We’re part of a small visitor group in a game-drive vehicle led by field guides Richard Okkers and Des Naidoo, crossing the Mountain Zebra National Park in search of a collared cheetah called Mabula. He’s a large fellow for a lightweight big-cat species and has been known to pull down a fearsome black wildebeest or two in his time here.
However, I can’t keep my eyes off the blasted heath that these park lowlands have become in recent months. The crippling Karoo-wide drought has simply dragged on, from season to season.
The rain is coming
But just look at these baby bokkies we pass on our hopeful way to a cheetah encounter – newly-minted red hartebeest and springbok all over the show. The local lore says buck don’t give birth for nothing. They know rain is coming. Never mind all those dodgy weather forecasts, ask the ungulates. They know what’s what.
Cheered by this, I join the Lost Patrol in its single-file march across the dry country, following a slightly eccentric, bleeping signal that should link us to Mabula somewhere down the line.
Fields of scattered ironstone shards clink tunefully like wind chimes as we trudge over them. We seem to be heading for Salpeterkop, where British soldiers once played chess by heliograph with other mad dog Englishmen ensconced in the steeple of the Cradock Moederkerk.
I just hope the cheetah isn’t parking off all the way up there, because none of us really feels like climbing in this heat. Besides, I can’t stop yawning. That’s because I’ve been up most of the night, star-struck by the skies above our mountain cottage that lies cradled deep in the dolerite bosom of the Bankberge, the spine of this great national park.
I am a stranger to night-sky photography, so in the days before our trip to the park I Google with gusto and pitch up with an impressive list of handy shooting tips. While my wife Julie delves into the operational details of all the levers and taps that enable this off-grid hideaway to provide hot showers and cold fridges, I set up my equipment over at the braai stand.
Big skies and bright eyes
There’s a cunning plan afoot to photograph the braai coals, the cottage and the classic Karoo star-show all in one shot, with perhaps a lamb tjoppie sizzling away on the griddle. What foolish illusions we have.
Suddenly a wicked wind begins to blow through the mountain gullies, which means there’s no way I’m going to light a braai fire now. I will not become infamous as the guy who set the Mountain Zebra National Park alight. So it’s biltong and coleslaw for supper, followed by a simple photo set-up of cottage and big sky.
The next problem I face is the issue of how to focus the lens in the dark, with only a few solar lamps for lighting. Which is why, after a whole bunch of failed and fuzzy shots, I call it a day and snuggle off to sleep with Jules. At two am, however, she wakes from a dream about monks and manuscripts (don’t ask), complaining grumpily about the sudden bright light in our room. I emerge from my slumbers.“Whazzup?”
“The moon,” she answers. “It’s too bright.” Jules closes the blind and is almost instantly asleep. But me, I’m up like a morning meerkat. I go outside to the braai stand and look back at a perfectly moonlit mountain cottage, with a sky full of stars. The gear comes out again and I manage one in-focus shot. Sometimes that’s all a bloke needs.
The Mountain Zebra, a spit away from our home town of Cradock, is one of this country’s most beloved national parks.
Visitors are faced with incredible landscapes, herds of glowing springbok drifting across the plains like optic snatches of the migrating trekbokken of old, gangs of black wildebeest chasing each other from horizon to horizon like the daffy gnus they are and, of course, the main manne – the legendary, once-endangered mountain zebra in large numbers. I have a special attachment to this curious animal that always seems on the point of asking me a deeply personal question before wheeling about and galloping off down a valley.
But take a good look and you will immediately see that this black and white equid is quite different from the more common Burchell’s zebra. For a start, the mountain zebra is smaller, more pony-sized than horse. Its stripes go all the way down to its hooves and it has a white belly, the ears of a donkey and a curious fat-storage wattle on its neck, a bit like an eland’s. Its nose is the perfect shade of chocolate-orange and it has an easy Latin name Equus zebra zebra.
By the 1930s, there were no more than a few dozen of them left. Just like the quaggas before them, mountain zebras were disliked by farmers because they tended to eat all the best mountain grazing. They were shot out until they were left in only one stronghold, near Cradock.
It was at that point that two exceptional families – who still farm in the area – stepped in to save the mountain zebra. The Michau family donated land and six mountain zebras. This 1 712-hectare piece of land was the start. But the conservation effort nearly collapsed again with the death of the last mare in the 1950s. That’s when the Lombard family of nearby Waterval Farm stepped in with 11 mountain zebras and literally saved the species. There’s been no stopping the development of the Mountain Zebra National Park since those days.
This area simply has the best views. You experience them even from the rest camp, especially from the newly-built luxury Rock Chalets that look across at distant ridges. In the deep winter, the Kranskop Drive presents you with snowscapes that could easily pass for masterful black and white Japanese pencil sketches.
But it’s the Rooiplaat Drive, a large plateau surrounded by distant Karoo mountains, that somehow sets free your wandering spirit. It’s the open space that does it. And when you add all those lovely beasts, it makes for a mini-Serengeti.
You get the occasional exasperated Big Fiver who normally ‘does the Kruger’, but mostly it’s long-time fans and locals who return time and again. As they check out, they book their next visit. And then they scoot off for one last, looping meander around the Rooiplaat plateau before leaving the park.
A hot day in the Karoo
And it’s not just the zebras, wildebeest and buck that pull in the public. I know a couple from the Cradock area who can tell you precisely where to find the Orange-throated Longclaw. Pester them further and they might disclose the hangout of the Ground Woodpecker. Birders, what can I say?
But the cats are back in the park, and everyone except for their natural prey is delighted. They even have lions here, but many years and dozens of drives later we’ve yet to see one. And then a daytripper pitches up for a couple of hours and sommer immediately stumbles on a dramatic lion kill.
So today, as I said earlier, Jules and I are in the Lost Patrol with Salpeterkop in our sights. Suddenly our field guides break into a quiet SANParks version of a morris dance of utter glee, because Mabula has been spotted (this is the only national park that offers cheetah tracking).
We are equally thrilled to find the cheetah lying in the dense shade of a thorny tree at the base of the mountain. Mabula’s tummy is bulging, so he’s had a good brunch.This, however, is not a petting zoo, so there are no selfies or close encounters or hugs. Mabula is a wild animal, and when I crouch low with my cameras for a different perspective, he eyes me speculatively. Could I be supper?
He rises and I quickly stand erect myself, and take refuge behind the nearest ranger. But no worries. Mabula is simply changing sleeping positions. He turns his back on us and rather imperiously flops down. Just another hot day in the Karoo.
PS As I was putting this piece to bed for COUNTRY LIFE, the rains broke over Cradock and the nearby Mountain Zebra National Park. The bokkies know what’s best.