By Daphney Mngomeni
Gone are the days where one had to stay put inside a vehicle during game drives, as more and more game reserves, national parks and animal rehabilitation centres are allowing nature-loving visitors a chance to really interact with South Africa’s wildlife.
The experience of feeling big cats such as lions, cheetahs and leopards purr loudly under your fingers or shaking an elephant’s trunk will leave you with a renewed love and appreciation for Mother Nature’s creatures.
Here are a few places where you can get face to face with some of the country’s most amazing wildlife.
Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre
Emdoneni, situated in the beautiful sub-tropical Hluhluwe region of KwaZulu-Natal, is home to a variety of big cats that have either been orphaned or injured in the wild.
The cat rehabilitation centre was opened in 1994 with only two cheetahs under its care, but started to grow as more cats were sent there.
Residents of Emdoneni Cat Rehabilitation Centre include playful servals, caracals (lynx), African wildcats and cheetahs are and visitors can pet and stroke these magnificent cats, learning about them at the same time. The centre also has a breeding programme in which cats are bred and released back into the wild.
Visiting hours are 10:30am to 4:30pm in summer and 10:30am to 4pm in winter (May to August).
Glen Afric is located just outside of Pretoria, Gauteng, and offers the most amazing wildlife encounters including game drives, horseback safaris, and guided walks with lions or a small elephant family.
Some of the animals at Glen Afric are far from camera-shy, having starred in the well-known movie Mr Bones, the TV series Wild at Heart and a few adverts.
The elephant and lion interactions are the most popular activities at Glen Afric. Visitors can take a 90-minute walk with a small elephant family or have some fun with a playful litter of lion cubs.
Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary
Everyone wants to be able to “monkey-around” once in a while and what better place to do this than at the Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary in Hartbeespoort, North West.
The sanctuary is one of only eight free-release primate sanctuaries in the world and, apart from its beautiful setting and educational experience, the sanctuary also provides amazing insight into the geological history of the area, giving visitors a wonderful view of the bushveld from atop the property.
Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary is home to a variety of primates including squirrel monkeys, black-handed spider monkeys, black-and-white ruffed lemurs and, of course, bushbabies. The residents of the sanctuary were once all owned by people as pets. The sanctuary provides a setting for the primates, similar to their natural homes in the wild.
The one-hour tour of the sanctuary involves a leisurely walk along an elevated wooden walkway that winds through the peaceful forest setting. Along the tour visitors will also encounter a variety of indigenous birds and wildlife.
Bushbabies Monkey Sanctuary is open seven days a week from 09am to 4pm.
Two Oceans Aquarium
Prepare to have your heart stolen by the adorable rockhopper penguins at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town.
A highly qualified bird trainer takes visitors on an interactive encounter where they can pet and feed the rockhopper penguins. The experience is both exciting and educative, and is suitable for anyone over the age of eight.
For the more adventurous at heart the aquarium also offers a diving experience. Come face to face with sharks, turtles and other predators of the deep, including yellowtails, dusky kobs and mussel crackers.
If you don’t have a diving qualification, the aquarium offers a short one-day diving course to help you get the skills needed to dive into the I&J Predator Exhibit.
The aquarium is open seven days a week from 09:30am to 6pm.