We crossed the electrified animal grid surrounding the chalets and camping site, and turned right to cross a small stream. Our open-sided vehicle was hemmed in by thick riverine bush.
Pets allowed: No
Day Visitors: There are a few picnic sites in the park.
Visit the SANParks website for booking information.
“Cat!” shouted one of my companions, Bernd Timm from Berlin.
“Impossible,” I thought. But, there on our right, we caught a glimpse of sleek spotted animals as they melted into the surrounding bush.
Only five minutes earlier, our ranger (Sienethemba Tiem, or Tim for short) had warned us, “There’s no guarantee of finding cheetah.” He said this as he lifted a directional antenna in the air – the adult female at the Mountain Zebra National Park was collared, and Tim was looking for a signal.
Perhaps there was bush magic in the two Tim’s, the African ‘Tiem’ and the German ‘Timm’.
Tiem whispered instructions: “Straight line behind me… absolute quiet. Remember, don’t ever, ever run!”
In one smooth movement, Tiem pulled back the bolt of his rifle, and the .375 H&H round slid into the chamber. What followed will forever be etched in my DNA.
We quickly left the thicket, climbing up a steep, rocky ridge. Thank God there were no buffalo – because this is exactly the terrain where you’ll find them; but at the top of the ridge we found the four cheetahs.
For the following three or so hours, we followed the collared female and the three sub-adults, two males and a female, along the slopes of the rocky ridge. At times, I reckon we were as close as a hundred metres away. They ignored us completely.
I’ve been in this travel game for a long time but this day was something truly extraordinary.
My Nikon camera has a built-in tape-recorder facility. Listening now to Sinethemba’s voice takes me back to the morning that we followed the cheetah: “We got our first cheetah in 2007… the collared female we’re following was born in this park.”
He went on to tell us that the three cubs had been born in April 2016. They reckon there are now seventeen cheetahs in the park.
After some three hours of following the cheetah, Tiem finally said: “Guys, we are starting to interfere with their hunt; it’s time to go.”
I wouldn’t have believed that there was still more to come that day. But there was − a whole lot more.
FROM THE START
But let’s go back a few days, so I can tell you how this whole trip came about.
Perhaps it was destined to be special from the start. I often cover five to six destinations on a single trip, but for this assignment, I was heading only to the Mountain Zebra National Park, and would be there for a whole week!
Added to that, I was driving a brand new Isuzu KB300 4×4 D Teq Double Cab and towing an Infanta Enkulu 2 off-road caravan for the trip.
The Infanta factory is literally up the road from my home in the Overberg. The new premises are in a couple of hangar-like buildings alongside the N2 highway at Buffeljagsrivier, some 10kms north of Swellendam.
It took the owners, JW Swart and his son Jurie, literally only five minutes to show me how to get this beautiful van up and running.
Open the door, flick the top switch, and the roof rises up. Hold the self-returning switch below it, and your spacious double-bed (with tons of headroom) slides out of the Enkulu like magic.
The Enkulu 2 weighs in at just over 1 000kg, before you load your grub and clothes. It rolled along behind the big Isuzu 3-litre turbo-diesel like a feather. That was no surprise, as the Isuzu is rated to tow up to 3 500kg!
It’s a long, but scenic and beautiful drive from the Cape up to George, and then across the Outeniqua Mountains toward Oudtshoorn, before turning left on to Uniondale, Willowmore and Graaff Reinet, and finally on to the park some 10 kilometres before Cradock.
The Mountain Zebra National Park turned a venerable 80 years old last year. Way back in 1937, when it was founded, local farmers managed to protect a small herd of mountain zebra that were on the point of extinction. Luckily for us, they now number well over 1 000 and their future survival is now secured.
I like this park so much because of its shy, retiring nature. Unlike well-known parks such as Kruger, Hluhluwe, Imfolozi, Golden Gate, and even the Karoo National Park, this treasure hides itself away in some 280 square kilometres of mountainous Karoo landscape.
With the park covering three different biomes (Nama-Karoo, Grassland and Thicket), it provides the perfect environment for its large amount of game, even though it is relatively small when compared to the other, more well-known parks.
Vuyani Dial, the charming Hospitality Manager who met me on my arrival, said: “Richard, just book any of the activities you want to go on at reception.”
What a privilege! I proceeded to go on a guided morning drive, a guided sunset- and night drive − and, of course, the Cheetah Tracking.
HISTORY OF MOUNTAIN ZEBRA NATIONAL PARK
This was due to the efforts of local farmers who wished to preserve the herds of these animals that still survived in this area of the Karoo. Hans Lombard, a local farmer, donated the initial herd of 11 zebra.
Eventually, nine surrounding farms were added to the park, expanding it to some 28 386 hectares in size.
This seed herd of 11 has how grown to more than a thousand zebra. Once the zebra were in place, the park acquired buffalo, cheetah and brown hyena; and finally, 3 lions were released into the park on 25 April 2013.
After a slap-up breakfast at the campsite, my companion Jan (short for Janet – but for goodness don’t call her that unless you want trouble) and I headed out for the Umgeni 4×4 Trail. You can’t have a brute of a 4×4 Isuzu and not put it to the test, can you?
It’s a steep ascent and I was concentrating hard on the track, when Jan shouted “Lion!”
Typical male, I said, “No, it’s a rock… but I’ll reverse.”
Bloody hell, my rock started moving! It was a massive male. As we sat watching, Jan said that she thought she could see another lion. Another large male.
We sat there for perhaps an hour or so, watching those two, before simultaneously shouting out “Another one”! Hidden in the rocky outcrop behind the first two was a lone lioness. We had just a glimpse of her before she was gone.
Reluctantly, we left the lions and continued up the Umgeni Trail, before joining the Rooiplaat Loop up on the plateau.
There’s plenty of game up here on the far-reaching grasslands. But we didn’t tarry. We traversed the steep part of the Kranskop Loop to the comfortable rest camp far below.
THE REST CAMP
It was a pleasure returning to the fully enclosed and protected rest camp and campsite after a long day in the veld. There are 20 sites, each individually paved. The ablutions, kitchen, scullery and laundry are all first class.
The Rest Camp at the Mountain Zebra Park is siuated on the slopes of a rocky mountainous outcrop. If you’re camping, it’s well worth taking a stroll up past the shop, office and restaurant building on the paved drive to the new mountain chalets. From here you have an excellent view over the whole camp.
There is one swimming pool for camp guests only, and another large swimming pool in the picnic site for day visitors. The picnic sites are enclosed with electric fences and have braai facilities and super clean toilets.
The shop next door to the reception has a lot of tourist stuff but does carry all the basics needed for camping like bread, milk, cooldrinks, ice, braaiwood, charka, firelighters etc. There is a large restaurant with huge glass window looking out to the surrounding veld.
Although that this area consists of Karoo Acacia thorntrees and there’s shade at quite a few of the sites, it is limited.
All the campsites are neatly paved, have electricity, with drinkable water on tap nearby. There are portable braai’s available for each stand.
I found the staff – from the cleaners to the personnel in the shop, the reception team and the field rangers – to be top class.
I visited the cottages, family cottages and the luxurious Rock Chalets. Man, oh man, if you want to spoil yourself, all I can say is they really are superb.
The Rest Camp site is big with two short hikes inside the enclosed camp.
There are many outdoor activities at Mountain Zebra, so remember to bring along a hat, walking shoes, a camera, binoculars and bird and mammal reference books.
As outdoor-lighting in camps is limited, a torch/headlamp is required when walking outside at night. It can be hot in summer, so make sure that you have sunscreen; and warm clothes are essential for the winter months.
It seemed as if every caravan and off-road trailer was represented in the camp: There was the Bush Lapa Boskriek of Wouter and Adel Burger from the Strand in the Cape; nearby were Rodney and Audrey Gower in a Jurgens XT75, and directly in front of us were Rodney and Dawn Brown from George, in their venerable but immaculate Gypsy Royale 5 Star. Behind them were the Hambergers, Eric and Merilyn, in their Sensation caravan custom-built to handle off-road conditions. And, to round off the mix, there was a Sherpa, and the Hills from East London in their own totally homemade tent trailer.
Man, was I enjoying this trip. Six glorious days in one of the most underrated national game parks in South Africa.
Although the campsite, chalets and cottages were busy, I rarely came across another car in the park. We covered all the trails – Juriedam, Umgeni and Sonnenrust.
Visitors are allowed out of their vehicles only at the rest camps and picnic spots, and at certain marked areas.
It was on the Juriesdam route that we saw a black rhino. Although it was out of photographic reach, we watched this grey, lumbering leviathan disappear like a wraith into the thick riverine bush.
Making our way back to the rest camp, we crossed the Wilgeboom river and had turned right into the main road when I spotted something about 100 metres to the right. It was an aardwolf, so absorbed with something on the ground in front of him that he ignored us totally.
While looking through my binocs, I also saw a glistening yellow cape cobra. Disturbed by our turning the Isuzu around for a better picture, the normally nocturnal aardwolf said, “That’s enough, I’m going home!” and he was gone.
But, later that day, we did get to see quite a few nocturnal animals. We went out on a night-drive with Ranger Charl Lyell. Somehow it seemed as if every springhare in the Karoo had some special meeting that night.
Even Charl was puzzled, saying: “Perhaps it’s the strong wind that’s blowing… I really cannot recall ever seeing so many.” These comical kangaroo-like critters seemed to be hopping and jumping everywhere.
To add to that, we spotted a caracal, and on the way home we saw quite a few fiery-necked nightjars that seemed to stick to the roads.
I have to say that even though I was lucky enough to spend a week at Mountain Zebra National Park, my adventure seemed to be over in the blink of an eye. But I was not ready to go home just yet; I wanted some more time on the road. I managed to talk my editor, as well as JW and Jurie Swart from Infanta, into allowing me to keep the rig for three more days, and off I went to another of my favourite spots on earth: the Zonnenstrahl campsite in Nieu Bethesda. But that’s a story for another day.
The story for today is this: Put on your traveling boots, get the caravan cleaned up and head for the Mountain Zebra Park in the rolling landscape of the Karoo. You won’t be sorry.
Morning: Summer: 05h00 – 07h00; Winter: 06h30 – 08h30
Minimum two guests, maximum nine guests. Minimum age: 6 years old.
R240 per adult; R120 per child under 12 years old.
Sunset: Summer 17:00 – 19:00; Winter: 15:30 – 17:30
Minimum four guests; maximum nine guests.
R300 per adult; R150 per child under 12 years old (includes snacks and drinks).
Evening: Summer 19:30 – 21:30; Winter: 18:00 – 20:00
Minimum two guests; maximum nine guests.
R240 per adult; R120 per child under 12 years old.
All game drives − minimum age: six years old.
San Cave Paintings:
Some clambering over rocks is required, so this activity is not suitable for frail people or for very young children.
Time: 09h00 – 11h00
Minimum two guests; maximum nine guests.
Minimum age: six years old.
R215 per adult; R110 per child under 12 years old.
The walk, for ages 12 – 65, can be a route of up to 10km long, or to other areas of interest, depending on the group’s abilities and interests.
Time: Summer 05h00 – 08h00; Winter: 06h30 – 09h30.
Minimum two, and maximum six people.
R330 per person.
If you are fairly fit and prepared for a challenging climb, the hike provides a magnificent view over the Park, and a rare view of an Anglo-Boer War relic.
Time: Summer 05h00 – 08h00; Winter: 07h00 – 10h00.
Minimum two, and maximum nine people. 12 years – 65 years.
R375 per person.
Drive out with your guide to search for the elusive cheetahs. Trips range between 3 and 4 hours, and advance bookings are essential.
Minimum two, and maximum eight people. From 12 years – 65 years.
R400 per person.
No booking necessary, as the trails are self-drive and open during the normal operating hours of the Park. Only 4×4 vehicles may be used on the trails.
There are three trails: Sonnerust, Juriesdam and Umgeni.
The Juriesdam and Sonnerust trails are relatively easy drives, but the Umgeni trail is more challenging. Trails may be closed in the event of wet weather or maintenance.
By Richard van Ryneveld