The signal is weaker than it was a few minutes earlier, but he follows his instincts. “I think it’s by that tree,” he says, his finger pointing towards a small tree about 50metres ahead of us.
As we approach the tree, everyone stops simultaneously, with their eyes wide and alert. Lying cosily in the tree’s shade is a beautiful cheetah, which briefly raises its head and looks up at us, then wearily rests its head again.
It’s punishingly hot and this, the fastest land animal in the world, seems out of gas. We take a few pictures and videos of its relatively small frame, soaking in the moment.
It’s been about 3½ hours since we hopped on the game-viewing vehicle and set out on this cheetah-tracking adventure, which has so far seen us enjoy the park’s scenic views, diverse wildlife and get incredible insight from our tour guide. Exhausted and famished from our search, we take the quick route back to the main enclosure for lunch.
The reserve, just outside the town of Cradock, is one of the Eastern Cape’s jewels. We, myself and a small media contingent, are here for a three-day stay in celebration of International Cheetah Day.
Since the arrival of two male and two female cheetah a decade ago, the park has built a reputation as an incredible sanctuary for the animal through its close work with the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT). This is the only national park to offer a cheetah-tracking activity, and our objective from day one was to go out into the park and track them down, which we did.
The park’s cheetah population has thrived over the years. They had an impressive 29 cubs within the first five years. To avoid interbreeding, they are often relocated to different reserves across the country as part of the EWT Cheetah Metapopulation Project.
“It is the policy of SA National Parks (SANParks) to reintroduce wildlife species which would have occurred in an area before hunting or habitat loss forced them to local extinction in earlier centuries,” said SANParks communications head Janine Raftopoulos, who joined us on our trip.
“This project ensures adequate genetic viability and contributes towards national initiatives to conserve the species, and entails the management of over 300 cheetah on more than 50 small-fenced reserves in South Africa.”
During our visit, we also got to view some amazing rock paintings dating back hundreds of years. Although the park’s lions prove elusive, we saw lots of other wildlife, such as wildebeest, porcupine, zebra, springbok and impala.
The food that the park’s restaurant dishes up is simply delicious. From day one we enjoyed some juicy steaks and other meat options. I particularly enjoyed the surf '* turf, which I had for lunch on the first day. The head chef makes sure to come and talk to you at every meal and share some secrets about each meal he's prepared.
The park’s greatest quality is that it is small, cosy and inviting. The family cottage, which was the accommodation we were given, has a lounge with a fireplace (not that we needed it in this heat) and two bedrooms, one with a queen bed and the other with two single beds. An open-plan kitchen adds a bit of elegance to the rooms, which are also equipped with an air conditioner and TV.
Apart from having a beautiful view of the park from the patio, the cottages are appropriately and fully equipped with all the necessities you’d need in a home-away-from-home.
On our final night, we had dinner at the rock chalet, a spacious, elegant house with a breathtaking view of the park from atop one of the steepest hills around.
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