There is a place so magical that no thesaurus has enough synonyms or concepts to appropriately describe what it is like at Tiger Canyon, a private game reserve, about 90 minutes southwest of Bloemfontein.
Created more than a decade ago by conservationist John Varty, the reserve is one of the few places in the world where tigers are conserved and bred, and the only reserve where a white tiger can be seen roaming and hunting. It is an experience like no other and should rank at the top end of anyone’s bucket list.
Tiger Canyon private game reserve. Picture: Hein Kaiser
“While tigers are endangered there is not enough effort globally to protect them,” says Tiger Canyon field guide Nick Kleer.
The habitat at the edge of the Karoo is near-perfect for these cats and is a close match to their natural habitat in Asia.
“Tigers don’t only occur in rainforests,” says Kleer, “there are some very arid areas where these majestic animals occur naturally.”
He adds that the cats have adapted exceptionally well to their African environment, hunting and breeding. “After all, tigers did evolve from lions millions of years ago when African lions migrated to Asia.”
Presently there are eight tigers in the reserve, including Mischke, meaning gift of love in Russian, the only white tiger in the wild in the world.
White tigers lack the recognisable orange-hued coats. “It is the consequence of a rare recessive gene that only impacts offspring when both parents pass it on to their young,” says Kleer.
“White tigers are not albino tigers like, for example, white lions are. They still have the black vertical stripes.” On a game drive at Tiger Canyon the reserve’s highly skilled guides easily locates the tigers for viewing and experiencing a breathtaking moment with these giant predators. While we were there, we watched the mother of two young cubs in the process of introducing them to meat.
White tiger. Picture: Hein Kaiser
Mom ambled off and returned with a small warthog that she had stored in what was likely an aardvark burrow. “Tigers often store a kill,” notes Kleer. In this instance mom was hiding the kill from dad, who apparently makes a habit of stealing the family lunch. Odour-wise it must have been fermenting for at least a few days.
Standing next to a coalition of cheetahs feasting on a fresh kill is one of life’s moments that feels surreal. Again, Kleer spotted a commotion in the distance and raced us toward it. What happened next was simply out of this world.
Slap bang in the middle of the veld cheetahs were feasting on a fresh kill – a small blesbok. We were invited to exit the vehicle and slowly approach the dining cats. Greedy chunking and chewing sounds greeted us with the scent of fresh meat and the partly digested last meal of the buck.
Cheetah feasting on it’s kill. Picture: Hein Kaiser
We literally stood half a metre from the wild cheetahs. It was a bit gory, but then again, where else in the universe could anyone expect to experience something so incredibly dramatic, and savagely beautiful.
The cheetahs are by no means tame pets. But, says Kleer, they are alright with humans. He says that it had taken around six years to make the animals accepting of a human presence near them and
he has personally spent many days communing with the cheetahs in the wild, engaging and getting to know them.
“There are only 12 gene pools of cheetah left in the world, so careful breeding to protect the species is critical. Here, at Tiger Canyon, we work closely with the Endangered Wildlife Trust and its greater efforts to conserve our natural heritage.”
Beyond the cats, Tiger Canyon is birdwatching heaven. There are 17 species endemic to the area while visitors are also having the opportunity to see another rarity, secretary birds on the hunt.
The flatness of the southwestern Free State landscape allows for great birding and recently Cape Vultures, previously extinct in the area, have also been reintroduced.
Bird watching. Picture: Hein Kaiser
Other wildlife includes blesbok, hartebeest, springbok, eland, kudu and at night, if you are lucky, spotting the elusive aardwolf is an absolute treat. It is a semi-arid area, but life teems between every rock and on every blade of grass.
What city-dweller could ever have guessed that we have vampire-like tick flies that drink your blood like mosquitos do?
Of course, accommodation and sating the tummy are important too, and the three-roomed lodge at Tiger Canyon is built into the side of an actual canyon. Slang probably affords the best expression and saying that it is flipping beautiful is likely still not enough.
The rooms offer a view of the dolerite rock canyon, incidentally the same rocks found in Antarctica, and it is super quiet. Daisies bake in the sun beneath your veranda. The service is exceptional, personalised and the food delicious.
Rooms at the Tiger Canyon private game reserve. Picture: Hein Kaiser
Try the fish wors, made on site with de-mudded barbel, pork and spice. Dine inside overlooking the canyon or at the lapa, adjacent to a splash pool perfect for hot days. In winter, the mercury can drop to -8°C while summers are hot.
After dinner, step outside and turn your gaze upward. Orion’s belt has never been this clear and our place in the universe really comes into perspective on a clear night. Also ask the guides to share their lookout point, about 500m high, overlooking South Africa’s second largest dam by volume, the Van der Kloof dam.
Perfect for a sundowner, and a Kodak moment of note. Visiting Tiger Canyon is really on another level. All-round. Not enough can be written or said about the incredible conservation efforts of the reserve, the emotion and wonder that accompanies close encounters with the big cats or the quality of the accommodation, hospitality and meals. In one word…. Wow!