Why you should care

Because you can take a ferry ride into the mall.

Field ranger Angelo Tilling and I approach the bird hide in silence and pause to take in the details. To our left a rakish man in flip-flops has trained his extremely long camera lens on a pied kingfisher perched on a restio. To our right, standing on a small grassy island, is a handsome gray heron waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting tilapia. But here’s the weird thing: In the background, beyond the reeds, a ring of office blocks looms, and the chatter of window cleaners carries across the water. Yes, we’re in a nature reserve, but Intaka Island just happens to be in one of the most built-up areas of Cape Town, South Africa, and is entirely surrounded by houses and office buildings.

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You can see offices and cityscape from the island.

Source Courtesy of Intaka Island

So, how did a 16-hectare reserve end up in Century City, a 250-hectare corporate complex that also hosts the city’s largest and most popular shopping mall? When development on the area started in 1996, the Environmental Impact Assessment recommended establishing a nature reserve to restore some of the degraded seasonal wetlands in the area, explains Tatum Sieni, brand and marketing manager of the Century City Property Owners’ Association. The result was Intaka Island, a reserve made of two distinct sections: a natural, seasonal wetland and an artificial wetland, which Century City created to naturally filter the repurposed stormwater that flows through the canals crisscrossing the complex.

If Tilling is your guide, he may even show you where the tiny arum lily frogs hide.

The island harbors 212 indigenous plant species — including 24 that are rare or threatened with extinction — and it’s also a haven for birds and small animals. Although the natural section of the reserve is home to the majority of the endangered plants, the artificial wetland, with its abundant water, plants and birds, gets most of the visitors. For many the biggest attraction is the ferry; rides cost an additional $3 and must be booked in advance. The 35-minute ride on a small inflatable boat circumnavigates the wetland before taking a surreal turn through the Grand Canal — the large body of water that dissects the nearby shopping mall.

The cruise is a great way to get an overview of what goes on at Intaka, but I’d also really recommend doing the guided walk, included with the $1.40 entrance fee, which lets you get up close and personal with the critters that live there. One of the field rangers will explain how the artificial wetland filters the water, and you’ll probably hear about the problems staff encountered when the water mongoose population exploded a few years back (the heron population plummeted … say no more!). If Tilling is your guide, he may even show you where the tiny arum lily frogs hide.

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A Heiliger Ibis flying at Intaka Island.

Source Bernd Wasiolka/McPhoto/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The biggest draw, however, is the birds — the reserve attracts twitchers from around the world. One local visitor is Riaan Visser, an extremely enthusiastic amateur bird photographer who comes to Intaka at least three times a week: “I come here to run away from life … If I get a nice shot, it’s an added bonus.” Visser has sold a few of the photos he’s taken at Intaka, and some of his professional photographer friends have taken award-winning shots and magazine covers — right here, in the shadow of the offices and apartment blocks. Intaka has 120 bird species and, unlike some of the natural areas in and around Cape Town, it’s blessedly crime-free — an important consideration when you have a $20,000 camera around your neck.

“I know a guy who comes all the way from Holland to take photos here. And another lady who flies out from China at least once a year. But most Capetonians don’t even know it exists,” Visser laughs. A place where nature and the corporate world coexist so seamlessly it’s weird.

Go there: Intaka Island

  • When: Intaka is open every day except Christmas Day. Gates open at 7:30 a.m. year-round and close at 7 p.m. from October to April, and at 5:30 p.m. from May to September.
  • Where: Intaka Island is in Century City, about 8 miles from the center of Cape Town. Once you’re in Century City, don’t rely on Google Maps to find Intaka — the signposts are more reliable! Map.
  • How much: The basic entrance fee is R18 ($1.80), or R55 ($5.60) if you include a ferry ride. There are discounts for children and pensioners.
  • Pro tip: From Monday to Friday, Intaka is very popular among school groups. If you want to go on a midweek ferry ride, plan on visiting after 1 p.m. And remember to phone in advance.
  • Contact: www.intaka.co.za; +27 (0)21 552 6889

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