Expert Reviews – Mountain Zebra NP
Melissa is an award winning travel writer for Fodors, Frommers and Insight, including guides to Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Mountain Zebra – haven from extinction
Set up in 1937 to save the mountain zebra from extinction, the Mountain Zebra National Park really is a long way from anywhere in the northern part of the Eastern Cape, about 280 kms (174 miles) north of Port Elizabeth. Few tourists ever get there. I’ve been here several times but like most visitors, I’ve strayed in on daytrips or have driven through en route while visiting the nearby historic Cape-Dutch towns of Cradock and Graaff-Reinet that are the real draw to the area. Truthfully, while the park is very pretty if you happen to be nearby and need a wildlife fix, it isn’t first rank and not worth crossing continents to get here. Those who do stay over are usually weekending South Africans come to hike the three-day Impofu Trail, chill out or track cheetah. There are also three rock shelters with San rock art which can be visited with a ranger.
The park is a haven in many ways. It covers 284 sq kms (110 sq miles) of rocky mountain, a green(er) oasis in the vast scrubby sprawl that is the Karoo. I love the open desert scenery but for many (animals and birds as well as humans), this is a welcome relief, particularly in the searing heat of high summer. For visitors, the biggest draw is the mountain zebras, noticeably different from their common cousins, with orangey muzzles and big rounded ears. There are around 300 in the park these days. But the park also has other animals including cheetah, caracal, Cape buffalo, black rhino, eland, black wildebeest, red hartebeest and gemsbok. It has no major predators or elephant or hippo. Secretary birds and blue cranes strut across the open grasslands while Verreaux’s (Black) and Martial eagles soar through the skies above, some of the 275 species of bird that inhabit the park, of which around 20, including the blue and black bustard and Cape long-billed lark, are endemic.
James is a travel writer and author of many Lonely Planet guides, including senior author of the guide to South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Zebras and Cheetahs in the Karoo
This park in the deep Karoo, near the historic town of Cradock, is dedicated to conserving one of the world’s rarest mammals: the Cape mountain zebra. The 280 sq km park has over 700 of the diminutive, dark-striped zebras, having begun with a founder herd of just six. Other animals to look out for include buffalo, several antelope species, aardwolf, bat-eared foxes, caracals and, since a trio was introduced in 2013, lions. I spent a few hours diving the good-quality roads, looping across the rolling plains beneath the craggy Bankberg range, and enjoyed plentiful antelope sightings including frolicking springboks. For a thrilling wildlife experience, join a guide to track the park’s elusive cheetahs and get as close as 15m from the big cats.
Harriet is a zoologist with more than 20 years’ experience. She has the privilege of working with the world’s top wildlife photographers and photo-guides.
Rolling grasslands and the elusive aardwolf.
This little visited South African national park, located in the Eastern Cape, has stunning scenery with mountain slopes and rolling, golden grasslands. It was established to save the Mountain Zebra. With its dewlap and “gridiron” patterned rump, this mountain specialist looks very different to the plains zebra. One of the unique experiences of this park is the opportunity to track collared cheetah on foot, with the park ranger. I found it a thrilling experience to get so close to wild cheetah. Although lion have recently been reintroduced, this is not a Big 5 destination. However, you do stand a chance of seeing some more unusual species. This is the only place in Africa I have ever seen aardwolf, both times I visited, but the aardvark still eludes me here. The best time of year to stand a chance of seeing these rare creatures is winter, however bring warm clothes as the temperatures drop below freezing.
Ariadne is a renowned African wildlife photographer whose work is featured in many well-known guidebooks and magazines.
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One of the last retreats for the endangered Mountain zebra
This small but scenic park, tucked away in a remote corner of the Karoo, is great to see some of South Africa’s endemics. Most notable is the Cape Mountain zebra, which was saved from extinction with the proclamation of Mountain Zebra National Park in 1937. Today more than a 1,000 zebras roam the grassy slopes of the park and sightings are pretty much guaranteed. I was also lucky to see two other endemics on my bucket list: blesbok and black wildebeest with its distinctive white tail. Other antelopes to look out for are red hartebeest, eland, springbok and greater kudu. There are lots of little creatures around as well. I spent an hour or so photographing a couple of ground squirrels grooming each other at their den and I had good sightings of yellow mongoose and meerkat. Lion were introduced in 2013. I know sightings are hit-and-miss, but I was lucky to see two males crossing the road in front of me as they were patrolling the area. If you haven’t seen cheetah up close, I’d recommend joining the guided cheetah tracking activity.
Kim is a travel writer who authored and updated over 15 guidebooks, including Lonely Planet's South Africa and Bradt's Tanzania guides.
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A mountain of zebras
With its characteristic “onion peel” sandstone mountains, rolling hills and deep valleys, the 28000-plus Mountain Zebra National Park is a brilliant sanctuary for the Cape mountain zebra, notably for their reddish-orange noses, which since the park’s proclamation in 1937 has been brought back from the brink of extinction. Beyond the namesake zebra, the park also boasts buffalo, black rhino, eland, kudu, black wildebeest and other species, as well as a rich variety of plants and birdlife. For me one of Mountain Zebra’s most fascinating attractions are the 300-year-old San cave paintings that depict faded figures, eland and other antelope and, perhaps most unusual of all considering the rarity in sightings, a cheetah. The park can be done in a day trip from Port Elizabeth, but if you really want to get the most out of the park I’d suggest you stay overnight in the accommodation provided in the park.
Philip is an acclaimed travel writer and author of many guidebooks, including the Bradt guides to Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.
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This medium-sized park near the small town of Cradock is notable for its striking landscapes of green rolling hills. It hosts a wide range of native South African wildlife that go some way to evoking the Karoo landscape as it must have been prior to the colonial era. The biggest draw is the eponymous Cape mountain zebra, which might well have gone extinct were it not for the creation of this dedicated national park in 1937. Today, roughly 1,000 mountain zebra roam the park’s hilly slopes, and several herds are likely to be seen on any given game drive, along with significant numbers of the black wildebeest, red hartebeest and blesbok. A highlight of our most recent visit was encountering a pair of handsome thick-maned male lions on the move. These impressive beasts were reintroduced in 2013 and the population now stands at around 20 individuals. We had less luck with buffalo, black rhino and cheetah, all of which have been reintroduced in recent years. However, we enjoyed a delightful sighting of ground squirrels foraging around their sandy burrows, and inquisitive meerkats poking their heads out from a roadside drainage ditch. Birding was surprisingly quiet, given that 277 bird species are listed for the park, but highlights included a good look at a pair of blue korhaans, a gorgeous near-threatened bustard endemic to South Africa. We also had good raptor viewing, including chanting goshawk and jackal buzzard. Wildlife is concentrated on the animal-viewing circuits north of the rest camp, but we enjoyed the more southerly Kranskop Loop for the vast montane scenery. Overall, this small park makes a worthwhile and interesting diversion if you are in the area, but few would go far out of their way to visit it.