For a magical encounter with turtles, visit the Maputaland coast. It’s here, when turtle tracking along the beach at night, that you’ll be able to witness one of the ocean’s most beautiful creatures – it’s one of South Africa’s and Mozambique’s best experiences.
For turtle tracking in South Africa and Mozambique, you need to go to the Maputaland coast, which stretches from northern KwaZulu-Natal into southern Mozambique. This had been a dream of mine since childhood: to watch a great creature of the deep haul itself out of the ocean to lay eggs on a night-time shore.
Our luxurious lodge was set above an idyllic beach. Our suite was raised on wooden stilts to ensure no harm befell the ancient milkwoods. Thatch, bleached wood, glass and natural materials created an open, airy feel.
We immediately arranged to join an evening turtle drive. ‘We’re permitted to drive the length of the beach looking for females and hatchlings,’ explained Roger, our guide. ‘Meet me here after supper and we’ll go and try our luck.’
I could hardly contain my excitement as we finished our dinner and went to meet Roger at reception. Climbing aboard the 4×4, we set off down the beach.
As we drove, Roger told us a bit about local turtles: ‘There are seven species of marine turtles in the world and they’re important indicators of the ocean’s health. Five species are found off the Maputaland coast: loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, green and olive ridley. Of these, only loggerhead and leatherback females nest along our shores, usually from November to February.’
After an hour of driving, Roger spotted tracks. My heart began to beat faster: could this be it? The 4×4 drew to a halt and we got out to follow the tractor-like trail up a dune.
‘She’ll go into a trance when she starts laying, so we’ll be able to get closer,’ said Roger. ‘But we need to show due respect.’
There she was! The giant leatherback, weighing more than half a tonne, seemed unconcerned by our presence. A full moon emerged between clouds that spat lightning, blitzing the ocean with a purple glow.
In hushed tones, Roger explained how vulnerable these gentle leviathans are. ‘In some places, their body parts are still used for traditional medicine. People kill them for their shells, their meat. Long liners and nets snare them too. Plastic bags are the worst: they look like jellyfish – food – and get stuck in turtles’ throats, suffocating them to death.’
I sat on the sand, feeling the privilege of being there. In two months time, hatchlings from this night’s eggs would scamper down the beach in a mad dash to elude predators. Ghost crabs would block their path, slaughtering them by the dozen. Once they reached the water, it would be the sharks’ turn. Out of every thousand hatchlings, only a couple make it to adulthood.
‘Can’t we pick up the babies and carry them to the water?’ asked my partner.
‘No, you see, during its beach scramble, the little creature learns about the earth’s rotation, taking on board the magnetic info – we’re not exactly sure,’ said Roger. ‘Basically, the baby is working out its internal GPS so that in 15 years’ time it’ll be able to find its way back across the ocean to this spot. If you pick it up, it’ll be lost.’
Life’s map in the first minutes after birth! The hatchling spends years cruising the oceans’ currents and growing to adulthood. Tracking devices have shown how some leatherbacks round the Cape and head into the Atlantic. Others visit the Antarctic pack ice before returning to Maputaland.
The female completed digging her hole and carefully tested the depth with a flipper. Slowly, about a hundred golf-ball-sized eggs began dropping into the pit. We stood silently, almost at attention.
Once she was done, there was an elaborate covering-up ritual, flicking sand to disguise the nest from raids by robbers such as monitor lizards and honey badgers. Finally, exhausted, she heaved herself back towards the phosphorescent ocean. Her flippers strained; she paused frequently, trying to catch her breath.
Ur-creature, sacred mother, you’ve travelled down the millennia to bless us and our mad age, I thought. For how many thousands of years have your maternal ancestors been coming ashore on this very beach? Listed as vulnerable, there are only a few thousand of you left.
The turtle stopped just short of the water, dead tired. Come on, old girl. She turned her head to look at us humans with our snapping cameras and iPhones: evolutionary newcomers compared to her 60-million years. How trivial our concerns suddenly seemed: interest-rate hikes, the cricket score … ephemera in the face of such dignity, the fulfilment of Nature’s imperative on this shore.
‘People, we must go, the tide is coming in fast,’ said Roger.
A wave wrapped around her like a warm embrace. Lightning flickered and a roll of thunder ricocheted off the sea. We scrambled onto the 4×4 and pulled away, the shore break chasing us up the beach. When I looked back, she had disappeared, swallowed by the fathomless, moonstruck Indian Ocean. It felt as though I had been blessed.