It is not hard to believe that there are places of such beauty and tranquility hidden so close to a small town in the heart of the Karoo. Just a stone’s throw from Cradock in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province lays the Mountain Zebra National Park, a park synonymous with crystal clear skies, breathtaking scenery, and of course home to the beautiful Cape mountain zebra. It is almost like entering a different world when you pass through the gates. A visit to the park will reveal so much to see and do. Have you ever thought about visiting? This guide is ideal for those looking for reasons to visit the Mountain Zebra National Park.
Mountain Zebra National Park’s wildlife
The Cape mountain zebra with its prominent stripes is hard to miss and the reason for the proclamation of the park. At a time when these animals were on the verge of extinction, the park offered them a safe space. This is what makes all protected areas so important – there is always a purpose, a reason for their existence. The park was first proclaimed in 1937 and started as a mere 1 712 hectares. Today, the park has grown to more than 28 412 hectares in size.
You can spot these zebras (main image) along with buffalo, eland, springbok, black wildebeest, red hartebeest, and larger predators. South African National Parks always look at the animals that occurred in the area historically, and as a result, cheetahs were reintroduced back into the park in 2007, and lions followed in 2013. It remains the only national park where I have seen both a bush pig and an aardwolf on the same trip – some of the rarer species to see. Once on a guided night drive, I was fortunate enough to see an aardvark and porcupine.
Mountain Zebra National Park is also brilliant for birding. Birders can see a wide variety of species due to the different types of vegetation and habitat available. Open plains such as the Rooiplaat Loop attract larks and pipits, but it is also possible to spot blue cranes, secretarybird, and ostrich here. Also, look out for bustards and korhaan. The mountainous areas attract various raptors such as the Martial eagle, jackal buzzard, and Verreaux’s eagle. The thickets surrounding the river are ideal for smaller birds. Special species such as the Drakensberg rockjumper and the ground woodpecker can be spotted at the mountain cottages.
Mountain Zebra National Park cultural heritage
A visit to the Mountain Zebra National Park is not complete without exploring the park’s cultural heritage. Guided tours can take you closer to the hidden rock art paintings in the park, created by the ancient San people. Some scrambling over rocky terrain is required, so the activity might not be recommended for the elderly and very young kids. There is also evidence of Late Stone Age inhabitants along the banks of the Wilge River.
If you are fit, book a trip to see the chessboard on top of Salpeterkop. It dates back to the Anglo Boer War in the 1800s and it is believed that the British played chess with fellow soldiers in Cradock by transmitting their moves with a mirror. Salpeterkop is the highest point in the park and easily identifiable as it is one of three grouped koppies from a distance.
Mountain Zebra National Park activities
Mountain Zebra National Park will never leave you without choices. A very popular activity is cheetah tracking. It is something I’d recommend having done it before. The cheetahs in the park have tracking collars, so the guides can track their locations, allowing you to see these residents up close. First, you will drive until the signal is strong enough. Once the range is close enough, you will continue to track the animals on foot. One can get pretty close to the animals, but the guide will always allow enough distance to respect their space. Cheetahs are much more docile than other predators such as lion and leopard, and will not just attack, making it safer to get closer to them and to see them on foot.
Want to get those legs moving? The rest camp offers two nature trails to explore within the fenced perimeter of the rest camp. The longer of the two trails, the Black Eagle Trail, offers spectacular views of the park. I once had a crazy encounter on the Black Eagle trail, but it was not with a wild animal. Read more about this incident here.
Temperatures can rise sharply in summer. The swimming pool in the rest camp or at one of the picnic sites is probably the best spot for hot, lazy afternoons. Pack a good book and spend some time relaxing.
Exploring Mountain Zebra National Park
There are plenty of roads to explore in the comfort of your vehicle when visiting Mountain Zebra, including a few 4×4 trails. These include the Sonnerust Trail (14.2km), the Juriesdam 4×4 Trail (10km), and the Umngeni 4×4 Trail stretching over 8km. I have not personally done any of these trails as I always visited with a sedan rental vehicle. Most of the roads in the park are easily accessible with a sedan, and there are plenty of routes to take in a normal vehicle.
Some of my favourite routes in the Moutain Zebra National Park include the Rooiplaat and Kranskop Loops. Joining a guided game drive also has its appeal as the guides are generally extremely knowledgeable, and can tell you a lot about the region’s fauna and flora.
Mountain Zebra National Park accommodation
Accommodation ranges from camping to family cottages. The newest accommodation in the park is the rock chalets, and from what I have heard, you want to stay there as the units boast spectacular views. Scared of the crowds? Get away from the main rest camp and book a rustic mountain cottage, or stay in the historic guest house. You can also set up your tent or park your caravan in the camping area.
Family friendly escape
Take the whole family to the park. There is a swimming pool in the main rest camp and at the picnic areas to cool down on those scorching summer days, and fireplaces inside the accommodation provide comfort in winter. The picnic areas also offer areas to swim. The hiking trails within the perimeters of the rest camp are great to teach the youngsters more about plants and the small creatures found in the park.
You’ll find the Mountain Zebra National Park on the R61 approximately 12km from Cradock on the way to Graaff-Reinet. It’s about 260km or a three-hour drive from Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), where the nearest international airport is situated.
More information: www.sanparks.org/parks/mountain_zebra/
Have you ever visited the Mountain Zebra National Park? Tell us in the comments about your best experiences and special sightings in the comments section!
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