Current Issue #488

Good Country:
Tiger territory at Tantanoola

Michael X Savvas
Tantanoola Tiger Hotel

Apart from Loch Ness, is there any other place in the world as closely associated with a mysterious creature as the town of Tantanoola on the Limestone Coast?

Tantanoola (originally Lucieton) was established in 1879, and the first tiger sighting
in the region was in 1885. Since that time, the town has been linked to tigers. Mysterious big cats seen in Victoria and NSW were often referred to generically as Tantanoola Tigers.
A Kapunda Herald article from 1908 announced “A ‘Tantanoola Tiger’ Caught at Snowtown”. It turned out to be a wombat. 

After the first tiger sighting around Tantanoola, more occurred from 1893. In 1895, a crack marksman, Tom Donovan, shot and killed a creature scaring sheep near Mount Salt. The creature was either a dog, wolf or hybrid. The stuffed animal eventually became a mascot for the Tantanoola Tigers Football Club and is now displayed inside the Tantanoola Tiger Hotel. The tiger was no more. Or was it? 

Inconveniently, tiger and big cat sightings continued after the famed shooting. And the dog/wolf itself – small, unstriped and with an overbite to rival Chad Morgan’s – looks nothing like a tiger. Any resemblance to actual tigers is purely hallucinogenic. But if the shot animal is a wolf, how did it reach Australia? A theory is that a wolf pup may have escaped from one of the many historical shipwrecks along the nearby stretch of coastline. A local claims that the wolf belonged to a visiting Russian sea captain. 

Michael X Savvas

Tantanoola has a lot of citizens called Mick. Kind and hospitable Mick and Nicky Nelson and neighbours suggest I approach some veteran Tantanoolans for more tiger intel.
So, inside the mighty Tigers football/ netball club rooms, I speak to a group of jovial men drinking tinnies of Great Northern beer. Clearly good mates. Bruce ‘Punchy’ Bawden tells me they’re members of the Once-a-Year Club: “We meet every Christmas Day at the old Tantanoola Cheese Factory, where they used to make Tiger Cheese.” 

Not surprisingly, the half a dozen club members in attendance (including two Micks) all know something of the long history of the Tantanoola Tiger. Although the men disagree on the story’s details, what they do agree on is their sadness that Tantanoola is
no longer a lively place. Dean Thiele (author Colin Thiele’s cousin ‘ten times removed’) reminisces about the town’s 12 shops in the 60s dwindling down to three businesses now. Even the primary school, which opened in 1883, closed this year. 

Although none of the gentlemen have spotted a Tantanoola Tiger, two men appear genuine about seeing big black cats outside SA. Mick Agnew was shooting rabbits on a property at Dergholm, Victoria, when he observed what looked like a running puma that disappeared in the scrub. 

Similarly, Wayne ‘Walks’ Walker saw something in Licola, in Victoria’s High Country. “We were up there hunting. My young bloke was in the car too. 

It was snowing, and this cat went in front of us. It was jet black. It ran across the road, looked at us and then pissed off. We saw it for three seconds. It was two-foot high, and its tail was long.” 

Michael X Savvas
Mt Burr Forest

Another helpful member of the Sunday arvo chapter of the Once-a- Year Club tells me that a big black cat was seen in the nearby Mt Burr forest around six years ago. 

It’s unlikely so many people have been mistaken. I suspect that a thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, which resembles a dog with stripes, could be the answer to both the tiger and wolf sightings. It’s also possible that the 1893 creature was not the same one shot in 1895. 

The path above Carpenter Rocks (near Tantanoola) reveals scrub thicker than any I’ve seen in SA. It’s not hard to imagine hidden creatures. As Neville Bonney, author of The Tantanoola Tiger says, “This coastal strip is the only continuous strip of vegetation where such animals could have lived. And this corner was untouched. The land clearing didn’t start until the 1920s and 1930s. There’s no doubt that an animal could have lived in this scrub for 20 or 30 years.” Perhaps some unknown creatures are still there? 

The tiger as seen on the cover of Neville Bonney’s The Tantanoola Tiger

Tantanoola continues to be associated with the tiger. According to Bonney, “If I say I’m from Tantanoola, people say ‘Ah, the land of the tiger’. That’s happened over 70 or 80 years of my lifetime.” 

Visit Tantanoola and decide for yourself what and where the tiger may be. The welcoming community will happily share their knowledge of tigers, wolves and shipwrecks. Just ask for Mick. 

Michael X Savvas

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