Yes, in South Africa!
The biggest species in the cat family, the Tiger is one of most beautiful, mysterious creatures on the planet. Over the years they have fallen prey to aggressive poaching, making them an endangered species. It is estimated that there are less than 4000 tigers left in the wild, and it would be a tragedy if they were to ever become extinct.
One man trying to save the species is John Varty, a well known animal conservationist, who started a special project in circa 2003 to introduce wild tigers into South Africa. We came across his documentary, Living with Tigers, in 2004 where he and the famous animal trainer, Dave Salmoni, raised and taught 2 Bengal tiger cubs (Ron & Julie) to live and hunt in the wild. Now this may be controversial to some as Tigers are a non-native species to Africa, but if it means preserving the future of this magnificent animal, we’re all for it.
The home of these tigers is in Tiger Canyons in Philippolis, South Africa which has been on our ‘must visit’ list ever since this unconventional programme piqued our curiosity.
Getting to Tiger Canyons
There are a couple of ways of getting here:
- Drive from Johannesburg (Jo’berg) airport, which is about 6 hours without stops
- Drive from Cape Town airport, which is about 8.5 hours without stops
- Fly into Bloemfontein airport from either Cape Town or Joberg and drive another 2.5 hours south
Our flight arrived from London into Jo’berg, so the first option suited us best. Like many first time visitors to South Africa, we were concerned about how safe the drive would be but we were assured by many of our friends that this would not be an issue so long as we were careful about where we stopped and ensured that the car doors were locked at all times, especially at traffic lights. After picking up our rental car from Avis from Jo’berg airport and proceeded to Philippolis. The drive itself was uneventful, and the scenery quite bland, so make sure you have plenty of snacks, water and some good music to keep you going.
Tiger Canyon Game Drives
Tiger Canyon Safaris offers 2 daily game drives – one early morning and one late afternoon; both last a few hours. We opted for the early morning game drive which starts at 6.30AM and were so excited when we arrived. Our guide, Odette, gave us a briefing on what to expect. She was very knowledgeable, friendly and eager to show us a good time. We were the only ones on the safari that morning which made this a private experience.
Game drives are conducted in converted and protected 4 x 4 vehicles where visitors are essentially caged in… to protect the tigers :-). There was a huge sense of excitement as we boarded the vehicle; we couldn’t wait to see these magnificent beasts. We began our drive in search of the first tiger, Indira. We had to drive through thick, long reeds, which is where she would usually be hiding. Our visibility was quite poor and there was a sense of foreboding, as we thought she would leap out at our vehicle any time; there is nothing more heart stopping than watching a charging tiger. But these fears were put to rest when as soon as we arrived at the clearing. There, we found her, basking in all her glory in the early morning sun.
Each tiger has it’s own enclosure to prevent them from fighting over territory. After watching Indira, we proceeded to see the others. Tigers are far more aggressive than the other big cats and since some have been hand raised, some have the tendency to approach the vehicles. One such fellow was Khumba, who stealthily approached our vehicle and jumped on the bonnet looking for a way in. Most of the others were too busy sunbathing or sleeping to pay much attention to their admirers.
We saw about 8 tigers, including a white tiger, and 1 hand raised Cheetah. When we were out of the tiger enclosures, Odette spotted the Cheetah in the distance and pulled up next to him. He approached the vehicle and she started to pet him. Being hand raised meant he is used to people, so she encouraged us to get down and pet him as well. Since it’s still a wild animal, in hindsight, it probably wasn’t the smartest move, but a thrilling experience nonetheless.
Upon our return to the main office, we were served a delicious hot breakfast. The staff were in no rush to get rid of us and continued to spend time talking about their programme.
As big cat lovers, this trip was well worth the detour for us as it presented a unique opportunity to witness the success of such an unconventional project and get up close and personal with these magnificent creatures.
We paid ZAR 3,200 (approx £170, US$220 in Sep 2016) for 2 of us for the morning game drive, which lasted about 4 hours and included breakfast.
Where to Stay
At the time of our visit, Tiger Canyons only offered the option of staying at their newly refurbished Starry Cottages, which can be booked directly through their website. However, our research indicated that this area is quite deserted with little do and limited dining options.
So, we chose to stay at Otterskloop Private Game Reserve instead. Upon contacting the manager, we realised that it was actually a hunting reserve, with the hunting season in full swing during our stay (Sep). Whilst we were uncomfortable with this, with flights already booked and no suitable alternatives available, the manager agreed to host us in the Owner’s residence.
The Owner’s residence was a beautiful, large house secluded in a quiet part of the reserve which was used by the owners when they visited the reserve. The residence had two large comfortable bedrooms with ensuites, a spacious lounge and dining area with a fireplace and was serviced daily. WiFi was also available.
All meals were included in our stay and were homely and delicious. We got to try quite a bit of game – Vetkoek (fried dough bread served with wildebeest mince), chilibites, spicy billtong, Droëwors (thin dried sausage) to name a few. The staff were friendly, efficient and went out of their way to ensure our stay was comfortable. One evening we put in a special request to the Chef to prepare a Peppermint crisp tart as we had never tried it before. Although it wasn’t on the menu for the day, the Chef obliged and it was excellent. So excellent, we finished the entire tray!
The lodge normally offers various activities, such as game drives, clay pigeon shooting etc, however the manager made us aware that these would be limited during our stay. With the hunters out in the reserve during the day, it would be too dangerous to conduct any activities simultaneously. This didn’t affect us at all as the main reason for our stay was to see the tigers. We were offered one game drive within the reserve in the evening as the hunters had returned early, which was a prelude to our 4 nights in the Masai Mara. The reserve mostly has antelope that are native to South Africa.
Otterskloop is located about a 30 min drive from Tiger Canyon (about the same distance as Starry Cottages). We organised a return transfer through the reserve that took us through the “back gates” which in itself turned out to be a mini game drive. This was our first game drive ever and we’ve never been so alert, awake and excited at 6am!
The total cost for 2 nights, all meals, 1 game drive, return transfer to / from Tiger Canyons was a reasonable ZAR3,340 for 2 people in 2016 (approx £186 or US$250).
Overall, we really enjoyed our stay here. The house was very comfortable and the hosts hospitable. Although we weren’t comfortable at the idea of staying at a hunting reserve, this was quickly forgotten as the team ensured we didn’t have any interaction or exposure to the hunters. Our meals were served in the residence, activities conducted separately and the manager, Malan, would spend the evenings chatting to us in the residence.
How to book a safari at Tiger Canyons
Visit Tiger Canyon’s website for booking details and costs. Sunette, who manages all the bookings, was very prompt, professional and helpful in all her responses.