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“Welcome to Laohu Valley Tiger Reserve in Bloemfontein,” I was told by my hosts when I arrived. “Tiger Woods and Madonna are looking forward to meeting you.” My journalist mind started to race.
Tiger Woods and Madonna expecting me? Living together in harmony here in South Africa? This was a huge world exclusive.
Was I about to be let into a secret that the rest of the world was oblivious to? Surely not.
As it turned out, definitely not. This Tiger was actually a real tiger and, while Madonna looked every inch a star, she too was a big cat.
My disappointment at discovering that I wasn’t, after all, on to a sensational scoop was short-lived. Being outstared by a tiger should be on everyone’s “things-to-do-before-I-die” list. It was an otherworldly feeling as Tiger Woods’s eyes went right through me the first time we met, my mortality made abundantly clear by this huge, beautiful king among animals.
Many people will never get the chance to experience what I and my flatmate – Sky News presenter Sarah-Jane Mee – did that day, and not just because Laohu Valley Reserve is private and not open to the public. Rarely does anybody anywhere get to see these magnificent creatures nowadays.
The big cats on the reserve are rare South China tigers and, with fewer than 100 left in the world and none in the wild, they are the most endangered of all tigers. So when SJ and I were offered the chance to see them in as natural a habitat as you could hope to find them, we didn’t think twice. What’s more, we booked an entire 10-day holiday around them.
Our South African adventure began in Cape Town, at the Cape Grace hotel in the shadow of Table Mountain. This is a hotel that prides itself on good service. We were barely out of the chauffeur-driven car it provides as a shuttle to local hot spots before Nigel, the hotel manager, pounced and announced his intention to make our stay as pleasurable as possible. Nothing was too much trouble.
First task for us was to check out some of the sights. A trip to the top of Table Mountain offered spectacular panoramas and was well worth the effort. Better still was our visit to Robben Island. After visiting Alcatraz in San Francisco a few years back, I naively thought I knew what to expect from the infamous offshore prison – but it was nothing like I’d imagined.
These days, former prisoners and ex-guards live together on the island, apparently able to leave what happened in the past back in the past. Our tour guide, Dumisani Mwandla, was a former prisoner who spent five-and-a-half years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and other high-profile political prisoners. Dumisani put it poignantly when he described the brutal treatment inflicted on him by a man he now lives alongside as an equal when he said: “He was just doing his job and I was just doing mine in being here.”
A trip to Robben Island is not only a lesson in history but a true story highlighting what the human spirit is capable of in the face of extreme adversity.
There’s still a lot of scaremongering about personal safety in South Africa, but SJ and I never once felt unsafe or concerned about our surroundings.
One of our favourite places to eat was The Codfather seafood and sushi restaurant in Camps Bay, and we enjoyed rock-star mojitos at Cafe Caprice. After a sizeable serving of sightseeing, fine wine and food, we were ready for the next course on our South African menu: Bloemfontein and the tigers.
Founded in 2000 by Beijing-born Li Quan, Laohu Valley Reserve depends on public and corporate donations to fund what is described as the “rewilding” of the South China tiger. Eventually Li hopes to see the tigers she has bred in South Africa sent home and released into purpose-built reserves.
Li and her team spend every waking moment dedicating themselves to a cause many see as mission impossible. It was an absolute eye-opener in every sense to see them at work and to meet Tiger Woods and his gang, all unwittingly at the forefront of their species’ survival.
The “rewilding” means just that – these are ferocious wild beasts – and we were grateful for the electric fence that kept us apart, and Tiger from making me breakfast and SJ lunch.
There is nothing like a safari holiday to remind you of your place in the world. It tends to put life in perspective.
Mine was certainly brought into sharp focus during our next stop, at the Shamwari reserve near Port Elizabeth. On our first game drive we encountered a pride of lions feasting on their kills – a couple of baby warthogs – and SJ and I thought our days were numbered when Jules, our ranger, left us on a ledge as he went in search of the best possible angles for us to see the hunted and the hunters.
We also saw elephants, rhinos (black and white), buffalo, giraffe, hippos, cheetahs and leopards.
Just as with the Laohu Valley tigers, we were reminded of how small we are in the grand scheme of things – all the more so here because there was no fence to keep us from them, or them from us. This knowledge only made the experience of being on their patch all the more special.
You can make a safari holiday even more magical by enjoying it in extreme luxury, and this is what Shamwari offers in abundance.
There are several lodges you can choose – from those designed for families to those built with celebrities in mind. We stayed in Eagles Crag, a series of suites each carefully positioned for complete privacy. Famous visitors have included John Travolta and Brad Pitt.
The individual plunge pools were a welcome treat after a long morning tracking animals. However, the rain spiders were particularly unwelcome. They are perfectly harmless but seem huge, especially when first spotted on Egyptian cotton sheets.
Conservation is the watchword at Shamwari, with the education of future generations fundamental to the philosophy of Johan Joubert and John O’Brien, who run the park. The famous Born Free Foundation is based at Shamwari and two sanctuaries on site house lions that have been mistreated, malnourished and held captive in awful environments.
Here they see out their final years. SJ and I were touched in particular by one lioness, Achee, who had been rescued by Born Free from a French circus. She was unable to walk properly and could not be released back into the wild.
Also on the reserve is an animal hospital where Johan works as a real-life Doctor Dolittle. When we met him, he came to lunch with a cast on his right leg. We asked what had happened and he told us he had been walking in the bush, alone and without a phone, when he tripped and fell, breaking his leg in several places.
He was rescued hours later, having avoided an encounter with anything carnivorous by hugging the perimeter fence.
There’s no doubt you have to have considerable funds to experience the delights and dangers of Shamwari – which means “my friend” in Shona.
But when Lucky, the reserve manager, greets you with open arms, a cold face towel and a cool drink, it will all seem worth it.
l To adopt a Shamwari lion, visit www.bornfree.org.uk/shamwari.
l Donations to Save China’s Tigers can be made at www.savechinastigers.org - Sunday Tribune