It's always a special time when my sister-in-law and her family come to visit from upstate New York. The time always flies by, but we try to make the most of it by planning in as many fun activities for the kids as we can manage. So it was refreshing (and a little humbling) when this time we discovered a 'new' local gem, not from our own research but at the hands of our 'foreign' family; the Giraffe House on the R101 near Stellenbosch offers animal encounters and is fantastic fun and a great educational experience for the kids.
The weather forecast wasn't ideal - a bit of light rain in Cape Town - but we decided to chance it, thinking we'd miss the rain by heading inland. We arrived mid-morning, and the kids rushed in through the gate, seeing who could spot the first wild animal. We'd barely paid and the adults hadn't made it to the first enclosure, when we discovered that we weren't really 'inland' enough to escape the rain. It was drizzling steadily and our trip looked set to be wet and short, but we quickly began to experience Giraffe House's great service: first we were handed a number of umbrellas, but when we looked a bit tentative, Pieter, the manager, suggested we head over to Butterfly World instead, and he promptly refunded us our entrance fee.
At Butterfly World we decided to have a light lunch, hoping the weather would clear so that we could head back to see the giraffe. After a quick bite under the watchful eyes of a couple of parrots, we were in luck- the weather cleared and we headed back to Giraffe House. Our timing was perfect - the school groups that had been there when we first arrived had left, and we had the place to ourselves.
There are a broad variety of animals to observe: from small to large, and timid to aggressive. Our route took us from smaller antelope species, such as Grysbok and dik-dik, past Springbok, Burchell's Zebra and on to the biggest, the Eland. We were just wondering when we'd spot the main attraction, the graceful but at the same time ungainly giraffe, when we spied one - sitting down in the next enclosure, but a bit too far away to really feel it was an 'encounter'.
Well, we might have felt unsatisfied at first, but after a minute or two her inquisitiveness got the better of Gerry, the young giraffe. She staggered up like a new-born calf, her legs a hindrance until she was standing tall on all four of them, and then she came sauntering over to get a better look at us from up close. We found out later that she'd been hand reared since birth - which explains why she was so affectionate. It didn't take long before she was rubbing her head and horn-like ossicones against our palms, letting us scratch her behind the ears, and even under her chin. I don't know if she felt obliged to return the favour, but as soon as we stopped she'd surprise us - affectionately trying to give us a lick (and she succeeded a few times) with her long black tongue, or steal the cap off our heads if we weren't careful.
I'm not sure how long we spent there, but it was quite some time and many photos later that we headed back past the other enclosures, their inhabitants worth watching but nowhere near as inquisitive or affectionate as their neighbour.
We'd been given a bucket of animal feed, and there are also lots of farmyard animals, many of whom were only too eager to eat from our hands. The goats in particular, would jostle for position, bigger billy goats asserting the pecking order by butting others out the way, and it took a little cunning to deceive the big ones and feed the kids (the goat kind, that is).
But that wasn't all. There are foxes and jackal, and even a caracal or 2 if you're lucky enough to spot them. There is a reptile section, and my two year old son's favourite, the tortoises. We spent quite a while observing the animals, and all of our feed exhausted, we headed to the jungle gyms to let the kids burn off some more energy before heading home.
We were about to leave when Pieter came over and asked if we were interested in a reptile encounter. We quickly agreed, and what a treat - we were the only people there, and the experience was truly up-close and hands on - literally. And it was a great educational opportunity for both the kids and adults.
Each of the 'cast' has a name and a story, and of course a good act is never complete without a good few one liners (of a South African flavour) to add humour. For each animal, Pieter would ask for a volunteer and cleverly match the creature he selected to the person. For example, my six year old niece was offered a fat and warty 'prince-in-disguise' (a round African bullfrog), if only she'd give it a big kiss on the lips. My four year old son held a cute leopard tortoise, and all four kids stood together to hold Scar, a heavy Burmese python. And, of course, you yourself can't back out from being a volunteer in front of your kids, even if you're about to have Curly, a hairy Mexican tarantula placed on your arm...
By the time we'd finished the reptile encounter, it was late in the day and time to head back home before the rush hour traffic set in. Giraffe House isn't far out of town, and apparently they have become more popular since Tygerberg zoo closed, and they're clearly a popular choice for school outings.
We had a fantastic time, and the kids had a ball. Luckily I didn't let the giraffe grab my hat with his dextrous tongue - Pieter says I'd have kissed it goodbye. Not eaten, mind you, but snatched and played with, and later discarded somewhere in a large giraffe enclosure. If you haven't been to Giraffe House yet, I can highly recommend it - it is well worth a visit.
The Giraffe House is located on the R101 between Klapmuts and Stellenbosch, and it is open from 9:00 to 17:00 each day with daily shows at 11:00, 13:00 and 15:00. Entrance fees are R45 for adults, R30 for pensioners, and R25 for children (2-15 years).