Summer thunderstorms and the exhilaration of lightning streaking across the sky. A Verreaux’s eagle soaring high over the crag. A steep pass giving panoramic views over scrub-dotted plains. A gentle dawn light stretching across the mountains while the Cape mountain zebra grazes. These are part of the enchantment of Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Rocks, views and plants
Although animals are probably the main menu items for most visitors, for us Mountain Zebra National Park’s appeal is as much about the huge rocks, mountain views and plant life. There are three biomes here – Nama Karoo, grassland and thicket. The park has some 680 plant species, 13 of them on the Red Data List. Since many of its plants are poorly conserved elsewhere, this park plays a crucial protective role.
The next day, keen to see some of the park’s cheetah, we followed the receptionist’s advice to look in the area of the Sonnenrust 4x4 trail. They have apparently made this corner of the park their own, in an attempt to get out of the way of the two male lions introduced in 2013, which are often seen near the rest camp, around Doornhoek dam, and on the Kranskop and Rooiplaat loops.
The Sonnenrust trail wasn’t really a 4x4 trail in the true sense of the word, though a high clearance vehicle was certainly needed for some of the stonier sections and the humps. We found no cheetah, but enjoyed a feast of mountain zebras and birds like speckled mousebird, ant-eating chat, crowned lapwing, a secretary bird stalking the veld in search of food, and a Ludwig’s bustard taking slightly awkwardly to the skies near Saltpeterskop.
Along the Sonnenrust trail we saw lots of evidence of the work being done by the park to rehabilitate overgrazed or eroded land – an inheritance from the days when this was farmland. For instance, thornbush branches have been placed over sections of the veld that have been overgrazed/eroded, to prevent animals from grazing further or even from walking there. The thorns also create a shady and fairly wind-free microclimate where grass and shrub seeds might thrive and take root.
A storm over the park
Black clouds gathered later that afternoon and a whopping thunderstorm rolled in overnight. By lunchtime the next day the sky was blue again, not a cloud in sight, the veld washed clean of dust. After the rain, we found that rangers had chained off all three of the 4x4 routes.
We drove the Ubejane Loop again and again, still in search of cheetahs. One morning we saw a pair of blue korhaans, and there were certainly other good sightings. But it wasn’t until our last day that we finally saw cheetah – a mother with four large cubs. What a responsibility to raise all of them. It was a grand way to end a four-day trip to one of South Africa’s most scenically attractive parks.
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Beginner's guide to the Mountain Zebra National Park
Cheetah tracking in Mountain Zebra National Park
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