Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa: The Complete Guide

Herd of Cape mountain zebras, Mountain Zebra National Park

Jessica Macdonald

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Mountain Zebra National Park

Address
South Africa
Phone +27 48 801 5700

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 special animal and bird species like 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 ideal for stargazing.

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 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.

Things to Do

There are several ways to go on safari in Mountain Zebra National Park. Park rangers offer three two-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 (64 kilometers) 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, except for the designated 4WD routes.

Best Hikes & Trails

There aren't public hiking trails in the park, so if you want to explore on foot you will have to go with a guide. In the morning, you can reserve your place for a three-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 indigenous 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.

Cheetah Tracking excursions will also allow you 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.

All guided activities have limited space and although you may be able to book them on the day, it’s best to plan in advance to avoid disappointment and contact park reception in advance to reserve your space.

Wildlife

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 often spotted at Mountain Zebra 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 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. 

Where to Camp

There is one campsite at the Rest Camp, with 20 sites offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Each one has a braai unit and electricity, 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. It also offers a choice of 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.

Where to Stay Nearby

Other options within the park’s game-viewing area include Doornhoek Guesthouse and the two Mountain Cottages, which are run by the park. There are a few more modern hotels located a few miles outside the park.

  • Doornhoek Guesthouse: This 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: These are for adventurous visitors who want to stay in a secluded area uninterrupted by other guests. There is no electricity but it does offer gas-powered hot water and cooking equipment. Note that these cottages are only accessible with a 4WD or high-clearance 2WD vehicle. 
  • Albert House: If you prefer more traditional accommodation, this small bed and breakfast is located inside a Victorian-era home just seven miles (12 kilometers) from the park.

How to Get There

Mountain Zebra National Park is in a remote location, so the best way to reach it is to fly into one of the closest major cities and rent a car. Port Elizabeth is the closest at 162 miles (261 kilometers) away. However, East London and Bloemfontein are the second and third closest options with their own airports However, each requires a long drive. East London is 183 miles (295 kilometers from the park and is Bloemfontein is 259 miles (417 kilometers) away.

From each city, you'll 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 departures outside these times can be arranged in advance but will incur additional fees.

Accessibility

Some facilities in the park, like the main complex, have been made accessible to wheelchair users with a ramp and paved walkways. Game drives can be done from the comfort of the visitor's own vehicle. Two of the park's family cottages have accessible roll-in showers. Although the Doornhoek House is all on one level and has a flat entrance, the bathroom does not have any modifications to make it more accessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Due to its elevated location, Mountain Zebra National Park is noticeably cooler than the coast.
  • Frost occurs from May to October and in the coldest months (July and August) snow sometimes falls, mostly on the park’s higher peaks.
  • During the dry, cooler months, you’ll share your sightings with fewer tourists while shorter grass makes animals easier to spot.
  • If you need to refill the tank, diesel and petrol are sold in the park.
  • You can walk unaccompanied on some of the shorter walking trails that are within the fenced-in campground.
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Mountain Zebra National Park, South Africa: The Complete Guide