Exploring the Karoo

The Mountain Zebra National Park was established in 1937 to protect the endangered Cape mountain zebra, a sub-species of the mountain zebra (one of three species of zebra along with the more common Burchells zebra and the Grevy’s zebra). These Cape mountain zebra are the smallest of the zebra species. Their stripes do not go all the way around so they have a white belly and they also have longer ears and a fold of loose skin at their neck (called a Dewlap).

Over the years the park has expanded in size and the number of zebra has increased from just a handful to over 1000. The park has also recently reintroduced lion, cheetah, buffalo, brown hyena and rhino.

Only 3 hours from Port Elizabeth, the park lies within the semi-desert region known as the Karoo. It was an easy drive on excellent roads stopping to pick up groceries and for a delicious cup of coffee at the trendy Karoobrew in Cradock, which is only 12 km before the park.

Love the coffee … and the name!

The landscape of the park is very striking – it’s dry, dusty and desert with vast, flat open spaces surrounded by lots of peaks. It didn’t take us long to see our first zebra and we immediately noticed it’s stockier body and white tummy, and marveled yet again at their amazing stripes. (Their stripe patterns are unique to each Zebra, like our fingerprints, and they’re good for camouflage in grass. They can confuse predators by motion dazzle either when standing together or when moving).

Aside from the zebra we saw a lot of antelope, and with the help of the park’s animal sightings game we identified a few new species along with some old favourites such as the Kudu, Hartebeest and Wilderbeest. The grey Rhebok, Blesbok and Gemsbok were new sightings for us and it was great to see the springboks out in force (especially after their wonderful series win against England!).

Cape mountain zebra have white tummies as their stripes do not go all the way around

As with other South African parks you’re not allowed out at night, so we booked a night game drive. It’s always a little eerie being in the park at night as you see eyes reflecting in the lights, and zebra jumping out the bush will more than give you a fright! We saw a lot of antelope, our old friend the black backed jackal, a spring hare who jumps like a kangaroo, a beautiful spotted Eagle owl with its very piercing eyes, a glimpse of a brown hyena’s bottom and lots of zebra.

It was a pretty cold night in our tent filled with a lot of animal noises. There’s nothing quite like a lions roar to wake you from your dreams, but it was reassuring to know that unlike in the Serengeti there was a fence around the camp!

Welcome to Africa 🙂

After an early start to watch the sunrise from one of the viewpoints we set off to drive around the park. It was a cold morning and it seemed we were the only ones up early for our game drive, everyone else animals included opted for a cosy lie in! But as the sun started to warm up the animals came out and we enjoyed watching the zebra and antelope. We even spotted a blue crane, South Africa’s national bird.

Warming up with a delicious cup of coffee!
From the national park, it was a stunning drive through the desolate desert to get to our next destination of Nieu Bethesda. Long stretches of straight road that seemed to go on forever led to a bumpy track that took us to small town which truly felt like the middle of nowhere!
Stunning driving through the Karoo
This is the view as we headed out of Nieu Bethesda back to the highway

We were amazed by the number of accommodation options we saw and we managed to find a lovely lunch spot at The Brewery and Two Goats Deli where we enjoyed our first cheese platter of the trip and a half pint of home brew to wash it down.


The reason for our visit was to see The Owl House – a work of art created by Helen Martins over the course of her adult life.  The house is a fascinating mix of colour and smashed glass and the garden, which she called the ‘Camel Yard’, is filled with many sculptures of bottle-skirted hostesses, mermaids, camels and people. It’s hard to describe one woman’s life work but it’s something very special.

Aside from the zebra that darted across the highway, it was an easy drive back to Port Elizabeth along a good road and we were back in time for a late dinner with the family and a delicious bottle of South African wine.

Practical Information

Park Fees

These were covered by our wild cards. An annual wild card gives you access to all national parks in South Africa for a year. Depending on how many parks you plan to visit, it may be cheaper to buy a wild card. You can obtain more information here.


  • Camping – R150 pppn
  • Night game drive – R245 pp
  • Owl House – R60 pp


  • Port Elizabeth to Mountain Zebra National Park – 260 km
  • Mountain Zebra National Park to Nieu Bethesda –  110 km (this includes 31 km on a very bumpy road. The southern entry to the town is paved)
  • Nieu Bethesda to Port Elizabeth – 310 km

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *