The word ‘unique’ gets overused — particularly when describing wildlife viewing experiences and adventure travel. But I’ve just returned from a wondrous experience that embodies the purest form of uniqueness: Tiger Canyon in the Free State of South Africa.
I spent three and a half days at Tiger Canyon in early October and I feel as though I have drunk from magic waters. My heart and my soul are re-energized. My faith in humanity’s ability to be responsible stewards to the mesmerizing—and decimated—species Panthera tigris tigris has been restored.
Over the three days and seven game drives, Connor, my superb guide and intrepid Land Cruiser driver, introduced me to tigers as though they were family members. TiBo—current mother of 3 cubs and the only white tiger in the wild; Bird—the titanic alpha male ruling the Tiger East area; Sundarban—the large and non-threatening ‘uncle’ often seen playing with cubs that aren’t his, unmistakable because of the positioning of his ears: he has been in fights so vicious that the scar tissue on the back of his neck has grown so tight that it has pulled his ears closer on the top of his skull; Ussuri—current mom to 3 cubs and also a Tiger East resident. Her distinctive torn left ear is a visual reminder of how brutal and violent life can be in tiger society.
Even more than introducing me to individual tigers and setting me up for spectacularly lighted photos, Connor told me the history of the land and its past and current residents. The history, inter-connections and bloodlines of the tigers play out as if these predators were characters in “Game of Thrones.” Similar to a theatrical drama, at Tiger Canyon there are struggles for power, bloody fights to protect and gain territory, siblings cast out, sex, birth and death. And the saga continues.
Through it all, there is the haunting sound of tiger vocalization: “owwoooooff”, which I got to hear up close. During one morning drive, Connor parked our game viewer about 100 meters in front of TiBo so I could capture terrific low light pics of her white coat against the black rock canyon walls. She walked within one meter of the vehicle, brushed the rear bumper with her whiskers, ambled directly beneath me with my lens protruding through an open window. And then, two meters from me, with the intent of any mother demanding the kids come home, “owwoooooff!”. The video I took captures only 2-dimensions of the experience. I’ll never forget it.
In three days filled with highlights, it is a challenge to choose one that rises above the others. If pressed, one of the more memorable highlights was seeing Oria and her three cubs in the Tiger West area on the morning of my last game drive. The factor that made this sighting a highlight was the sheer difficulty in finding Oria and her cubs.
We actually began looking for the family of four the previous afternoon. Herold, one of Tiger Canyon’s dedicated scouts, relayed information to us over the radio that he had spotted Oria and her cubs in one of her favorite spots: a dry riverbed. Connor and I were about 15 minutes away. On our way, Connor prepared me by explaining that Oria was an elusive tiger by Tiger Canyon standards. When we arrived at the spot Connor’s tracking prowess was jaw-dropping. He saw paw prints and scuffs in the sand and proceeded to narrate a series of events that likely took place over the past hour: Oria walked down the wash, the cubs followed, then the cubs rolled around playing; the cub prints disappeared in to a thicket; Oria’s tracks walked back out the same way we drove in.
The sun had set and, despite our eagerness to see the family, the dwindling light made it nearly impossible to see into the thickets and tall grass. With resignation, Connor, said, “I know she and the cubs are in here somewhere. She just doesn’t want us to see her now.” We decided to head back to the lodge and try again in the morning.
We arrived at the riverbed at 6:30 AM the following morning with high hopes. The wait and anticipation were worth it. Within a few minutes Connor spotted a couple of the cubs’ heads barely visible below—and well camouflaged within—the tall grass. Intensely curious about the truck, the cubs approached us tentatively. Soon, Oria ambled into view to ensure we were no threat to her cubs. A third cub—certainly the most shy—appeared but stayed close to mom. For the next 45 minutes we just sat in silence as the two cubs padded around our vehicle, sniffing the air and batting at each other with their over-sized paws just like house cats. Magical.
Few adventure or wildlife viewing experiences have a “wow” factor that rivals Tiger Canyon. I have had the good fortune of experiencing the unusual wildlife of the Galapagos; brown bears in Kamchatka, Russia; polar bears north of Svalbard, Norway—just to name a few. The intimate and personalized experience that the Tiger Canyon family—the cats and the extraordinary staff—offers makes it unique.