Visitors to the Mountain Zebra National Park are unlikely to come away without having become familiar with the White-browed Sparrow-Weavers (Plocepasser mahali) that are the iconic birds of the rest camp. The combination of blackish, brown, and white on their plumage is distinctive – as are their cheerful calls variously described as cheeoop-preoo-chop or the harsher call of chik-chik. The morning chorus of these birds is well worth waking up to! Note the clear white stripe above its eye. Although males and females look very similar, the black bill of this one tells us it is a male.
The bill of the female is horn-coloured.
Their intricate, yet seemingly untidy, nests – which look like bundles of grass tucked into the edge of the trees – abound in the park and are easy to recognise. Both the male and female build their nest, which has two entrances – one of which is closed off during the breeding season. These nests are used throughout the year.
Having been ‘pandemically confined’ for months and only recently being allowed to venture forth – almost inch by inch – or so it felt, it was a treat to spend a day in the Addo Elephant National Park. As soon as overnight accommodation was allowed, we opted to spend two nights at the Mountain Zebra National Park, near Cradock.
As you can see in the photograph below, the sky was heavily overcast when we arrived – that in itself has been a rare sight in our part of the Eastern Cape. Being the end of winter, the grass is dry and golden: look at the beautiful wide open expanse of the grassland with the mountain rising above it. Such space gives one the feeling of freedom!
Here is a closer look at the mountain, with an ostrich in the foreground.
The grassland in the valley seems to go on forever.
When you get close to the mountain, driving up to the plateau, you become entranced by the bulging rocks, loose boulders and the vegetation growing in between. The pale coloured trees are all Cussonia spp., known colloquially as Cabbage Trees.
Once on the plateau, you can almost see to the end of the earth – mountains and valleys that change with the light of the day. It is scenery that one can absorb in great gulps; difficult to take in all at once; the openness, the beauty, and all that space is ‘cleansing’ and healing. There is a feeling of freedom (one can forget about the pandemic there) and ‘wholesomeness’ that made me feel ‘normal’ for those few days.
On each of the three days we camped at Mountain Zebra National Park we were entertained by a special visitor, other than the delightful presence of a number of birds of course. The first was what is commonly known in South Africa as a Shongololo. This popular name for a millipede is derived from the Xhosa and Zulu word ‘ukushonga’ which means ‘to roll up’ – which is what the shongololo does when disturbed in order to protect its vulnerable underside. They are fascinating to watch for as they walk, their legs move in a synchronised, wave-like motion. There were actually a whole lot of them, in various shades and sizes, all over the rest camp area and crossing the roads through the park. One had to watch out to avoid stepping on them at times!
Apart from the many ordinary looking ants that were around, there were particularly large ones, such as this one, that seemed to be on their own. I was struck both by its size and its colouring, but am stumped about its identification.
While being careful not to touch it or feed it, we were enchanted by the Striped Mouse that often appeared from behind a rock near our tent to scamper across to see what it could find to eat. It was easily scared off by birds and, on more than one occasion, was deliberately chased away by a White-browed Sparrow Weaver.
Life is not always calm and peaceful for these dazzling photogenic animals. These two Cape Mountain Zebras are gracing the skyline in the Mountain Zebra National Park.
Sometimes there is more to the rough and tumble than meets the eye. These Burchell’s Zebra in the Addo Elephant National Park were pushing, shoving, biting and kicking each other until one gave up the fight and walked away.
One or both managed to nip the other.
More than once.
These rivalry fights were nothing to compare, however, with what this zebra must have experienced in the Mountain Zebra National Park. A closer look at the puncture marks on its buttocks and flank already suggest that it had a close encounter with a lion – and the large bite out of its neck tells us it had a fortunate escape.
If zebras could talk, this one would have an enthralling tale to tell!
NOTE: Click on the photographs if you wish to view a larger image.