Tigers in the Karoo? It seems quite unlikely until you travel to the little town of Philippolis. Here, on the banks of the Vanderkloof Dam, maverick conservationist and film-maker John Varty has established a sanctuary for these magnificent beasts.

Did you know?

It is estimated there are as few as 3 200 tigers are left in the wild.

There is nothing that truly prepares you for the majesty of an untamed tiger close up.

Especially when that huge, full-grown big cat leaps on to the dented bonnet of the game drive vehicle you’re in, and gives a series of chuffs (tiger talk) to communicate his happiness to see you. It’s at moments like these that you're deeply grateful the vehicle has sturdy bars protecting you from a playful bat from one of its gigantic paws.

Tigers don’t naturally occur in Africa. But maverick conservationist and film-maker John Varty, who has a passion for big cats, has established an African sanctuary for them at Tiger Canyons outside the little Karoo town of Philippolis in the Free State.

John and his brother Dave co-founded the world famous private game reserve Londolozi in the Sabi Sand Reserve. And while John was deeply involved in big cat conservation for many years, he began fretting about the fate of the tigers in Asia.

'JV', as most people call him, saw it as crucial that tigers in viable wild populations be conserved in other parts of the world. It’s the same thinking that helped save the white rhino population in the early 1960s and, later on, the Arabian oryx.

Tiger Canyons is a massive piece of land 25km from Philippolis. Although technically in the semi-arid Karoo, it includes part of the plunging ravines of the Vanderkloof Dam. Tigers adore water and are able to live in a variety of habitats, from snowy Siberia to jungle tropics to arid north-eastern India.

Despite John Varty’s background of luxurious Londolozi, this is not an opulent place – for tourists at least. There is no accommodation (you stay in town if you’re overnighting), and every bit of available funding goes to the tigers.

But to spend a morning or an afternoon with them could be the highlight of your trip to South Africa. Unlike many Asian parks, here you are guaranteed an opportunity to see wild tigers close up.

And one look into those blazingly imperious yet trusting eyes may even change your life.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Tiger Canyons
Sunette Fourie
Tel:+27 (0)51 773 0063
Cell:+27 (0)82 892 4680
Email: info@jvbigcats.co.za

How to get here

The nearest airport is at Bloemfontein. From here, Tiger Canyons is under two hours' drive. Take the N1 south and take the Trompsburg off-ramp. Once in Trompsburg, take the R717 for about 60km to Philippolis. Just outside town, you'll see the signs to Tiger Canyons, which is about 25km away.

Around the area

Philippolis is a historical town with some noteworthy architecture, and is well worth visiting.

Get around

At Tiger Canyons, you'll be driven around in a vehicle covered in bars. Note the dented bonnet, a favoured perch of tigers.

What will it cost

Approx. R950 per person for a morning or afternoon tour, including a meal.

Length of stay

This is perfect for a day drive. But if you'd like to really get to know the tigers, stay overnight in Philippolis.

What to pack

Under no circumstances should you forget your camera. Otherwise your friends may not believe your sighting of tigers in Africa.

Where to stay

There are a number of options in nearby Philippolis.

What's happening

If you come for an afternoon tour, you may also be privy to a small concert by John Varty. Accompanying himself on guitar, he sings about the big cats he has known and loved.