The senior field guide lifts the antenna into the air and turns it left and right as the sound over the radio resembles that old familiar internet dial-up noise.
Krchhhh ba bup ba bup bup bup bup kwwaaaaaaaaaaaaa eeeeeuuuueeuuueeuuuu.
We are on foot, cheetah tracking in Mountain Zebra National Park just outside of Cradock. That’s right; five visitors, one Regional Communications Manager of SANParks and one field guide all walking towards the dial-up noise – a cheetah – the fastest land animal that can reach its top speed faster than what Usain Bolt can put on his takkies. And of course there are lion and buffalo too.
The terrain is flat, and in the distance senior field guide, Charl Lyell, spots a promising tree.
“The cheetah is probably resting in the shade. Don’t be alarmed if he gets up as we get closer.”
Don’t be alarmed.
My heart makes its own dial-up noise in my chest; it is a combination of excitement, gratitude and a hint of self-doubt about the life choices I make. Krchhh ba bup ba bup.
One tree, a whole lot of shade and no cheetah.
Antenna out, dial-up noise on and another tree in the distance might just be the one.
One foot in front of the other we walk, in a single line.
Krchh ba bup ba bup.
It’s midday and the Karoo sun is unforgiving.
We get closer to the tree – the ba bup ba bup picks up speed – the only thing breaking the silence of the veld is the pounding sound of shoes meeting stones.
We come to a halt.
One tree, a whole lot of shade and one cheetah.
Again my heart makes its own dial-up noise in my chest but this time it is just excitement and gratitude for the humbling experience to stand a mere 8 meters from a wild cheetah in its natural habitat. Krchhh ba bup ba bup.
In typical cat-like behaviour the male cheetah licks his paws before he continues with an afternoon nap, regardless of the seven humans in the distance.
The cheetah is there. I’m here.
It is captivating.
To find a cheetah is never a guarantee; it is a bonus, a privilege. There is no touching, no interference and no selfies. We drove for about 2 hours, then walked for about 3 km before we found him and will have to walk the 3 km back to where the game drive vehicle is parked.
We admire the cheetah one last time before we head back to the vehicle.
Krchh ba bup ba bup; I’m humbled by the experience, filled with gratitude and in awe of nature, South Africa and the work SANParks has done to conserve cheetahs since 2007 when they reintroduced the species to the park after it was absent for 130 years.
It all started with two male and two female cheetahs; within five years 29 cubs were born and to curb them from interbreeding, the animals are regularly relocated to a number of different reserves in South Africa with the result of contributing to the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Cheetah Metapopulation Project.
Cheetahs in the wild. That’s how it is supposed to be.
Not cheetahs in small enclosures and zoos, not cheetahs as pets or cheetahs that are used as tourism bait and petted or bottle-fed by hundreds of hands daily under the name of conservation. As Lara Mostert (Marketing Manager of Monkeyland and Birds of Eden) once said and demonstrated, “how would you feel if my hands are in your face the whole day?”
Besides Mountain Zebra National Park’s success with the reintroduction of cheetahs, the land was originally proclaimed in 1937; the numbers of the Cape mountain zebras at that time indicated extinction but thanks to the incredible conservation efforts the park now herds more than a thousand animals. In 1997 buffalo were reintroduced, the cheetahs followed in 2007, buffalo in 2008, 40 red-billed oxpeckers were flown in to the park in 2010 and in 2013, also after an absence of 130 years, lions were reintroduced to the park as well.
Want to go cheetah tracking? Here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Cheetah tracking is R400 per adults and you have to be a minimum of two people and maximum of 9 people.
- In summer (01 October to 31 March) cheetah tracking departs from reception at 07:30 and in winter (1 April to 30 September) it departs at 08:30.
- You have to be between 12 and 65 (this activity involves walking).
- Wear walking shoes, neutral clothing (no black), take a hat, put on sunscreen, have water with you and of course a camera.
Other things to do in Mountain Zebra National Park (besides cheetah tracking).
You can go on a self-guided game drive, go on one of the three 4×4 routes, join a sunrise (R240), sunset (R300) or night game drive (R240) with an experienced guide, hike on your own or do the guided Salpeterkop Hike (R375 per person). If you are looking for something different, do the guided tour and short walk to the San Cave paintings (R215).
Inside the park, for visitors staying over and day visitors, there is a restaurant and shop and picnic sites. One of the picnic sites have a pool which day visitors are allowed to use while the pool in the camp are only for overnight visitors.
Accommodation in Mountain Zebra National Park
Mountain Zebra National Park introduced 8 new units in 2017, 6 units are 2-sleeper cottages (starting from R1260 for two people) while the other two are beautiful and luxurious Rock Chalets blending in with the rocky terrain with its folding patio doors and outside showers, and with two bedrooms and two bathrooms it is suitable for 4 adults (starting from R3170 for four people).
Other accommodation options include camp sites (starting from R295 for the first two), 4-sleeper Family Cottages (starting from R1150 for two people), the secluded and private 6-sleeper Doornhoek Guest House (starting from R3400 for the first four people), a 10-sleeper Mountain Cottage for those with 4×4 vehicles (starting from R950 for the first two).
A few more details
- The park is 12 km from Cradock and 250 km from Port Elizabeth.
- During high season it is best to book in advance, conservation fee for South African nationals is R48 per adult and R24 per child.
- The park also has conference facilities.
- Since this is a protected area drones are strictly prohibited.
- To make your booking, go to www.sanparks.org.