Eastern Cape Escape: Track cheetahs on foot in Mountain Zebra National Park

2018-03-16 15:30 - Gabi Zietsman
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Gabi Zietsman

Stalking through the grassland of Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape, we hope to catch a glimpse of the fastest animal in the world.

Our ranger keeps his arm outstretched to the sky to get as much range as he can with the tracker trying to listen to the beep that will put us in the right direction.

"These cats are just playing with us now," he repeats as every cliff and escarpment takes us to a dead end. We've driven and walked around for almost three hours and have just gotten back from lunch for a break after the morning chase. 

SEE: World Wildlife Day: 5 Ways to celebrate our Big Cats

Suddenly the ranger changes direction and starts to walk a bit faster. We pick up the pace and at two big bushes we are told to stop.

As we peer into the bush, a spotted face with black tears stares right back at us. And not just one. We finally found a cheetah mother with her three almost-fully-grown cubs.

Mountain Zebra National Park may have been originally created as a conservation area for the once-almost-extinct Cape Mountain Zebra, but it also has one of the most exciting game walks you can take in South Africa. Instead of heading to an interaction centre that keeps these long-range animals in small compounds, you can get up close to a cheetah in the wild for only R400 - an experience that surpasses even the most riveting game drives. 

You have to prepare for a long search and early morning start - as cheetahs move quickly through the grasslands and thickets - but it makes the discovery of a cheetah - sometimes even four at a time - that much sweeter.

While they may be the fastest, cheetahs are not very strong and do not attack anything that's taller than them and thus you're pretty safe as long as you listen to your ranger. The family can also partake in the cheetah tracking expedition, but kids need to be older than 12 years because smaller kids may prove too appetising for the Big Cat.

Other things to remember:

  • Book in advance
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • Wear neutral colours and avoid black
  • Never crouch when around a cheetah

ALSO SEE: SANParks: Cheetah spotting at Marakele National Park adds to visitor experience

Always listen to your ranger

You can also just enjoy a scenic walk through other parts of the park where cheetahs don't roam - still accompanied by an armed ranger - but this doesn't mean that it's any less exciting. You can either walk to the park's rock art paintings, or you can check out the massive boulder that rolled down the hill many years ago. You may also run into a few other resident animals, like the buffalo.

Buffalos are less threatening when they are in herds, but you always need to be wary of a lonely bull called a 'dagga boy'. They're aggressive, territorial, and will give you one hell of a fright when you walk right into one when going around a bush.

But as long as you listen to your ranger, you'll always stay safe and they'll get you back in one piece to the rest camp so that you can have one hell of a story to tell.

SEE: The Cape Buffalo that never forgives

Park off in comfort

You also don't have to breeze your way through the park for just a day visit. The Mountain Zebra Rest Camp has ample self-catering accommodation, most of which are comfortable cottages that sleep two, for the honeymooning couple, or four for families and squads. The park also offers camping facilities and a mountain cottage that can only be reached by high clearance vehicles.

If you want to splurge a bit on a beautiful view of the park, the Rock Chalets has the best seat in the house for stunning sunsets that will fill up the memory card on your phone and maybe entice a battle to see who can take the best sunset shot.

It can sleep up to four people, and there's an indoor fireplace that's perfect for those colder romantic evenings after the sundowners.

Gabi Zietsman

Mountain Zebra National Park is a great Eastern Cape escape if you're looking to do more than just sit in a game drive vehicle, but have a truly wild bush experience that doesn't come with a luxury price tag.

Just don't try to outrun a cheetah.

ALSO SEE: Conservation through collaboration: Karoo Corridor Project given the green light 

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