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Ol and Jen's Excellent African Driving Adventure Part One: Tiger Canyon, South Africa

Even the locals thought that we were crazy. Our plan was to rent the cheapest car that we could find and drive it across several countries in southern Africa. We would drive from Cape Town, across South Africa, into and across Namibia, enter Botswana, head to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia, then back down across the length of Botswana, back into South Africa, spend several weeks self-driving on safari in Kruger National Park, into and across Swaziland, and finally to Johannesburg where we would return the car after ninety days.

Our car was a Ford 2WD Eco Sport SUV with a manual transmission. This is noteworthy because it had been a while since either of us had driven a manual transmission. The complicating factor was that South Africans drive on the left hand side of the road and therefore the steering wheel is on the right hand side of the car. This puts the gear shift on the left hand side of the driver, so not only do we have to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road, we have to learn to shift with the left hand!

South African roads are in as good or better condition than most American highways. Namibia and Botswana roads are a different story. Most of the vehicles we saw that were headed to Namibia were large SUV’s with four wheel drive and snorkel exhaust pipes. They were equipped with two spare tires, tents, and generally looked like they would be at home on a “Mad Max” movie set. We looked more like Chevy Chase and family on an “African Vacation.”

We were told that there were some general rules for driving in Africa:

Don’t drive at night unless absolutely necessary.

Be at your destination before sunset.

Keep about three days water and food in the vehicle for emergencies.

Never let the fuel gauge get below a half a tank.

Carry extra fuel.

Have at least two spare tires.

Don’t expect to have cell service.

A four wheel drive vehicle is preferred.

With our two wheel drive rental car we were violating several of these rules from the start.

We bought road maps for all of these countries and I had them all spread out my lap. One skill I have never learned is how to refold a map. It drives Ol crazy. He was trying to drive, but watching me try to fold the maps was about to cause an accident. Ol kept reaching over to help me fold the map but I just wanted him to keep his eyes on the road. In Mississippi we have to watch for deer on the highway. In South Africa there are antelope, kudu, zebra, and ostriches regularly crossing in front of us.

We had mapped out our route across South Africa to Namibia. I was organizing and sorting the brochures I had picked up along the way. A brochure that I had picked up in Cape Town, fell into my lap. I had literally forgotten about it. It was for “Tiger Canyon Private Game Reserve.”

When I flipped it over and looked at the small inset map, I immediately unfurled the large South African road map that I had just folded. Ol cringed at all the crinkling going on my side of the car. He swerved the vehicle when I leapt out of my seat and exclaimed “we will be passing right by Tiger Canyon!”

The brochure described “A wilderness for free roaming tigers.” I googled it. After reading the reviews and watching a few videos, I wanted to visit. However, it was located in the Karoo Region, in the Free State Province several hours north of Cape Town in the opposite direction of our drive on the Garden Route. I thought it was completely out of our way and we wouldn’t have time to visit. However, we had added Fish River Canyon in Namibia to our itinerary and now it was on the way!

Even though it was only 8 a.m. I called the number on the brochure. No one answered and I left a message. I then went to their website and sent an email. The reserve required reservations and I doubted that we would be able to visit. From the map, it looked like we would be there around 2 p.m. and I was trying not to get my hopes up.

I settled back in my seat to enjoy the scenery. We passed farms, wineries, game reserves, and went through several eco systems. All of it was beautiful. Thankfully, we had just left Addo Elephant National Park, or we would have been stopping every ten minutes to take pictures of the wildlife.

It didn’t take long for Chantelle, with Tiger Canyon to get back to me. She told us that we could visit this afternoon and that our tour would include dinner. They did have one room available, if we wanted to stay in their luxury eco-lodge but it was a little out of our budget (and by a little I mean a lot!). However, Chantelle was kind enough to recommend a guest house near the reserve. We contacted the guest house and made reservations. I couldn’t believe our luck!

After watching Youtube videos on Tiger Canyon I was excited to visit. The reviews I read said the visit was a once in a lifetime experience and one of the best things to do. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I was trying to not have my exceptions so high that I would be disappointed.

Tigers are not native to Africa, so “The Tiger Project” at Tiger Canyon is a groundbreaking conservation project that provides a sanctuary for the endangered Bengal tiger in South Africa. The private game reserve was founded in 2000 by conservationist and wildlife filmmaker John Varty. This private game reserve is home to the only growing population of wild tigers outside Asia.

Chantelle gave detailed instructions, told us to call her when we arrived at our guest house, and informed us that a guide would be meeting us the reserve’s gate.

Our little car made its way down the long, rough dirt road that led from our guest house to the reserve. When we pulled up to the gate our guide was waiting in a large Land Rover. She looked at our little car with wide eyes that made me again question our rental car decision. She introduced herself to us and told us to follow her to the lodge. She got out and opened a pair of gates that were reminiscent of Jurassic Park. We drove through and she quickly followed, closing the gates behind her.

It was a short drive to the lodge and when we parked we were greeted by a hostess with fresh local juice. We were escorted into a beautiful lodge overlooking a rocky valley. Suzie our guide then led us to a viewing deck to enjoy the landscape. We were then asked to make selections for dinner.

Joined by a couple from South Africa, we watched the origin story of Tiger Canyon. John Varty took two tiger cubs from a zoo and trained them to hunt, swim, and live the life of a wild tiger. This successful twenty year experiment now housed over fifteen wild tigers and is a blue print for how to save the endangered Bengal tiger in the wild.

We finished our drinks and each couple was escorted to our own Land Rover game vehicle. We buckled up and went in search of tigers. The reserve was huge and encompassed several areas. Security was intense and Suzi had to continually open and close gates. The security was in place to protect the surrounding community and for the protection of the tigers.

As we passed wildebeest, antelopes, and warthogs, they would flee. This was unlike the reserves and National Parks we had visited where the animals were accustomed to vehicles, these animals were truly wild. It was wonderful to see these small herds run. The reserve was so large that it took nearly two hours before we spotted our first tigers. They were two young brothers lounging in the bush on the backside of a dam.

Unlike the lions we had seen, the tigers were immediately active. This was a little unnerving as we were just a few feet away from them and their gaze was piercing. Our guide spotted the patriarch lying up on the dam so we drove around to get a better view. When we looked back the young tigers had gotten up to stalk us.

When we reached the backside of the dam we had a better view of the father basking in the shade. His sons soon joined him and as each tiger greeted one another there was a little roughhousing. When dad was tired of the wrestling he quickly showed them who was boss.

After a while, another tiger came towards our truck from the other direction. It was the third sibling. He joined his brothers, but not until getting uncomfortably close to me. It was surreal to watch these beautiful animals. They were wild and free with an abundance of prey animals and thousands of acres to roam. These tigers were not fed. If they didn’t hunt, they didn’t eat. When they stared at me, I felt like a hamburger in front of a fat man.

Eventually, the tigers came down from the dam and got a drink of water. Tigers like lions are territorial and Suzi wanted us to see a special sighting before it got dark. Tiger Canyon is home to the only known white tigers in the wild.

Again, it took some time to locate them. I thought that white tigers would stand out in the bush. But like the giraffe, zebra, and leopard, their markings make them almost invisible unless they are moving or you are right next to them.

The white tigers were indeed beautiful. We watched them play and then we watched them slowly sneak up on a grounds crew truck. Despite being nocturnal animals they were very active during the daytime.

Suzi had one more surprise for us before dark. She wanted us to experience the Cheetah project. The reserve also took rescued cheetahs and returned them to the wild. Suzi pulled the truck over in a beautiful field in separate part of the reserve away from the tigers.

Suzi invited us to get out of the vehicle and she set up an impromptu sundowner picnic. She opened a nice bottle of South African white wine, offered us some snacks, and then motioned over to the grass about ten yards away. We glanced over to see two cheetahs watching us! I could barely make them out until they sat up. I was torn between watching the sunset and watching the cheetahs!

Suzi explained that depending upon their mood, the cheetahs may come closer and that we shouldn’t be startled if they come and rub up against us like a regular house cat. She explained that they did that occasionally. The cheetahs were now completely wild and self-sustaining like the tigers. They ate only what they killed. However, these two were bottle fed as babies and humans are therefore imprinted on them. Their offspring will be completely wild.

After an amazing afternoon we headed back to the lodge. We met the South African couple and a young writer from Johannesburg doing a story on the reserve. We excitedly talked about what we had just seen and experienced. We all agreed that it was incredible. It is sad to think of these beautiful creatures disappearing from the wild. Most people will only see a tiger in a concrete cage in the zoo. Seeing wild tigers is truly an amazing experience.

At dinner, a young local girl took our drink orders and served us dinner. English was not her first language and she was very nervous explaining the gourmet dinners courses. We tried to put her at ease and complimented her on her bravery. It was wonderful to see the local community benefitting from and working at the reserve.

After a long day, we had to say goodbye to our new friends and head back to our vehicle. After this unique experience I wanted to be an advocate for Tiger Canyon. It was truly one of the neatest things I have ever experienced. It is hard to believe that the tiger is the most loved and recognized animal on earth, yet it is one of the most endangered.

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