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July 01, 2016

For only 300 bucks you can now experience the unparalleled thrill of finding a wild cheetah on foot. You’ll have to get yourself to Cradock first, though.

In the past, radio-tracking big cats was the kind of thing that only eccentric PHD students and TV personalities like David Attenborough ever got to do. But a ground-breaking project at the Mountain Zebra National Park has opened the door to people like you and me…

My experience

By the time I reported at reception Dan, our guide for the day, had already downloaded the cheetah’s approximate GPS coordinates from a satellite, so we knew where to start looking. After introducing myself to the Austrian couple who were the only other guests on the trip, we all bundled into an open Landy (brrr!) and Dan drove us in the general direction of the cheetah. She is one of two cheetahs in the park that has a radio collar – the other one is very skittish so they don’t usually take tourists to see her. They’re being tracked as part of a project to determine the impact of lions’ introduction to the park.

Not only is Dan a natural raconteur, but he’s also is a zoology student who’s leading the study mentioned above…Suffice to say the longish drive was anything but boring. Every now and then we stopped for Dan to wave his antenna in the air to confirm we were still on track. When the road came to an end we got out of the Landy and started tracking the cheetah on foot.

Radio tracking is not an exact science, as the topography has a huge effect on how the signal is interpreted. We scrambled up the steep sides of Saltpeterskop (follow the link to read about its fascinating Boer War history) before walking around in circles for over an hour. As soon as the beeps seemed to be getting louder, they would fade again. Just when we were starting to wonder whether we would ever find the cheetah, one of the Austrian tourists spotted the cheetah’s round ears poking out from behind some grass. If we hadn’t known she was in the vicinity, we would never have seen her.

We probably spent a quarter of an hour marveling at her from a distance of no more than ten metres. At first she just lay there, but after a while she rolled over, stood up and even arched her back. And then she just walked off and disappeared between the rocks, never to be seen again. Over the years I’ve spent hundreds of days in game reserves all over Africa, but I’ve never had an experience quite like that. I’m not entirely sure the Austrians appreciated quite how lucky they were.

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Know before you go

  • The excursion costs R335 per person. Numbers are limited to between two and eight people so booking in advance is recommended. Call park reception on (048) 881 2427.
  • Cheetah tracking takes place daily at 7am in summer (October – March) and 8.30am in winter (April – September).
  • The whole trip usually takes between 3 and 4 hours, but this is entirely dependent on the whims of the cheetahs.
  • The experience is open to anyone between the ages of 12 and 65. Over 65s who want to do it must submit a doctor’s certificate stating they’re fit enough to hike on rugged terrain.
  • Wear walking shoes and comfy, neutral clothing. Take some water, a snack and binoculars as well as a camera and plenty of suncream.
  • In addition to the cheetahs there are also lions, buffaloes and rhinos in the park so you’ll have to sign an indemnity form. However, your guide will be armed and very well trained.
  • There’s a wide array of accommodation options in the park. Check out this link for details. 

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