Tiny Turtle Tracks in the Sand

The Rocktail beach at sunrise

The Rocktail beach at sunrise

The remote chance of seeing a hatchling Dermochelys coriacae, or Leatherback sea turtle, as they are commonly known, was our primary reason for visiting this pristine beach camp in the northern reaches of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly known as the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park).  We were to discover that Rocktail Beach Camp had a whole lot more to offer. 

With preliminaries quickly taken care of, and our luggage installed in our en-suite chalet, we were able to take advantage of our private verandah overlooking the pristine coastal forest and enjoy the peace, tranquillity and wonderful views of the indigenous forest and Indian Ocean in the distance.  Rocktail Beach Camp is set within the lush Maputaland Coastal Forest, with ancient sand dunes following the edge of the KwaZulu-Natal Coast.

A leisurely 15-minute walk through coastal bush along sandy paths rewards you with remote unspoilt beaches. This lush area abounds with a variety of creatures and critters – pause a moment to listen to the birds, watch butterflies of all description flit from one inviting flower to another, duck beneath a spider-web and see the giant arachnid silhouetted against the sky and watch the timid red duiker dart into the undergrowth for cover.

The Maputaland Marine Reserve, situated just offshore, boasts reef systems that are amongst the most pristine in the world, providing a sanctuary for prolific marine life and spectacular coral landscapes. A fully accredited dive centre provides a world-class underwater experience, with the advantage that not only is the diving conducted within a Reserve and World Heritage Site, but you dive knowing that you are the only underwater visitors to these unspoilt reefs. Snorkelling also offers the opportunity of extraordinary encounters with huge shoals of fish, dolphins, turtles and whales.

View from the pool up to the main deck area

View from the pool up to the main deck area

The main area of the camp has a large swimming pool, central dining room, bar and a large verandah that wraps itself around two sides of the building.  This is the only structure constructed of bricks and mortar.

The 12 well appointed tented chalets are perched on wooden stilts within the indigenous forest, each chalet treading lightly on the pristine forest, echoing the ethos of environmental awareness and a reduced carbon footprint. Other environmental initiatives include the use of low energy lighting where possible and solar heating for water.

Enjoying a chilled refreshment on the deck

Enjoying a chilled refreshment on the deck while watching the butterflies…

Butterfly on a tree next to the deck

…butterfly on a tree next to the deck

The development of community partnerships has always been high on the agenda of Adventure & Safari Co.  Rocktail Bay Lodge was one of the first joint ventures in South Africa between a community, a conservation authority and ecotourism, and has evolved since its initial inception to the point where Rocktail Bay Lodge became a partner site in the Pro Poor Tourism in Southern Africa Programme.  Rocktail Beach Camp has built off the excellent partnerships forged between Rocktail Bay Lodge and the local community and continued these to the benefit of all.

More than 2% of the community in the immediate settlements (comprising approximately 1 500 people) are permanently employed at either the Lodge or Beach Camp.  Take Jameson for instance, our guide on the Lake Sibaya trip, he used to work in Johannesburg, and with thanks to Rocktail Beach Camp, has done his guide training and is now employed. Not only does he benefit by being able to live at home with his wife and see his children grow up, but we, the guests benefit as he takes pride in showing us the area in which he lives, taking time to explain many unknown facts – what plants work for a headache, malaria or flu; how to make wine from the berries of the Waterberry tree (Syzygium cordatum) and many more. The more you interact, the more rewarding the experience.

Other activities include excursions to Black Rock, horse riding, quad biking, stargazing and guided walks. Between October and December the sea turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs, green and loggerhead turtles are regularly seen while the leatherback and hawksbill turtles are only occasionally seen.  From December to March you may have the opportunity of seeing the hatchlings make their death-defying scramble to the ocean.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity of joining a turtle drive on the Rocktail Bay Lodge research vehicle. Permits for this beach driving are valid from 15 October to 15 March for turtle research, which includes the GPS positioning of nests, the counting of eggs where possible, and the tagging of turtles.

It was fascinating having Mbongeni teach us about the turtles – he showed us an old nesting site with its dried out egg cases, explained how water monitors and honey badgers rob the nests, and told of some of the hazards facing a newly hatched turtle.

A moving carpet of ghost crabs seemed to line the beach, just waiting to eat the hatchlings, and for those lucky enough to make it into the ocean, any number of predators would be waiting. It was no wonder that so few make it to adult life, or that we arrived back un-rewarded.

Later that evening while we were enjoying our meal, Gareth the lodge manager, who had been on the beach pursuing his passion for fly-fishing, come racing onto the verandah “come quickly, there’s a nest hatching and there may be a few left”.  No second invitation was necessary!

We dashed to his vehicle and raced along the road to the beach, leapt onto the sand, and following a track through the bush made our way to the beach.  Tossing our shoes as we went, so as not to waste a moment, we sped to the nesting site to discover the last tiny turtle making its way to the ocean.  It was a leatherback turtle, with a leathery skin and stripes on its back. Making sure our torchlight was coming from a seaward direction, we watched and followed the little creature towards the beckoning waves of the ocean, until he was swept away with the final receding wave.

“Here, another one”, Gareth had managed to rescue another hatchling form the clutches of a ghost crab – it had already dragged the little turtle into its hole – hopefully our intervention helped. Once the bulk of the hatchlings have made their way to the ocean, researchers are allowed to investigate the nest with excavation usually carried out the following day. This involves carefully digging up the nests, counting live and dead hatchlings stuck in the nest, hatched and unhatched eggs. Gareth set to the task, and one live, slightly underdeveloped, hatchling was found which we escorted to the ocean.

The privilege of what we had witnessed struck home when Gareth told us that only about one in a thousand sea-turtle hatchlings make it to maturity.

I am left with the memory of a little turtle being carried off in the waves, and the swathe of tiny tracks on the sand – evidence of their departure… until the next high tide washes all trace of them away.

Turtle hatchlings making their way to the ocean (© Rocktail Beach Camp)

Turtle hatchlings making their way to the ocean (© Rocktail Beach Camp)

words: Tessa Buhrmann / pics: Tessa Buhrmann, Safari & Adventure Co

EDIT 2018: Rocktail Beach Camp is now operated by Maputaland Travel


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