A turtle tale

By Rebecca Nicholson

Busi, our charming Turtle Tours guide, had assured us that she had seen baby turtles every night that week and they were a sure thing. But after walking for what felt like at least 10km, partly in the rain, I was beginning to feel a little despondent. I cursed Busi under my breath for making promises she couldn’t keep.

Come nightfall, the beach at Bhanga Nek writhes with turtle hatchlings. Pictures: Rebecca NicholsonBganga Nek Tent Camp is a perfect base from which to view the turtle hatchlings.Bganga Nek Tent Camp is a perfect base from which to view the turtle hatchlings.

It was at this moment that we saw an adult Loggerhead – an unexpected sight – lumbering down to the sea having just laid some eggs.

Things were looking up.

According to Busi, there are five species of turtle in the area: Leatherbacks, Loggerheads, Green, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill, but only the Leatherbacks and Loggerheads lay their eggs on the beaches of KwaZulu-Natal.

It was the Loggerhead hatchlings we were expecting to see. Two in our party had come to watch the adults laying their eggs in November and had returned to watch the babies hatch last month.

Watching baby turtles hatch and make their perilous journey to the sea is the stuff of a David Attenborough documentary, so when I was offered the chance to see it, I eagerly accepted.

There were only two words that put me off the offer: “tents” and “camping”. I’ve never been a happy camper, but the facilities at Bhanga Nek made even me content.

The Bhanga Nek Community Tent Camp is situated within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park. The former Natal Parks Board built and ran the camp until it was handed over to the community a few years ago. The chief is now responsible for managing the facility.

The camp has six tents on raised wooden platforms, each with two single beds. There is no electricity, but as long as you have enough gas cookers, torches and head lamps (but don’t leave the batteries behind, like I did), you really don’t need it.

There are two outside bathrooms with hot showers and a flushing toilet. There is an undercover kitchen area with a sink, table and shelves for food and cooking paraphernalia.

You need to provide your own crockery, cutlery and linen, and a camping fridge is a real plus.

There’s a braai area amid the tents – a great place to watch some bush TV with a drink in hand after a hard day’s swimming, snoozing and lying on the beach. At R360 a tent a night, it’s a steal.

Bhanga Nek is about six hours from Durban, and you’ll need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get to the camp, as the last 45 minutes of the drive is on sand.

But back to those turtles. With Busi scanning the top of the beach and the rest of us forming a line reaching the water’s edge, we kept walking for what must have been another 10km. To amuse ourselves we chased the thousands of ghost crabs skittering across the sand, threatening them with death and worse if they ate any baby turtles.

Then a shout from Busi. There was a solitary turtle running the gauntlet down to the sea. So little – so much smaller than I’d imagined, about the size of a matchbox – and so much more beautiful.

That was lovely, I thought, stretching and contemplating with dread the 20km or so that lay between me and some dry clothes and my bed. And then another shout from further up the hill. I forgot about my bed and trudged up through the rain. At the top of the hill I saw what seemed to me a volcano of about 120 baby turtles tumbling over each other in their desire to reach the top of the pile and head for the sea.

I felt like a mother seeing her newborn for the first time, and had an overwhelming urge to protect all the turtles in the world – especially the little ones. I was also sorely tempted to lure one off to the side with my torch and pop it in my pocket.

Apparently the hatchlings enter the sea by navigating towards the brighter horizon created by the reflection of the moon and starlight off the water’s surface. There wasn’t much light that night, so the guides were shining torches to show them the way home.

Unfortunately predators are numerous, and although we took care of the crabs, they also have to contend with king fish waiting in the waves. We were told only two out of a thousand will survive, but I like to think my efforts with the crabs improved those odds considerably.

The turtles were spectacular – something I’ll never forget. But they’re not the only thing worth mentioning about Bhanga Nek. When we walked the 20m from our camp down to the beach on arrival, the scene took my breath away. The beach was deserted, the swells gentle and the water warm. It’s the most I’ve ever enjoyed swimming in the sea.

We were able to sit on and walk along the beach at night and feel safe – something I haven’t done in a long time.

But all good trips must come to an end. And so, with one last swim swum, final goodbyes to new friends said, and wistful last looks at my new favourite place, I jumped into the car, wondering what kind of training you need to become a turtle guide.