Why you should care
Because you’ll feel like David Attenborough for a day.
It’s 9:35 a.m. and I’ve already been scrambling up and down scree-strewn slopes for an hour. Ahead of me are a pair of Austrian tourists and a ranger with a loaded rifle in one hand and a radio antenna in the other. Just when I’m starting to wonder whether we’ll ever find the cheetah, one of the Austrians spots the animal’s round ears poking up from behind some grass.
The cheetah is marvelous — especially from a distance of no more than 30 feet. At first she just lies there, ruffled fur shimmering in the sunlight, but after a while she rolls over, stands up, arches her back. And then she disappears, off into the rocks like the majestic feline beast she is. “They like to rest somewhere high, where they can see the lay of the land,” whispers ranger Dan van de Vyver. “She’s probably going down to the plains to hunt.”
There are a few things you should know about the cheetah-tracking excursion at Mountain Zebra National Park, an arid reserve in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Mountain Zebra is smaller and less touristy than the Rainbow Nation’s other parks — it’s also malaria-free — but this doesn’t mean it’s for sissies. Cheetahs, lions, buffalo and rhinos all call it home.
The tour starts early every morning and costs around $25 per person. Open to anyone between the ages of 12 and 65 (seniors with a doctor’s note are OK too), a maximum of eight people are allowed, so it’s best to book in advance. Wear walking shoes and bring along water, a snack and binoculars, as well as a camera and plenty of sunscreen. Temperatures can get as high as 88 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, but even when it’s cooler, there’s hardly any cloud cover.
All tours begin in an open-top Land Rover and end on foot, but there’s no guaranteeing where you’ll drive or how long you’ll walk for. Radio tracking is not an exact science — the landscape has a huge effect on how the signal is interpreted. This, coupled with the rugged terrain and splendid views, only adds to the thrill of the chase.
There’s no such thing as a bad day when you’re hiking in the South African wilderness with an extremely knowledgeable ranger.
There are quite a few places in South Africa where you can walk with a semiwild cheetah, or pet a completely tame one. Mountain Zebra is not one of those places. The park’s cheetahs are totally wild, and their survival depends on two things: killing enough prey to support themselves and avoiding the park’s male lions successfully.
“The excursion gives tourists a chance to experience what cheetahs are really like,” says Megan Taplin, Mountain Zebra’s manager. “You’re following the world’s fastest animal in its natural environment, so nothing is guaranteed.” If the cheetah you track happens to be hunting, or nursing cubs, you might only glimpse it from afar or you might draw a complete blank. That’s just how nature works.
That said, there’s no such thing as a bad day when you’re hiking in the South African wilderness with an extremely knowledgeable ranger. At one point we stop to admire a majestic martial eagle; a little later, we are given an impromptu lesson on the family structure of the Cape ground squirrel. Dan even throws in a bit of Anglo-Boer War history. Over the years, I’ve spent loads of time in game reserves all over Africa, but I’ve never had an experience quite like this.