Mountain Zebra National Park

February/March 2018

We decided that instead of driving straight through to Kenton via Kuilfontein, like last year, we would make a stop at Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock. Terry had never visited there before, but I had stayed overnight when inspecting ATMs with Craig at FNB many years ago.

16 February

The trip was obviously a few hours longer than driving to Kuilfontein and it was a Friday, so we left home at 5.15am in order to avoid the morning traffic. The drive was a pleasant one except for the number of trucks on the road. We drove on the N1 not taking the detour via Welkom and the road works were not too bad. The scenery was beautiful – lots of mealies interspersed with beautiful fields of sunflowers every now and again.

We made a pit stop in Bloemfontein to fill up, use the ablutions and, most importantly, have breakfast at Wimpy. It was a nice break.

After another quick break at Colesburg, we were on our last leg of the journey!

Mammals: Yellow mongoose, springbok, zebra

Birds: Red bishop, common buzzard (dark form), common buzzard, blue crane, pied crow, western cattle egret, amur falcon, spur-winged goose, pale chanting goshawk, helmeted guineafowl, grey heron, sacred ibis, lesser kestrel, black-shouldered kite, yellow-billed kite, northern black korhaan, ostrich, white stork, long-tailed widowbird

We arrived at the gate to Mountain Zebra National Park at 2pm. From there we made our way along the main road and through to the rest camp. Along the way we saw many animals including Terry’s first sighting of a Cape mountain zebra, a secretarybird and a marsh terrapin crossing the road.

We checked in at reception and then drove up to Cottage 18 where we unloaded the car and unpacked, after taking a quick look at the view from our veranda (which was really beautiful). Not long after we arrived, there was a thunderstorm with some heavy rain.

A second thunderstorm caused us to only go out for an evening drive at about 6pm (the gate closed at 7pm, so we knew that this would be a short drive). The route we had chosen to take had to change, however, as the low water bridge was covered with churning water and we were not sure of how deep it was. So we turned around and drove back to the main road and took a drive towards the Kranskop loop, past Doornhoek dam. Here we came across another low water bridge under water but it looked less threatening than the first one, so we crossed it.

We drove along this road until we came to the bus turnaround point, and made our own turn to return to camp. There were not many animals or birds to be seen, but we didn’t mind, as the scenery was so beautiful.

Mammals: Baboon, red hartebees, kudu, oryx, springbok, black wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra (L-T)

Birds: Fork-tailed drongo, redheaded finch, helmeted guineafowl, African hoopoe, ostrich, secretarybird, pied starling

Other: Marsh terrapin

Once back at camp we made a quick visit to the shop before making our way to the restaurant for dinner. Terry had a bacon and cheeseburger while I had the fish and calamari combo. Both meals were really good.

Back at the cottage we made sandwiches to take with us for breakfast.

17 February

I nearly forgot to wish Terry a happy birthday, we were so involved in planning what we were going to do. But at least I got there before we got up!!

We left the camp at 6am when the gate opened and took the road that we had not taken the night before. The bridge was still covered with water but there were tire tracks on the other side and it did not look as “angry” as the day before. This drive took us up a windy road that climbed up towards the plains. The views of the mountains around us were lovely. Our first sighting of the day was a Cape mountain zebra with a foal (eventually we realized that the zebra are doing really well as there were foals with almost all the groups that we saw).

As we plateaued and drove along the Rooiplaat loop, we were spoiled with views of black wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra, blesbok and springbok – sometimes just small groups and other times larger herds. We also saw a number of sightings of black-backed jackal which was really lovely.

From a birding perspective, we saw two lifers: sickle-winged chat and large-billed lark, but the bird that stands out in our memory is the eastern clapper lark. We had seen this previously at Wakkerstroom but it was much more noticeable this trip as it was doing its breeding display: flying into the air with loud wing-beats and then parachuting down with a loud whistle. In fact, we realized that we could hear whistles wherever we drove on the plain and you could see the birds going up and coming down (they don’t fly up too high, not like the cisticolas!)

The sky was really overcast as we drove and it was cold. So, at about 8.30am we put the heater on our feet, as it was quite cold with the windows open! We didn’t want to miss out on all the lovely bird calls.

Once we had driven the Rooiplat loop, we made our way to the Ubejane loop. Here we saw a springbok pronking as we drove along the Link road. As we got to the loop, the vegetation was different with trees/bushes and some really green and dense grassy areas. We stopped to enjoy a “bird party” and found a snakeskin hanging from a tree branch.

At the dam we saw springbok and a number of water birds.

As we continued along the loop, we came across a family of 4 ground squirrels. We stopped to enjoy them sunning themselves and eating some of the really green grass/plants. The clouds had lifted and the sun had come out, so it was nice and warm basking in the sun, even for us.

We also saw our first red hartebeest for the day. They seem to be replaced by blesbok on the plains. We rarely saw them in the same area.

Once we got to the main road, we turned off onto the bottom part of the Ubejane loop and drove that. We then turned around (as it was the shortest leg of the loop) and returned to the main road, making our way back to camp. As we drove up to our cottage, we stopped to look at some birds in the bushes below the rock cottages. We were luck to see another lifer: the black-headed canary (L).

After doing some reading, we took a walk down to the restaurant in order to have lunch, stopping to look at birds on the way. Terry decided to have the fish and calamari combo that I had enjoyed the night before, while I chose the Karoo breakfast – lamb chops, eggs and chips. We stopped at the shop and bought an ice cream for dessert, enjoying them as we walked back to the cottage.

We spent the afternoon reading and resting and then went out for an afternoon drive at 5.20pm, after stopping at reception to pay for our night drive. We took the same road up the mountainside as we had in the morning. We found a Cape mountain zebra foal in the road, and it did not want to move, even though mom looked quite eager for it to move. So we eventually drove around it and continued on our way!

It was lovely to see the views of the mountains without the clouds of the morning. We turned onto the Kranskop loop, a lovely drive in the mountains, often on a concrete two-track. As we drove onto the first two-track, we saw a small group of red-winged francolin. Otherwise we did not see many animals or birds, but we were absolutely entranced by the drive and the views. We also started to get a little nervous about time as we had no way of knowing where we were exactly until we got to the bus turnaround point we had drive to the previous evening. Once there, we were a little bit more relaxed!

From there we also saw a little more in terms of activity: jackal buzzard, a mouse that ran across the road, Cape mountain zebra and a brown-hooded kingfisher. At the dam, we saw an African black duck. We then made our way back to camp so that we would have time for a quick pit stop before our night drive.

Our guide for the night drive was Andrew. We sat in the first row of the vehicle, while the other couple sat in the back row, with their elderly father in the front next to Andrew. We started out with a spotted eagle owl and lots of general day game, interspersed with numerous sightings of springhare. In total, we must have seen close to a 100 of them!

We saw porcupine and then a couple of eland as we drove past some old dilapidated buildings. As we made our way back onto the main road, I expected Andrew to turn towards camp, but he didn’t – he turned towards the gate. We drove along and could almost see the lights of the gate in the distance when we came across Terry’s special birthday present – an aardwolf. It was a lifer for both of us, and something that we have been trying to find for a while. We were delighted and Andrew could tell. When we then told him that it was special for us, and doubly so as it was Terry’s birthday, he was thrilled too. We turned around and drove back towards camp not long after that and saw both black-backed jackal and bat-eared foxes on our journey.

It was already 10pm when we got back to our cottage, but we had a light supper snack and then made our way to bed. What a wonderful night drive we had; in fact, a really wonderful day in total!

Mammals: Aardwolf (L), blesbok, eland, bat-eared fox, red hartebees, black-backed jackal, kudu, yellow mongoose, vervet monkey, oryx, porcupine, springbok, springhare, ground squirrel, black wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra

Birds: Bokmakierie, African red-eyed bulbul, Cape bunting, golden-breasted bunting, jackal buzzard, black-headed canary (L), white-throated canary, ant-eating chat, familiar chat (female), sickle-winged chat (L), pied crow, Cape turtle dove, fork-tailed drongo, African black duck, yellow-billed duck, red-headed finch, scaly-feathered finch, common fiscal, fiscal flycatcher, red-winged francolin, Egyptian goose, pale chanting goshawk, helmeted guineafowl, grey heron, hadeda ibis, greater kestrel, brown-hooded kingfisher, eastern clapper lark, large-billed lark (L), red-capped lark, ostrich, spotted eagle owl, African pipit, red-billed quelea, white-necked raven, South African shelduck, Cape sparrow, white-browed sparrow-weaver, African spoonbill, red-winged starling, amethyst sunbird, African black swift, spotted thick-knee, common waxbill, southern masked weaver, pin-tailed whydah

18 February

We went out early again, just after 6am, driving back up to the plains like we had the previous morning. We again saw lots of black wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra, springbok and blesbok, as well as some black-backed jackal. The eastern clapper larks continued with their displays and we were very fortunate to come across a pair of blue cranes with two chicks. They were really cute.

We also saw some eland. It was nice to see them in daylight! Our sightings were similar to the previous day, but it was much warmer and lovely to see everything in the sunlight.

We drove towards the gate like we had on the night drive, but there were no special sightings lying in wait! So, we meandered back to camp, where we planned to fill the car. We then discovered that the petrol pump was not working (when we came back in March neither the petrol nor the diesel pump were working!) so we had to drive back to the gate (after a quick bathroom break) and make our way to Cradock, about 10km away to fill up.

In Cradock, we filled up, bought the Sunday Times and some cool drinks at Spar and stopped at KFC to buy some lunch – a change from the restaurant. We then made our way back to the park and camp as it was really warm and most of the animals were already lying in the shade of trees and bushes. Once at the cottage, we unpacked the shopping and then sat on our veranda, enjoying the view, while we ate our lunch.

As we lay down to read and rest, the thunderstorms rolled in and it was still raining at 6pm. So we did neither an evening drive nor a night drive. We had enjoyed the latter so much the previous night that we had booked another one. The ladies at reception told us that they don’t take payment until much later as they do not go out if it rains. (We found out when we returned in March that Andrew had gone out as there was a couple that were dead keen and they had a really good drive!) But we were content to relax, have some supper at a decent hour and then read until sleep time.

Mammals: Baboon, blesbok, red hartebees, black-backed jackal, kudu, yellow mongoose, vervet monkey, oryx, springbok, ground squirrel, black wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra

Birds: Bokmakierie (pair), African red-eyed bulbul, golden-breasted bunting, common buzzard, ant-eating chat, sickle-winged chat, blue crane, pied crow, Cape turtle dove, Namaqua dove, yellow-billed duck, scaly-feathered finch, common fiscal, Egyptian goose, pale chanting goshawk, hadeda ibis, brown-hooded kingfisher, blacksmith lapwing, eastern clapper lark, large-billed lark, rufous-naped lark, Cape longclaw, speckled mousebird, ostrich, African pipit, three-banded plover, red-billed quelea, South African shelduck, cape sparrow, white-browed sparrow-weaver, African spoonbill, pied starling, red-winged starling, greater striped swallow, red-billed teal, Cape wagtail, capped wheatear, pin-tailed whydah

Other: Marsh terrapin

19 February

We decided to take it easy and get up when we woke up, rather than setting any alarms. We showered and packed everything into the car, and were on the road just after 7.30am. After handing in the keys, we went to look at the low water bridge from the first evening to see if the rain the day before had made an impact. We couldn’t see any difference from when we had last crossed it.

We then turned around and drove towards the gate, eating our breakfast as we drove. We saw red hartebeest, kudu, springbok and wildebeest, but not one single zebra! We also saw some lovely troops of vervet monkeys. To make up for the lack of zebra, however, we found another lifer: plain-backed pipit (L).

And next thing we were at the gate where we packed the cameras away and set off for Kenton, having really enjoyed our stay at the park.

Mammals: Red hartebeest, kudu, vervet monkey, springbok, black wildebeest

Birds: African red-eyed bulbul, Cape turtle dove, red-headed finch, scaly-feathered finch, pale chanting goshawk, helmeted guineafowl, hadeda ibis, ostrich, plain-backed pipit (L), red-billed quelea, white-browed scrub robin, white-browed sparrow-weaver, greater striped swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, white-throated swallow, southern masked weaver, pin-tailed whydah

19 March (Trip home, see Kenton blog for 19 February to 19 March)

In fact, we enjoyed the stay so much that we decided to stop over again on our way home from Kenton!

After leaving Kenton, we stopped at Nanaga to buy pies for lunch and to take home. We then continued on our way to Cradock, where we stopped at the Spar to buy a few things too. From there we drove to the gate of Mountain Zebra National Park.

Mammals: Bontebok, buffalo, impala, nyala, zebra

Birds: Denham’s bustard, jackal buzzard, Cape crow, pied crow, Namaqua dove, amur falcon, pale chanting goshawk, black-headed heron, hadeda ibis, black-shouldered kite, ostrich, white stork

Other: Leopard tortoise

From the gate, we made our way to the Ubejane loop. Next to a dam on the side of the main road, we saw a pair of blue cranes. As we drove we saw most of the usual “culprits”, but what was noticeable was the number of pairs of Namaqua doves on the road and flying around.

At the dam, we stopped to watch the birds, and ate our lunch at the same time. We then took the Link road and made our way to the plains where we saw plenty of blesbok, Cape mountain zebras, black wildebeest (including one large herd) and springbok. From the plains we took the road down the mountainside to the rest camp, enjoying the beautiful views as we drove.

We checked in at reception and then made our way to cottage 4. There we sorted out the pies to take home, packaging them for the trip, and unpacked our overnight bags. As we did so, there was a southern rock agama sunning itself on our veranda. We decided that some time to read and relax was in order.

At 6pm we walked down to reception to pay for our night drive. We stopped in at the shop and bought a new map book that was not there the previous time (it includes MZNP, Addo and Camdeboo). We then went back to the cottage where we had leftover enchiladas for supper. At 7.15pm we again walked down to the reception area to meet up with Andrew (he was our guide again). We were the only two people on the game drive. Although we started driving the same route as the previous time, Andrew decided to take a different route, one that took us into an area along the fence line and joined up with the main road at the gate.

We were again treated to sightings of bat-eared foxes, springhares (there were many of them, but not as many as the previous trip) and porcupine. We saw a black rhino (a first for us in this park) and even a springhare really close to the vehicle. The photos on the iPhone didn’t come out very well though as it kept hopping around! As we started along the boundary fence (with the main road to Graaff Reinet on the outside of the fence), we came across a buffalo (another first for us in the park).

But the best sighting of the night came just after that. We were still driving along the fence, when we saw an aardvark. It was an amazing sighting – definitely the best we have ever had. The area was an open grassy area and the grass was really short, so we had a really good visual. We probably spent a good ten minutes plus moving along next to the animal as it scurried along and stopped to snuffle on the ground every now and again. But it was never really still. So, no aardwolf this time, but we were really happy with the aardvark!

As we joined up to the main road at the gate, we saw a spotted eagle owl fly off. As we drove back to camp, there was not too much else to see and it become much colder, but we were really happy with our wonderful drive. It was again almost 10pm by the time we got back to camp.

Mammals: Aardvark, blesbok, buffalo, common duiker, bat-eared fox, red hartebees, kudu, oryx, porcupine, black rhino, springbok, springhare, ground squirrel, steenbok, black wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra

Birds: yellow-crowned bishop, southern boubou, African red-eyed bulbul, Cape bunting, ant-eating chat, sickle-winged chat, pied crow, Namaqua dove, yellow-billed duck, scaly-feathered finch, ostrich, spotted eagle owl, speckled pigeon, blue crane, western great egret, grey heron, red-billed oxpecker, white-browed sparrow-weaver, African spoonbill, red-billed teal

Other: Southern rock agama

20 March

We decided to have a late start given our late drive and woke up just before 7am. We showered and packed and then handed our keys in at reception. We then left camp and made our way up the mountainside and to the plains, where we drove the Rooiplaat loop again. The plains were full of zebras, wildebeest, blesbok and springbok, but noticeable by its absence was the eastern clapper lark. In fact, there was much less bird movement than the last visit. We read up in Roberts and found that the lark is mainly silent when not doing a breeding display and that made them almost invisible. We are sure they were there; we just did not see them!

From the plains loop we drove onto the Kranskop loop. As we drove around we could see a group of 5 buck moving down the mountainside – they were mountain reedbuck, all female. According to Andrew, they have not been seeing them and wondered if the lion had killed them all. As we continued on our drive, a mouse ran across the road.

As we made our way back to the rest camp, we stopped at the dam to watch a buffalo grazing. We then made a brief stop at camp for a bathroom break, before driving the Ubejane loop and then onto the main road towards the gate. There we were lucky enough to see a herd of 14 eland. It was beautiful to just watch them moving through the veld. At the dam there were the usual culprits, plus a large number of white-faced ducks. It was also interesting to look at both a black-headed heron and a grey heron at the same time. It just made their differences that more apparent.

As we drove towards the gate we saw a black-backed jackal, eventually! It is amazing what a difference a month makes to the vegetation and animal/bird activity. The other noticeable change was that almost all of the low water bridges were dry and there was not much running water in the creeks.

Mammals: Buffalo, blesbok, red hartebees, black-backed jackal, kudu, yellow mongoose, vervet monkey, springbok, ground squirrel, black wildebeest, Cape mountain zebra

Birds: Yellow-crowned bishop, African red-eyed bulbul, Cape bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, ant-eating chat, sickle-winged chat, pied crow, Cape turtle dove, laughing dove, Namaqua dove, fork-tailed drongo, white-faced duck, yellow-billed duck, western great egret, scaly-feathered finch, common fiscal, fiscal flycatcher, Egyptian goose, spur-winged goose, pale chanting goshawk, helmeted guineafowl, black-headed heron, grey heron, rock kestrel, Cape longclaw, ostrich, red-billed quelea, white-browed scrub robin, South African shelduck, Cape sparrow, white-browed sparrow-weaver, African spoonbill, Cape glossy starling, red-winged starling, African stonechat, barn swallow, chestnut-vented tit-babbler, mountain wheatear (grey race), pin-tailed whydah

At the gate, we packed the camera equipment away and started our journey to Colesburg. There we made our way to Kuilfontein to spend the night. Dinner was of course roast lamb, but this time our late afternoon walk did not take us past any lambs in the paddocks (maybe they have all been eaten! Only kidding…) In fact, the bush and grass was too thick for us to do much birding. And we only found out about the dam once it was too dark to see much! (Peter and Val had mentioned a dam being full, but the when we visited the previous year there was just dry ground, so we didn’t realize that there was a dam there). We did see some springbok come down to drink and a few water birds as dark descended. We also picked up tons of dubbeltjies!!!

Mammals: Yellow mongoose, springbok, ground squirrel

Birds: Crested barbet, red bishop, ant-eating chat, pied crow, amur falcon, Egyptian goose, spur-winged goose, ostrich, plain-backed pipit, South African shelduck, white stork, pin-tailed whydah

21 March

We were on the road before 6am and we watched the beautiful sunrise as we made our way to Bloemfontein. There we bought some toasted sandwiches and muffins to eat on the way. By 12.30pm we were home and treated to a lovely braai (Neil prepared it while we unpacked).