Zebra is not exactly the number one animal that comes to mind for safari-lovers. We tend to overlook them because we can easily spot them at any national park. Little do we know that zebra species can also go extinct. Cape Mountain Zebra in South Africa is only an example. Once at the brink of extinction with less than 10 zebra left, this endangered species has been under protection at Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape. The park is now inhabited by more than 1000 mountain zebras, along with an exciting range of herbivores and nocturnal predators. Let’s take a closer look.
Mountain Zebra National Park, along with the rest of the Great Karoo, was once submerged in water before it dried up. That’s why the area is incredibly rich in fossil artifacts. Excavations also reveal cave paintings belonging to the San people, as well as stone and pottery, all of which date back to the Later Stone Age.
Because of the Anglo-Boer wars and excessive hunting, mountain zebra was endangered when the area was proclaimed a conservation area in 1937. Despite the attempts to expand the population, there were only two zebras left by 1950. Thankfully, some farmers in the surrounding areas donated their zebra to improve the breeding pool. They also donated land, which helped the expansion of the park up to 284 square kilometers.
Mountain Zebra National Park contains three distinct habitats. The Eastern Upper Karoo is mainly made up of grass and shrub. Karoo Escarpment Grassland is a rocky terrain with scarce vegetation. A small region of the park contains Eastern Cape Escarpment Thicket. Although the area is susceptible to fires, the bush density is still high compared to the rest of the Karoo region.
As the name suggests, the highlight of the park is the Cape Mountain Zebra with more than 1000 members. You can come across these rare zebra species in small herds throughout the park.
The other highlight is the cheetah population. Introduced in 2007, they were the first large predators in the park. Today, the park is known as one of the best cheetah tracking destinations in South Africa.
The park has four of the big five except elephants. Cape Buffalo is usually spotted lurking around the acacia thicket. Black rhino, lion, and leopard are also present, although they are harder to track. On the other hand, the fauna of the park is very generous in terms of smaller predators including brown hyena, bat-eared fox, caracal, black-footed cat, aardvark, aardwolf, and polecats.
Antelopes are also quite high in numbers. The most abundant species include black wildebeest, red hartebeest, eland, kudu, blesbok, and springbok. The rarer antelopes in the park are the grey rhebuck and mountain reedbuck.
Let’s not forget about the birds! There are approximately 300 species, 20 of which are endemic to Eastern Cape.
Mountain Zebra National Park offers high-quality safari drives at various times of the day. The morning drives start as early as 5 am, so you must make sure to get a good night’s sleep beforehand. The sunset drives take place at 5 pm. Evening night drives are highly demanded because of the high chances of seeing nocturnal animals like aardwolf, caracal, and leopard. All the safari drives take about two hours.
The safari vehicles can take you to more than just animals. Just like the rest of South Africa, Mountain Zebra National Park is quite rich in San heritage, so you will find many cave paintings in the park. The heritage tours usually take place between the morning and the sunset drives.
The Karoo bush makes a perfect environment for not just driving but also walking. The activities on foot can help you appreciate the small creatures that you won’t easily see from the vehicles. Spanning a 10 km hiking trail, these tours take three hours and require you to wake up very early.
Salpeterkop is another hiking trail in the park that takes you to a lookout point with panoramic views of the park and an Anglo-Boer war relic.
You can’t leave Mountain Zebra National Park without cheetah tracking. The safari vehicles will take you to the areas where cheetah likes to roam. Once the ranger receives sufficient signals about their presence, you will continue the quest on foot and get a chance to look closely at them.
Climate & Best Time To Visit
Compared to the parks in the north of South Africa and other Sub-Saharan countries, Eastern Cape experiences lower temperatures. The transition seasons are also more apparent.
The majority of the rainfall is between December and February. The temperatures range between 23-28 degrees during the day, while the night temperatures can drop down to five degrees. The winters are even colder. The temperature can drop down to 0 degrees at night with occasional snow on the peaks.
The best time to visit is from February to May. The summer months can get crowded because of the school holidays, while the winter nights can get freezing, not to mention possible frost early in the morning. On the other hand, the autumn season has mild temperatures, fewer visitors, and an abundance of water sources due to the rain.
The easiest way to enter South Africa from overseas is by flying into O.R Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg or Cape Town International Airport. The park is equally distant from both airports. While you can organize a safari tour that will pick you up from the airport, you can also rent a car and drive to the park yourself. The roads are in decent condition with lots of interesting places to stop along the way.
The park lies on R61 between Graaff Reinet and Cradock in the Eastern Cape.
Tips & What You Need To Know
Age limits for safari tours:
– Cheetah Tracking, walking tours, and San Heritage tours: 12-65 (Those older than 65 can join by providing a medical certificate)
– Safari drives: Minimum 6 years old.
– Mountain Zebra National Park is outside the malaria zone like the rest of Eastern Cape, so it is completely safe.
– You should always bring warm clothes since the region experiences cold nights throughout the year.
– Remember to bring sun lotion and a binocular with you. The latter can be useful during cheetah tracking.
– Also, bring headlamps or torches with you if you are staying at the campsite.
– You are not allowed to bring bicycles.
Day visits are quite doable in Mountain Zebra National Park. Cradock, which is 15-20 km from the park, has several affordable bed&breakfast options. Besides, the area has numerous other attractions such as Camdeboo National Park, museums and shops in towns like Graaff Reinet, Nieu Bethesda, and Cradock.