other.
I don’t know which divine entity favoured my fortunes but I somehow got lucky and landed the villa’s master bedroom suite. I had, completely to myself, a bed large enough to sleep an elephant, a walk-in closet, an enormous luxurious bathroom complete with his and hers vanities and a separate toilet, my own lounge with a fireplace and writing desk, and a wrap-around balcony and patio with views of the watering hole. My suite also came with an outdoor shower and so – super eager to try it out – I washed off the day’s travel while watching zebras graze around the watering hole and take the occasional nip at each other’s rumps.
The space was enormous and yet it felt cosy, intimate, and like home away from home (with five-stars, attentive service, exceptional food, and ridiculous extremes of pampering thrown in).
Mhondoro Dining Experiences
Dining at Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa is a celebration of the reserve’s spectacular and abundant wildlife, not in the sense that this wildlife finds itself on the menu, but rather in that every meal – breakfast, lunch, and dinner – is taken outside, either on the deck of the lodge or on the deck of the villa, where the views of the watering hole and its animals and birds are uninterrupted.
On our first night, however, we found ourselves in the atmospheric “boma” – a small, open-air arena with tables and seating arranged in semi-circular arcs around a central fireplace, where we enjoyed a traditional South African braai and fare (think oxtail potjiekos and boerewors) and even a song and dance performance by the staff. The service was unrelenting in its attentiveness and we didn’t once want for anything. I fell asleep that night in the sweet embrace of silky soft white linen, red wine over-indulgence, and a mosquito net that cascaded, dream-like, down around my elephant-sized bed.
The Watering Hole and Game Drives
One of my favourite features of Mhondoro, not surprisingly, was its underground watering hole hide that is connected to the main lodge through a 65-meter long concrete tunnel, which makes it the very first and the only luxury lodge in the country to offer guests (literally) eye-to-eye encounters with the wildlife that come here to drink and take a dip.
Throughout our stay, we had a troop of 30+ baboons pay the watering hole a visit, as well as wildebeest, zebra, impala, elephant, a rhino mother and her very young baby, and a family of ever-present warthogs. According to the staff, lion, leopard, and cheetah have been seen from the excellent vantage point of the lodge, not only coming to drink, but in the case of the cheetah, to take down a gazelle and enjoy a leisurely lunch as well (they would have had to pry me from that hide with a crowbar).
And then there are the game drives. Mhondoro maintains a fleet of safari vehicles that are not only bigger and sturdier than most of the animals you’ll encounter on your excursions but are very comfortable to sit in even while the vehicle negotiates dongas the size of the Grand Canyon and bounces over roads more rutted and pockmarked than the surface of the moon.
The absolute STAR of the show are the game rangers who take you boldly into the bush, wear their passion for nature on their sleeves, know how to track the wildlife, and are tomes of knowledge on the park’s fauna and flora. Our lead ranger, Fritz, knew more about birds than I do, which was at once ruffled my feathers and impressed me.
The rangers maintain constant communication with each other, reporting sightings and sharing information over the radio, which gives guests much better odds of experiencing those once-in-a-lifetime sightings of special animals, like leopard. In fact, it was on our very first game drive (on the evening of the first night) that Fritz spotted a leopard slinking low in the yellow grass. Had it not been for that communication network, we would never have stopped at that bend in the road to search for the leopard and, undoubtedly, had it not been for Fritz’ keen eyes, the big cat would have slunk past us completely undetected.
Sunrise snacks and sun-downer drinks
After a few hours’ of fruitful game viewing, the rangers make a habit of stopping the vehicle, usually somewhere with a beautiful view, and break out the coffee, tea, rusks, and other breakfasty snacks (on morning drives) or the gin-and-tonic, wine, liqueurs, and nibbles (on late afternoon drives). And let me tell you… there are few moments are profound as finding yourself standing in the middle of the African bush with a gin and tonic in your hand, watching the setting sun paint a blaze of fierce colours on the horizon.
The hardest part of writing this article was trying to keep it short and sweet and even that I have failed to do. The Mhondoro Safari Lodge & Villa and the Welgevonden Game Reserve into which it is nestled is, quite honestly, one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the luxury of visiting. So much so, I could have written a novel-length account of my stay there. From the lodge’s major services, amenities, and offerings right down to the minute attention to detail paid by the staff (that opening quote was placed next to my bed on a printed out piece of paper), Mhondoro is a home for the heart that, once departed, will forever beat with a deep love for Africa.
This article was originally written for Southern Vines Magazine, a Cape Town-based lifestyle and leisure publication that focuses on food, wine, travel, and adventure in South Africa.
We saw the leopard slinking low in the desiccated grasses of the Welgevonden Game Reserve in South Africa’s Limpopo region. I almost soiled myself, not out of fear but of excitement. I have been to almost every major game reserve in Southern Africa, yet never to have once spotted this dotty kitty. Until now – this was a huge moment for me and my underpants.
One solitary male on a discrete hunt for food. At first, I celebrated the sighting, treasuring every second that I could watch him sleekly moving through the dry bush. A sighting like this – a once in a lifetime – is too often over in seconds.
But a hunting leopard makes use of lofty vantage points to spy potential prey and, in one fluid movement, our male launched himself up the bole of a tree and took up sentry. Leopards are shy animals and extremely unsociable, which likely explains his unimpressed expression with being watched and photographed.
Legs (and litchis) dangling out all over the place, he remained in suspension for the better part of 20 minutes, while lazily surveying the surrounding bush and staring at us with piercing, tawny eyes. On average, leopards weigh between 60 and 70 kg and can live up to 15 years. What is most exceptional about these cats is that they can drag prey heavier than themselves up a tree, where it can hang safely out of the reach of other predators and scavengers, offering the leopard a consistent source of meat for several days.
The heat, the altitude, and the lack of action took its toll and he let rip an enormous yawn, offering us a glimpse at teeth that could crack your neck like a cheese stick. Seeing this leopard quite honestly constitutes one of the high points of my life and if you’ve seen one, perhaps you’ll understand why. They are truly beautiful, extraordinary animals.
I may have shifted my attention to travel but a fascination with wildlife and birdwatching, in particular, remains a stubborn fixture on the landscape of my unorthodox personality. As a part of my new venture, therefore, I shall be posting a weekly picture of an animal or bird that I have taken on one of my adventures. I would like to introduce to you… *appropriately lengthy drumroll*… Wednesday Wildlife! Aren’t I original?
Hold on… I have a better one: Wander Woman’s Wednesday Wildlife! Isn’t the alliteration maddeningly satisfying?
Anyway, enough of that tomfoolery. Before I got around to repurposing this blog to travel, I let rip with the Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, which I urge you all to like, follow, share, interact with, drool over, and even fondle yourself inappropriately to. What I don’t know can’t hurt me. Over the past few weeks that’s been going, I’ve posted three Wildlife Wednesday features – or, I should say, #WildlifeWednesday – so in an effort to bring you all up to speed, here are those posts.
On a recent trip to Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, I had the incredible life joy of seeing my very first ever cheetah in the wild. We approached this male by foot and got within about 15 meters of him, where I swooned over his kitten-esque antics. Did you know that cheetahs purr? Also, they are the fastest land animal in the world, able to reach speeds of 80 to 120 km/hr in short bursts. I shit you not.
An excerpt from my article for Southern Vines magazine about the reserve:
“Sanbona Wildlife Reserve is a malaria-free, big five private game reserve located three hours’ drive from Cape Town in the Little Karoo. Believed to have originated from the Khoikhoi word for “desert”, the Karoo is a semi-desert region of unique and desolate beauty, marked by tough, low-lying shrubs, hellishly thorned acacia trees, otherworldly succulent plants, rocky koppies, and russet soils.”
In other words, get your butts to South Africa and come explore our truly gifted natural heritage. Also, because I love to travel and will use any excuse to get out the house, especially to play tour guide to a foreign visitor, get in touch with me if you do make it to our fair shores. Just please don’t axe murder me.
This absolutely gorgeous creature is a spotted eagle owl, which I photographed in the golden late afternoon light of a game drive that culminated in a glass of chardonnay overlooking a dry river bed.
There, just in case you didn’t believe life could get THAT good.
Spotted eagle owls are medium-sized, as far as owls go, yet are one of the smallest of the eagle owls. Interestingly, they are a big fan of bathing and so can often be seen around water or on exposed branches or on the ground with spread wings during summer thunderstorms.
Nestled into a thicket of rather nasty Karoo Acacia thorns, this guy glared smugly and somewhat angrily at us, confident that none of us would be stupid enough to breach his/her boma of razor sharp thorns. Of course, human nature is by definition a balance between high intelligence and sublime stupidity. Needless to say, we took our pictures and left the owl alone to its angry vigil.
If a picture could speak a thousand words, this one would be a “50 Shades of Grey” novel.
These are Chacma baboons AKA Cape baboons and they are one of the largest of all the monkeys. Indigenous to Southern Africa, they live a highly social life with a defined hierarchy, at the top of which is the alpha male, quite easily one of the most intimidating of all the African animals. Quite honestly, of all the sounds I have heard in the bush, I find the resounding, explosive bark of a baboon to be far more terrifying than a lion’s roar or the hollow clink of an empty wine bottle (and knowing that it’s the last one). An angry male baboon could easily give Chuck Norris a thorough bitch-slapping.
Baboons spend the vast majority of their days foraging and grooming each other as a way of strengthening social ties and, well, just feeling loved.
These three stooges, who are warming their undercarriage in the mid-morning sun in a coastal bush at De Hoop Nature Reserve (southwestern Cape coast of South Africa), are speckled mousebirds. Mousebirds are gregarious and enjoy the company of other mousebirds, as we can see from the amount of love biting going on in this picture.
Fruits, buds, and berry eaters, mousebirds are named after their appearance (small, greyish bodies and long tails) and foraging behaviour; scurrying around in the bush in search of food. They are the only bird order that is confined entirely to sub-Saharan Africa and – get this – could actually be considered “living fossils” because the 6 species that exist today are the only survivors of a lineage that was massively more diverse in the early Paleogene and Miocene (thanks, Wikipedia).
Another magazine excerpt from an article I wrote about the reserve:
“The seamless confluence of a variety of vegetation biomes and landscapes in De Hoop Nature Reserve has attracted an enormous diversity of birdlife, from iridescent sunbirds and large raptors to swooping aerial birds and gaily coloured flamingos. In a single day, in fact, you could quite easily rack up a bird list of over 100 species, so abundant and varied it is (over 260 species of birds have been recorded here).”
That, my friends, is all for today! I will be posting these pictures along with an explanatory blurb every Wednesday at 9am SAST. Of course, if you like my Facebook page, Wander Woman Thea, you can get all of this delicious intellectual goodness delivered right to your feed or inbox. You can also find me on Instagram at @wander_woman_thea.