When I decided to spend a couple extra nights in South Africa after my volunteer work with Wildlife ACT was completed, I turned to my travel agent, Renee Johnston at Rhino Africa, for a recommendation of a place to stay. She recommended Thonga Beach Lodge, and one of the things I was most looking forward to during my stay there was the opportunity to go turtle tracking.
I arrived at the lodge around lunchtime, and as I was only going to be there for two nights, the very first thing I did was sign up for that evenings turtle tracking adventure. After a sundowner drive to the lake, drinks at the bar and a delicious dinner, we set out at around 9:45 in the hopes that we might be able to see either a loggerhead or a leatherback turtle.
We set out from the lodge and drove the end of the concession area in one direction, and then turned around to head off to the other section of beach. I thought it was fantastic driving around in the dark along the beach; the waves crashing on one side of the vehicle and the dunes on the other. At times it was a bit disorienting from having so little visibility from the back of the land cruiser; it looked at times like we would be driving straight into the ocean! When we reached the end of the concession at the far end of the beach (I think around 10km or so from the lodge) we hadn’t yet seen a turtle or even a single track. We paused for a hot chocolate and amarula on the beach (YUM!), and then carried on back towards the lodge with the hopes that maybe our luck would change.
We came across two of the beach monitors who told us there was a loggerhead about a kilometre down the beach. We’d almost reached the far end of the concession (where we started our journey), and the beach becomes very rocky in that area, meaning the vehicle couldn’t go any further… so flashlights were passed out and we headed off on foot with the hopes we might catch a glimpse of the turtle before she made it back into the ocean. One thing I can say is those monitors certainly didn’t give us an accurate distance – the tracks were more like 2kms from the location of our vehicle, and even our guide Ashley, who ran ahead as fast as he could, didn’t manage to see the turtle. I don’t think any of the other guests shared my enthusiasm, but I was happy even though we didn’t see the turtle. It was a cool adventure walking along the beach in the pitch black (and rain!), and just seeing the tracks was really cool.
We got back to the vehicle, and Ashley decided to take one more drive down the beach. I don’t think that was quite in following with company policy, but he was trying his best to give us all a fabulous experience. We crossed paths with a vehicle from the other lodge in the area that does turtle tours, and they told us there was a leatherback further up the beach that had just finished nesting, and if we hurried we should be able to see her. Less than 5 minutes later, we were rewarded with seeing a leatherback turtle, weighing approximately 600 kilograms and 2.5 metres from flipper to flipper. She was the first leatherback sighting of the season.
She was just putting the finishing touches on disguising her nest from predators, and it was easy to see that every movement was exhausting and difficult; every breath she took was laboured. We mostly viewed her using red light so as not to disturb her, but once she started heading towards to water, everyone had a chance for a quick photo opportunity. Being in her presence was remarkable. I find it tough to put the experience into words, but I felt it an honour to be in her presence and share a few moments of her life.
I arrived back at the lodge at close to 1am, a bit damp and chilly from the rain, but grinning from ear to ear from the experience.
I came across this article yesterday which provides more information about the turtle population in the area:
Turtling in iSimangaliso – Africa Geographic Blog http://shar.es/1XCsSc
Here are a few photos from my adventure. If I get the chance to go again, unless it is a clear night with a full moon, I will leave the big camera behind and just rely on my camera phone to take photos. I found it frustrating to try and focus my Nikon, while the point and click ability of my camera phone worked just fine. I was there for the experience, not the photos.