Going Wild On The Spore Of Cradock’s Cheetahs in Mountain Zebra National Park ~ In the distance stands a lone wind pump. Its time-worn steel blades turn slowly as the Karoo air gently breathes in and out. Squeak, squeak, squeak, it breaks the silence spanning across the dry semi-arid landscape of dust, grassland, open vistas and flat-topped hills peeking out – one behind the other – in degrees of flat-flatter-flattest comparison.
And then, on the dirt road something appears in front of you – clothed in the black and white stripes – you spot more: zebras, black wildebeest, red hartebeest and a meerkat that shuffles between the hooves of animals on the lookout for Mountain Zebra National Park’s elusive cheetahs and roaming lions.
Mountain Zebra National Park was proclaimed in 1937 as a solution and conservation method to the dwindling numbers of the Cape mountain zebras who were nearing extinction and over the years the park has also reintroduced buffalo, red-billed oxpeckers, lions – after an absence of 130 years – and the cheetah (Africa’s most endangered big cat), which forms part of the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Metapopulation project that is working to increase the scale, numbers and status of wild cheetahs in South Africa.
One of the park’s offerings – and one of the few opportunities in South Africa where you get to do this – is cheetah tracking on foot; just you, a few fellow nature and wildlife enthusiasts and a ranger geared with an antenna as a means to pick up the signal from the cheetah’s collar over the radio.
No interaction, no interference with the animal’s natural habitat; you might find luck on your side and walk a short distance to find Usain Bolt and Ferrari’s wild rival that can reach speeds of up to 112 km/h in just three seconds, or you’ll find yourself walking a few kilometres in the blazing Karoo sun in search of the animal kingdom’s fast and fur-spotted cat.
It is in the unknown, the mystery of under which tree the animal will – in typical cat-like behaviour – snooze and laze around in the sun, replenishing its strength until the next meal time presents a menu of game, where you’ll find the beauty of it all; never knowing what it will take to tread lightly on the spore of Mountain Zebra National Park’s cheetah.
You’re completely in the hands and grace of nature and should count your lucky stars and cheetah spots seeing one in the wild; it is an earth-moving, eye-opening and grounding experience as the fact remains that the cheetah population has halved since 1975 due to habitat loss and fragmentation as well as human-wildlife conflicts.
Who knows how many years they have left? Who know how many more cheetahs will end up in captivity? Who knows when the black tear marks running down their eyes will end in human outcries of “we should’ve done more”?
The cheetah tracking at Mountain Zebra National Park happens once a day (weather-depending) at 08:30 and can take anything between 3 and 4 hours. The activity is open to people between the ages of 12 and 65 (if you are older than 65, a medical certificate is required); go geared with neutral clothing (no black or white), water and a small snack.
Apart from spotting the elusive big cats, other species that are bucket list finds in the park include the rarely spotted brown hyena, the nocturnal aardvark, and the smallest of its kind in Africa, the black-footed cat.
There’s something special between the dust, open vistas and flat-topped hills; whatever stripes or spots you encounter, the rolling plains with its Nama-Karoo, grassland and thicket sprawled across an area of 284 km² will sprinkle you with a bit of that unexplainable nothing-but-everything Karoo magic. It will move your soul into a place of gratifying silence; a loudly mesmerising experience that will connect your whole being to the dry earth below and the thunderous clouds above.
Things to keep in mind when visiting Mountain Zebra National Park
Nearest city/town: 32 km from Cradock
Game drives: Visitors can enjoy self-guided game drives on the park’s clearly marked roads or opt for a guided game drive during sunrise, sunset or even in the evening to see the park’s nocturnal animals. There is also a game drive available that will take you to see the San Cave paintings (it involves a bit of walking and scrambling over rocks).
4×4 Trails: There are three off-road trails in Mountain Zebra National Park; Sonnerust (14.2 km), Juriesdam (10 km) and the more challenging, Umngeni Trail (8 km). No booking is necessary and some of the trails are possible with a 4×2 with difflock.
Hiking: Due to presence of lion, cheetah and buffalo, there are no self-guided hiking trails in the park but there is a 3-hour guided morning walk, the challenging Salpeterkop hike and the chance to go cheetah tracking, which is a game drive-and-walk combo (distances depend on where the cheetahs are located).
Other facilities in the park: There is a shop geared towards your basic needs of snacks, drinks and curios, an onsite restaurant, a picnic area with a pool (day visitors are allowed to use these facilities as well), and a fuel station.
Places to stay: Book your accommodation in Cradock – options range from guest houses to self catering options.
South African National Parks’ conservation fees apply for day visitors.
Other activities to do in Cradock
There are more than zebras and cheetahs to keep you busy when visiting Cradock; you can go back in time and visit the Olive Schreiner House and Great Fish River Museum, stroll around the historic Tuishuise and do some old-school dining at Victoria Manor, do a graveyard tour, visit the Cradock Four Monument, get active and go white water rafting.
If hunger knocks, go to True Living, KarooBrew for freshly roasted coffee and visit The Shed, where you’ll find a restaurant, gift, antique and lifestyle shops as well as a nursery.
You can also align your visit to the area with a few important dates on Cradock’s calendar such as the Karoo Food Festival (April), Schreiner Karoo Writers Festival (June/July) and the Cradock Agricultural Show (November).