Face to Face with Big Cats at Tiger Canyon in South Africa’s Free State Province
In the small town of Philippolis in South Africa’s Free State province, you might be pleasantly surprised to find a pioneering conservation project, aiming to help save the critically endangered wild Bengal tiger from extinction. This revolutionary venture has increased the numbers of Bengal tigers here alone, with seventeen free-roaming Bengal tigers calling Tiger Canyon home.
I love visiting any projects relating to conservation that ensure the longevity of endangered species, so instinctively I agree to witness the inner workings at Tiger Canyon. With my daughter’s vested interest in the wild, I am delighted that she can join me on this journey.
On a Friday morning, we board our direct Airlink flight from Cape Town International Airport to Kimberley Airport. Flying us to the capital city of South Africa’s northern province is the sleek Airlink Embraer 140. It’s an early flight – 06:15, and rubbing the sleep from our eyes, we admire the beautiful sunrise from my window seat while enjoying the wonderful onboard service, tasty fresh snack, and beverage.
At Kimberley Airport, we are collected by Tiger Canyon shuttle driver Charlton Pieterse, who drives the 98 miles from Kimberley to Bloemfontein and then the remaining 125 miles to Tiger Canyon. We arrive in time for a hearty lunch, prepared with the guidance of Chef Consultant Bridget Bartleman. The harvest table has the most delicious food – salads, kebabs, cheeses, quiche, paté and home-made loaves of bread.
After settling in at the stylish Tigress Julie Lodge where we will be spending the next two nights, we head out on our first game drive with ranger Connor Thompson. The Karoo’s rugged landscape is the perfect habitat for tigers and before we know it, we are rewarded with our first sighting of Ussuri’s two cubs. At 20 months of age, after a siesta in the shade, they become playful when they spot their fun ‘uncle’ Sunderban and their other sibling. They are so beautiful, it’s almost impossible not to get a good photograph of these photogenic cats.
As the sun is starting to set, we stumble upon TiBo and her stunning 14-month old cubs, cavorting under mom’s watchful gaze. These two white Bengal tiger cubs with their blue eyes are so incredibly striking – it feels as though they are staring right into your soul.
Back at Tigress Julie Lodge, we all dine together with the other guests at a long table in the dining room. The food is delicious, and the meat dish offered is guinea fowl parcel with parsnip puree served with roasted baby onions and fig. At every meal, there is a vegetarian option and tonight’s choice is butternut panzerotti with burnt butter and sage sauce. Dessert is delectable brandy ice-cream with warm koeksisters and dark chocolate.
With only three rooms, all with jaw-dropping views of the surrounding canyon, you are ensured of the best-personalized service. This is a far cry from what was initially here when the project of Tiger Canyon (formerly Tiger Canyons) was spearheaded by John Varty (JV) with the purchase of two Canadian zoo-born tigers in 2000. Named Julie and Ron, they were successfully rewilded with Tigress Julie Lodge constructed in 2016 as a tribute to the original founder cub.
“Used to living amongst wild animals, JV spent most of his life in tents in the bush,” Managing Director of Tiger Canyon, Rodney Drew explains. “His concept was to have a tent with a roof over it, overlooking the canyon, which is not everybody’s cup of tea. When my wife, Lorna and I became involved, we realized there is a need for really intimate, upscale accommodation. Originally, there was only a platform where the lodge is now. With no overnight accommodation, you could have a meal there and relax on your own for a while, but with sub-zero winters here, we needed a more suitable option than five stars through a tent’s ceiling.”
An engineer by trade, Rodney set to work on designing a lodge that will merge into the landscape that has enough dramatic effect with the rocky outcrops and riveting canyon. Something that is as spellbinding as the environs but with a ‘tread lightly on the earth eco-footprint’. It’s an engineering feat to be located where it is, on the edge of a canyon.
When the Drew family first set foot at Tiger Canyon back in 2009, they knew after ten visits in a year, driving from Johannesburg (370 miles each way) that they had fallen hopelessly in love with this piece of paradise, especially with the Tigers. “We were confident that JV had the tiger part well under control, but he needed financial backing, with which we were able to assist by purchasing three farms adjoining Tiger Canyon, thus expanding the base to four times the size of the original proportions. This also allowed scope for other animals to habituate the land except for tigers, so in 2014, we introduced cheetahs. By then, JV had second-generation cubs, which were wild born.”
Adds Naomi Roebert, Marketing Manager at Tiger Canyon: “A very important aspect of our history is that through the re-wilding process, what was established was a breakthrough in the ex-situ conservation of tigers. In many ways, we believe we have established a blueprint for the future conservation of these animals if it should ever come to them no longer being sustained in their original habitat. We have actually created something that is a really unique destination, but is a conservation achievement as well to be able to prove that tigers can live wild in Africa.”
The birth of 3rd generation wild tiger cubs between 2017 and 2018 means that Tiger Canyon is doing something right and as we admire on our morning game drive, the Tigers are the kings and queens of the land. Ussuri is taking a leisurely stroll, oblivious to our presence. She stops by a stack of boulders, pauses, and as if she can sense my silent pleading for her to climb to the top, she does so with such grace and elegance, staying atop just long enough to ‘strike a pose’.
Connor had told us that the second-largest tiger, Khumba is aloof and arrogant, which we can attest to as he gives us the once over and carries on walking. What Khumba doesn’t realize is that tonight will have the most dazzling electric storm, he will be perched on a rock and unceremoniously descend to the great amusement of TiBo and her three cubs.
Tigers are renowned for their fondness of water, and this afternoon is no exception as TiBo and her two cubs take to the water with great vigor. The third cub eventually joins them and we find them post-swim in the long grass attempting to play-dry themselves. We return to the lodge to another flavorsome meal and time spent relaxing in our comfortable dwelling.
An imperative part of Tiger Canyon is their sustainability and being off-the-grid. In such a remote location, they had to rely on the expertise of electrical engineers to install a system that would maintain the day-to-day running of the lodge, which is quite extensive, albeit it for a relatively small property.
“Our electrical energy comes from solar panels on the roof of the lodge into batteries,” says Rodney. “The battery energy sustains us overnight when there is no sunlight; it’s designed to cover the load that is typically inside the lodge. The water heating comes from solar geysers on the roof, which is a big saving as the heating of geysers is rather costly energy consumption. The sun is one of the things we have in abundance here in the Free State! Even in winter, the days are very sunny even though the nights are cold.”
With exceptionally warm summers, while Tiger Canyon has standard air conditioners in every room, their primary system is an evaporative air cooler that makes use of water. It can’t bring the temperatures down as substantially as an aircon can, but can decrease the heat by about 10 degrees, using a lot less energy with a system piped into each room.
For Tiger Canyon, the eco concept is crucial with them being a conservation reserve, striving in everything they do to leave little to no footprint. Even the coffee capsules get recycled. The symbiotic process is central to their sustainability – helping to conserve the tigers and in turn, their existence is helping Tiger Canyon to create a destination that feeds into the world of eco-tourism, being one of the biggest staff employers in the area. They are starting their own nursery where Tiger Canyon is funding the growth of allotments by their staff, buying back vegetables from them. Moving into the process of self-sustainability, they will be growing vegetables that are specifically catered to their menu.
With the purchase of more land by investors, the ultimate dream is for more growth to take place at Tiger Canyon, to give the animals additional space and freedom to roam in. Being amongst tigers in the wild and sitting in close proximity to them in a closed vehicle, is a profound experience you should have at least once in your lifetime.
As we leave to return home, I’m excited at the prospect of following the changes at Tiger Canyon. At Kimberley Airport, my daughter and I are thrilled to board the spectacular Airlink Embraer E190 to fly us to Cape Town. Up and away, we take in another magnificent thunderstorm all around us, showcasing nature’s bounty in abundance.
| Photographs courtesy of Tiger Canyon and by Heléne Ramackers
Airlink – How to Get There
Airlink – is a privately owned airline business, operating as a regional feeder Airline, connecting travelers to more than 55 routes within southern Africa and St Helena Island.
Route Specific Information: Direct scheduled flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Kimberley.
Connectivity: Through our alliance with SAA, travelers can connect conveniently, effortlessly and seamlessly, with SAA, their Partner airlines and other carriers throughout Southern Africa and the world.
Frequent Flyer Programme: Airlink is a member of the South African Airways Loyalty program -Voyager.
Discover more: http://www.flyairlink.com
Book Direct: https://www.flyairlink.com/destinations/flights-to-kimberley
** Views expressed are the author’s own. Thank you to Naomi Roebert for making our accommodation arrangements and to Rodney Drew and the Tiger Canyon team for hosting us.
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