Situated just outside the colonial town of Cradock in the Eastern Cape, Mountain Zebra National Park is a very special destination for those in search of something a little different from your typical plains game and Big Five South African safari. Part of the arid Nama Karoo biome, the park is home to some specialist animal and bird species—including the eponymous Cape mountain zebra, the gemsbok antelope, and the mighty Verreaux’s eagle.
More than that, though, Mountain Zebra makes up for its relatively small size with the astonishing beauty of its rugged scenery. Imagine towering cliffs and rocky outcrops tinged with gold by the setting sun and endless plateau grasslands that melt away into ranks of rolling mountains. At dawn and dusk, the entire landscape is drenched in a magnificent light beloved by photographers, while the unpolluted night skies are made for stargazing.
History of the Park
The land on which the park stands has been inhabited by humans for as long as 14,000 years. Late Stone Age tribes, San bushmen, Voortrekker farmers, and British colonial soldiers have all left their mark on the landscape, which was only proclaimed as a protected area in 1937. The park was established with the specific purpose of protecting the Cape mountain zebra, which at the time was threatened with extinction.
Initially the park covered just 6.6 square miles (17 square kilometers) of land and had a herd of six zebra. The donation of additional zebra by surrounding farmers made it possible for the herd to reproduce successfully; and then famous wildlife artist David Shepherd donated prints of two of his paintings to help raise the money needed to buy more land. This kickstarted a private fundraising initiative, which saw many different individuals, companies, and NGOs contribute to the park’s expansion and upkeep.
Today the park covers some 110 square miles (285 kilometers) of land and provides a home for over 350 Cape mountain zebra in addition to many other rare or unusual arid species. The Cape mountain zebra is now classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List and global populations continue to increase– thanks in large part to the efforts of the team at Mountain Zebra National Park.
Inevitably, the first animal on most people’s Mountain Zebra bucket list is the Cape mountain zebra, which is easily distinguished from the more common Burchell’s zebra by its white, unstriped belly. Other specialist species that can be seen in the park include the gemsbok, or oryx, the grey rhebok, and the springbok. Keep an eye out for the eland (Africa’s largest antelope), and herds of endemic black wildebeest. Predators are often spotted at Mountain Zebra and include lions, cheetah, caracal, and bat-eared fox. Black-backed jackals are common, while the very lucky may catch a glimpse of a brown hyena or an aardwolf, two of the continent’s most elusive safari animals.
Although Mountain Zebra’s dry landscapes may not seem likely to yield good birding at first glance, the park is actually renowned for its large number of endemic and near-endemic species. Commonly spotted specials include the Ludwig’s bustard, the blue korhaan, and the eastern long-billed lark. For the best chance of seeing rarer specials like the Drakensberg rock jumper or the ground woodpecker, consider staying in one of the remote Mountain Cottages (see below). The park’s larger birds range from iconic grassland species like the secretary bird and the blue crane, to raptors like the endangered Cape vulture and the Verreaux’s eagle.
Things to Do
Game Drives: There are several ways to go on safari in Mountain Zebra National Park. Park rangers offer three 2-hour guided game drives per day; one in the morning, one at sunset, and one at night. The night drive is particularly worthwhile as it allows you to explore the park after all other visitors have left and gives you a better chance of seeing nocturnal animals such as the aardwolf or aardvark. Alternatively, you can explore roughly 40 miles of well-maintained gravel roads in your own vehicle, giving you the freedom to stop whenever you want. The park’s main roads are suitable for all cars; however, designated 4x4 routes are suitable for 4WD vehicles only.
Cheetah Tracking: These guided excursions give you the opportunity to accompany one of the park rangers as they track cheetahs via satellite. Once the cheetahs are located, you will have the opportunity to get closer on foot for an unforgettable look at Africa’s fastest and most graceful predator.
Guided Hikes: The park offers a range of guided hikes. Morning Walks take you on a 3-hour adventure into the park, where you’ll see game at close quarters and learn about the surrounding flora and fauna. You can also join a hike to see the rock art left by the park’s historic San inhabitants; or make the challenging trek to the top of Salpeterkop mountain to see the chessboard carved into the rocks by British soldiers during the Anglo-Boer War. According to local legend, the soldiers used a mirror to transmit each move to their compatriots at the fort in Cradock, who were playing the same game on their own chessboard.
All guided activities have limited spaces and although you may be able to book them on the day, it’s best to plan in advance to avoid disappointment. Send an email to park reception at firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve a space.
Weather & When to Go
Due to its elevated location, Mountain Zebra National Park is noticeably cooler than the coast. In summer, the park experiences average highs of 73 to 83 degrees F (23 to 28 degrees C) and average lows of 42 to 56 degrees F (5.5 to 13 degrees C). In winter, temperatures have been known to fall below freezing, especially at night. Frost occurs from May to October and in the coldest months (July and August) snow sometimes falls, mostly on the park’s higher peaks. Rainfall is limited, with 70 percent of the year's rain falling during the summer months.
Mountain Zebra is a year-round destination with benefits to every season. During the dry, cooler months, you’ll share your sightings with fewer tourists while shorter grass makes animals easier to spot. In the wetter summer months, you can expect greener landscapes, more young animals, and an increase in migratory birds. Whenever you decide to visit, bring warm clothing for early morning or evening game drives.
Accommodation & Facilities
The main Rest Camp offers a choice of self-catering chalets, ranging from one-bedroom cottages to two-bedroom family cottages. All chalets overlook the valley and have an indoor fireplace, a fully equipped kitchen, and an outdoor braai unit. There is also a campsite at the Rest Camp, with 20 sites offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Each one has a braai unit and a 220V power point, with access to a communal ablution block and kitchen. The Rest Camp has a fully licensed restaurant, a shop for basic groceries and camping supplies, a swimming pool, and a gas station.
Other options within the park’s game-viewing area include Doornhoek Guesthouse and the two Mountain Cottages. The former is a historic Victorian homestead, with antique furnishings and a beautiful location on the shores of Doornhoek Dam. It has three en-suite bathrooms and is ideal for families. The Mountain Cottages are for adventurous visitors who want to stay in a secluded area uninterrupted by other guests. They have no electricity, but do offer gas-powered hot water and cooking equipment. Note that these cottages are only accessible with a 4WD or high-clearance 2WD vehicle.
The closest major cities are Port Elizabeth (a 3-hour drive away), East London (3.5 hours), and Bloemfontein (4 hours). All three cities have a domestic airport with a choice of car rental companies, and can be easily accessed via daily scheduled flights from Johannesburg. From each city, drive towards Cradock. The signposted turn-off to the park gate lies 10 miles northwest of Cradock town center on the R61. The main gate is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer, and until 6 p.m. in winter. Arrivals and/or departures outside these times can be arranged in advance but cost an additional 350 rand.
Mountain Zebra National Park charges a daily conservation fee of 218 rand per adult and 109 rand per child. Discounted rates for South African and SADC nationals can be seen on the park website, along with the fees for guided game drives and other activities. Wild Cards are available for South African and international visitors, and entitle holders to free entry to all South African national parks for one year.