By Illana Strauss-DillonHannah, our four year old, finds remarkable delight in running up to us, crying 'Mommy, Daddy, look what I found!", a sun bright smile across her face. By now we've learnt to expect some form of crawling creature, her favourite being shongololos. Georgia, our two-year-old, would be toddling behind her chanting "lolo...lolo". The pitiable animal would be diagnosed as "not feeling well" and would summarily be put to bed, where it would be nurtured to recovery...or inevitable demise.If you peek into their toy collection, you'll find most of the same objects as in any young child's gatherings - stuffed animals, toy farm animals and wildlife figurines.How many picture books are filled with animal stories? From The Wizard of Oz and The Jungle Book to The Chronicles of Narnia, kids love to read about wildlife, particularly those with imaginary powers of speech.The children's' viewing on television is filled with talking animals, dancing dinosaurs, singing cats and dogs. Even your DVD collection will probably include The Lion King, Ice Age or Shrek.The lion may be king of the jungle, but even the shongololo can reign in every kid's heart.It stands to reason then, that if you offer them an opportunity to get close to real animals, it will be one of the greatest pleasures you can afford them. Apart from being close to nature, our children need exercise, fresh air and the chance to see the world through a perspective other than their play station or doll collection.If you are living in Cape Town, or perhaps visiting our beautiful city, one of the most enjoyable day trips or weekend excursions for families is Aquila Private Game Reserve.So, on a gorgeous, somewhat breezy day in late August, we all hopped in the car with one suitcase to share between the four of us. The only extras were two balls and two teddy bears, two colouring books and crayons - and it only took us a meagre three hours to leave the house. The bewilderment over how it can possibly take so long when you deliberately packed so little, quickly forgotten as we pass the Kraaifontein turnoff, headed for Paarl.At less than two hours from Cape Town, Aquila is one of the closest big five reserves. The 130km drive will take you past Paarl, through the Huguenot tunnel, past Worcester, De Doorns and through the Hex River Valley. We decide to take the alternative route to the toll road and the tunnel, over Du Toitskloof Pass on the R101 between Paarl and Worcester.This road adds only 11 km to the route and is entirely worth it, as it provides beautiful views of Paarl from the one side, and Worcester and the Berg River Valley on the other. Approximately 30km after De Doorns and about 10km before Touws River, we take the R46 turnoff to Ceres. 3 km on we find Aquila's welcoming gate on our left.We arrive just in time for lunch and we are all ravenous. The spacious, high ceilinged restaurant was built from natural materials found on the reserve. In keeping with the architecture on game reserves the building has and African character with large fireplaces and is the ideal setting for the excellent buffet meals they serve. These are prepared by an internationally acclaimed chef and traditional meals are offered as well as the standard fare.The girls were both delighted with their roasted chicken and salad (which of course included pasta, their favourite), while my husband Carl and I decided on a scrumptious beef stew, still sipping on the locally produced sparkling wine we received on arrival. After tasty cheese and crackers, we are escorted to our chalet. We are staying in one of Aquila's five Premier luxury chalets. These are all privately situated and have great views across the reserve. We are told that the buffalo often graze in the reeds below our deck.These chalets have been built into the hillside with its natural rock featuring in the bathrooms and outdoor showers. They are constructed from wood, stone and thatch and all have fans, air conditioners and fireplaces. The en-suite bathrooms are all unique, with twin hand basins, a bath and toilet. Browns, beige and taupes are highlighted by fine percale white linen and decadent duvets, offering us the space we need to relax and unwind.The rest is short lived, as Hannah is already gearing up for our first game drive. She didn't come to relax, she came to see animals and have fun. So, with a good deal of excitement we all make our way to reception to begin our safari. We jump onto the jeep in front where we meet a lovely couple from France with their two sons, and another family from Cape Town. In no time, Hannah has made friends with their daughter, also four. One characteristic that makes Aquila special for families is that they allow children of all ages on their game drives.This gives younger kids the opportunity to experience the excitement of seeing real animals, big ones, up close, from the safety of the vehicles. We see many animals, including hippos frolicking in the dam, zebras and rhinos grazing on the plain, elephants a few metres away, and of course, the majestic black-maned king himself. The children are captivated and are brimming with wide-eyed wonder. We all enjoy a treat at one of the lookout points. Sparkling wine, grape juice and water are served with some biltong, nuts and dried fruits. After two hours we collectively decide to head back, so the guys can have a beer and watch the rugby.Back at the chalet, the girls enjoy a lovely warm bath, nearly annihilating the fragranced soap and shampoo supply. I enjoy the African sunset from our terrace, while sipping on my coffee. By now the air is nippy and I'm in need of warming up my wind-chilled body. The room has a fire place, so during the winter months, one can curl up by the log fire and climb into a warm bed with one of the hot water bottles provided.We come back from dinner quite late and we are all whacked. It's been a stunning day and we lie in bed, listening to the sounds of the night. I can hear the reeds rustling below our deck. Maybe it's the wind. Or a buffalo... I stop wondering, my eyes grow heavy and I descend into a blissful sleep.The next morning we're all up early, the girls eager to discover what the day has in store. After a delicious full breakfast, we relax by the swimming pool, a glittering 35-meter long saltwater pool with an "African" styled bar overlooking the pool area. Incidentally, there is also a second, smaller pool for the kids.Hannah meets up with her little friend and the two of them run around with boundless vitality. They disappear around a corner, but Carl is nearby so I don't fret. Then I hear a commotion and with Georgia on my hip, I hastily follow the path around the bottom end of the bar area, where the girls were walking. As I come around the corner he catches my eye...a shimmering mountain of muscle and flesh with bright unblinking eyes. A buffalo is standing 50 meters away, Carl and the girls between him and us. With stealthy silent steps, he moves towards us. We don't move.His behaviour doesn't look threatening, but I order the girls to move slowly towards me and not to run. He continues to move towards us. We walk backward slowly and we're so mesmerised that one of the rangers has to jolt us into prompt action by relaying the gravity of the situation. We all make it to the safety of the restaurant, where everyone watches the rangers outside guiding the animal in the right direction, out of the gate and on to his side of the fence.While Hannah has been watching the scene with anxious eyes, her face now erupts in a luminous smile, no longer able to contain her delight. "Mommy, we saw a real buffalo...and he was really close!" I was relieved that nothing bad happened, but just as thrilled as she was about this exceptional encounter.It's a bright sunny day and as they say, the playground is still the destination for the young at heart and those who are small in stature. The earlier incident temporarily forgotten, the kids go wild in the large securely fenced area set aside just for them. It's completely safe and we have total peace of mind, knowing they can let off some steam and just enjoy themselves before we head back home. The playground offers a wide range of activities that provide not only hours of fun but also educate young visitors on wildlife, conservation, the ecology and how to look after mother Earth.I hear the chatter of two moms sitting on the patio outside the playroom (fitted with computers and games, small tables and chairs and more) while the kids go mad outside. There are mini quad bikes, supervised pony rides, a massive jungle gym with tires, slides and monkey bars, a tree house, a gigantic sandpit and a mini-golf course. Now Hannah really doesn't want to leave. She is having the time of her life, bouncing from one activity to the next. But it's getting late and we have to go. We manage to tear her away with the assurance that we'll be back again before long. She graces us with that celestial smile of hers and concedes.Our weekend turned out to be the perfect family escape and all considered a truly unique experience.