Situated just outside of Touws River between the Langeberg and the Outeniqua Mountains, Aquila Private Game Reserve offers three incredible elements in an unusual combination: 1) game in the form of the big five and a range of antelope, 2) a 5 star spa experience, and 3) a mere two hour drive from Cape Town.
What to expect
As someone who grew up in the north, I was curious to see how a game reserve would work outside the bushveld. I mean, how would you marry African safari and the Western Cape winelands?
This is a question I pondered on the ridiculously picturesque drive from Cape Town. As we hummed along the highway through Paarl and the Huguenot Tunnel, through Worcester, De Doorns and the Hex River Valley, I was struck as always when driving through this landscape by the intensely stark contrasts.
Beautifully manicured vineyards, just beginning to sport their autumn colours lie against the foothills of ancient purple rolling mountains next arid Karoo landscape and koppies. World class wine farms host desolate-looking community housing where joblessness and alcoholism are rife after generations of exploitation and rampant inequality.
Few places in South Africa so obviously demonstrate the divide between rich and poor and the history that led us here.
Pretty rich thinking coming from someone being chauffeured in a perfectly air-conditioned luxury minivan on my way to view game and have spa treatments, right? But I’ll get back to that thought in a minute.
We arrived at Aquila just after noon, and immediately I was struck by the sense of familiarity it evokes even as I wonder at the novelty of it.
Because Aquila effortlessly combines Klein Karoo charm with game lodge glamour. The restaurant, spa, cottages and lodges all feature thatched roofs, and the main building materials are rock and wood reminiscent of Bushveld and the Lowveld architecture.
Yet, surprisingly this aesthetic does not look out of place in this very Western Cape setting - in fact, it blends almost seamlessly with the serene Karoo landscape.
The vast majority of the staff is from the area. Touws River mostly, as I find out when I chat to the woman checking us in. Turns out Aquila is serious about community upliftment, sustainability and social responsibility and in an area where work is so scarce, a luxury reserve and spa offering numerous training and employment opportunities is a very welcome enterprise.
Between my oohing and aahing over the glorious and alarmingly tame peacocks strutting about, we sit down to a delicious, hearty buffet style lunch and I realise that I am in the minority, since most of the other guests are foreign.
I am not sure whether to ascribe this to the fact that like me, Capetonians are unaware of this destination or whether they’re just notoriously lazy to drive further north than the tunnel.
Either way, I decide to relax and enjoy the novelty – but only after scolding a little French boy for spitting on the peacocks.
After lunch we are given a tour of the reserve and retire to our rooms.
Aquila has two main styles of accommodation – lodge rooms, which are apartment/hotel-style rooms in the large main building, and cottages which are freestanding. Both come in standard, family and premium and all the family and premium ones have lovely views. Our room has a beautiful view that overlooks the large azure swimming pool and tranquil reserve in the background.
The game drives
The reserve is relatively small – 10 000 hectares, so while you shouldn’t expect a National Parks feel, you can expect to see a lot. And since the animals are used to the vehicles, you get to see them really up close. That does not mean they are tame though! We had an exhilarating moment where one of the lionesses followed our open vehicle like we were game and the poor woman sitting behind me was close to hysterics.
But the game rangers are knowledgeable, qualified and experienced and I felt completely safe at all times.
After about two hours we stopped in the veld for sparkling wine and traditional South African snacks like biltong, droewors and dried fruit, and I can tell you that despite having three courses for lunch, we fell on it like hungry wolves.
Nothing like wild animals and open air to give you an appetite...
Sustainability and social responsibility
I’m going to fast forward to the bit I was actually there to review which is the spa experience, but before I do, I will just mention that the dinner was yum, the bar was fun, the room was lovely and the trip to the Aquila Rescue and Conservation Centre made me really believe in the people who run it. The centre provides a home for lions and a leopard that were doomed as canned hunting trophies, along with a breeding pair of cheetahs and a crocodile that was going to be a handbag.
They also offer safe rehabilitation for rescue animals before they are released into the wild. They also have a rhino initiative and black eagle initiative and have eco systems to reduce their carbon footprint and provide a sustainable experience.
Which brings me back to my earlier point when we were en route… For too long have people been profiting without giving back to the communities in which they base their business ventures. Workers are exploited, the environment is trashed and no one but the stakeholders benefit.
I got the feeling that this really wasn’t the case here. Aquila is the largest employer in Touws River and have assisted the local community with upliftment, training and responsible tourism. From their website:
"The majority of Aquila’s previously disadvantaged employees have been trained in the tourism, hospitality and conservation industries. Aquila is dedicated to on-going training programmes, including but not limited to, health and safety, security, first aid, firefighting and information technology training. 95% of all previously disadvantaged staff members have been trained to be fully competent and certified as game rangers, drivers, waitresses, chefs, registered security officers and anti-poaching guards, cleaners, front and back of house staff, game capture and translocation rangers, environmental and maintenance."
I found that really conducive to fully relaxing in an environment that I know works responsibly towards the greater good. Read more about their other community initiatives here.
The spa: treatment and experience
But the spa!
Spacious, tranquil, beautifully decorated with two heated swimming pools, a sauna, a steam room, a zen garden, hanging basket chairs and ten treatment rooms – some of them with private showers – it was the perfect setting to spend an entire morning in.
And we did.
Sweating in the sauna, cooling off in the showers, floating in the beautiful indoor pools, lazing on the sunny terrace… I could have stayed there for a week.
I had opted for a rejuvenating facial, although there are a whole host of treatment options available – from the affordable to the supremely luxe. My therapist – also from Touws River – managed to rejuvenate not just my face but my very soul. I swear that woman had magical hands.
They also offer manis and pedis for kids, but if your children aren’t interested they have excellent child-minding facilities that will have them entertained while you can get on with the serious business of relaxing.
All images: Aquila Private Game Reserve
Disclaimer:Lili Radloffwas hosted as media by Aquila Private Game Reserve which included transport, meals, accommodation and spa treatment.