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On the turtle trail

Durban - The darkness along the coast, heading north towards Sodwana Bay, is complete and our 4x4’s lights are the only beams to break the cool ocean air. Hundreds of ghost crabs dart in and out of their illuminated path, coming as close as they dare before escaping the crushing front wheels of the Toyota Land Cruiser.

Our guide keeps a lookout for the unique swathed path the female leatherback turtle leaves in the sand as she makes her way from the ocean to the foot of the dunes to lay her eggs. The chief executive of Isimangaliso Wetlands Park, Andrew Zaloumis, is leading us on a scavenger hunt of sorts, and first prize is catching one of these animals as they come ashore to nest.

Having dragged her mammoth body up the beach and laid her clutch of eggs, the leatherback ensures the nest is well protected by covering it tightly with sand.Each female lays about 100 eggs in each nest, with a few tasteless decoys being laid on top to put off potential predators.Hippo also call Isimangaliso home, with the wetland parks watering holes a good place to find the gargantuan beasts.A large male kudu seemed unfazed by his photo being taken, and was by far the most photogenic animal encountered.

The calm summer evening has produced a nesting female.

She makes her way towards the shore and surfaces in the wash zone, where she hovers for some time, making sure she has found a safe stretch of beach. Satisfied, she heaves her body – which weighs almost a ton – out of the ocean and heads inland, an assortment of sighs and splutters the soundtrack as she ploughs through the sand.

Some time after she passes the high water mark, she stops and begins to dig her nest.

Watching her from the front, you would not know she was carving out the chamber that will house her unborn young. Her entire body is still, save for her hind flappers, which rhythmically and without pause dig the funnel-shaped nest. Once the chamber is about 70cm deep, she begins to lay her clutch of about 100 soft, leathery golfball-sized eggs.

As she lays, she squeezes her eyes shut and what seems to be a tear rolls down the side of her face. This is actually the turtle shedding excess salt from glands behind its eyes.

Atop the batch of yet-to-hatch turtles, the leatherback lays a number of small, yolkless eggs that will serve as a decoy for any predators hoping to score an easy meal once she leaves.

Biting into the pseudo eggs, she hopes they will be put off by the lack of taste of these decoys and leave the nest intact.

Once she has finished, she begins shovelling the sand back on top of the eggs, still using her hind flappers, and then pats it down firmly, leaving the nest compacted and hidden from view.

With her task done for the night, she swivels her enormous body around and makes her way back to the ocean once again.

She will have to return to the beach in a week, however, and begin the slow and laborious process once again as she lays her next clutch.

In total, the female leatherback will lay up to 1 000 eggs this season, with only one or two of the hatchlings surviving to full sexual maturity. An estimated 12 percent will be taken by ghost crabs before they ever reach the water’s edge, while many more will become easy prey to ocean-dwelling predators during the first few months of life.

If they do manage to survive, it is likely they will return to the beach from where they hatched to lay their own brood.

There is a population of roughly 100 nesting leatherbacks in the south-western Indian Ocean. Of these, about 70 come to Isimangaliso Wetlands Park’s beaches to lay their eggs. This park – South Africa’s first World Heritage Site – once comprised a collection of disjointed areas that were protected because of their conservational importance. But the land in between these areas, while of equal conservational importance, was overrun with gum tree plantations, and parts belonged to the military.

The past decade has seen the park’s management patiently and tirelessly negotiate for this land and invest millions in restoring it to its natural state and, now, creating an eco-friendly tourism hub.

According to Zaloumis, the park has 23 of the world’s 28 recognised wetland types and boasts more biodiversity in one hectare than the whole of the Kruger National Park.

Its territories stretch all the way from Maphelane, just north of Durban, 220km up the coast to Kosi Bay on the Mozambican border, and it occupies 9 percent of the country’s coastline. The indigenous game in the park have once again started using the migration paths of their ancestors, and wetlands that had been sucked dry by alien plants have filled with water.

Zaloumis and his team are putting the finishing touches to the new Western Shores area of the park, which it is to be opened to the public by Easter. This area can be entered through St Lucia, and the design of its amenities – like the gates fashioned to look like fishing baskets – is based on that which is unique to the Tonga and Zulu people, native to these parts.

Visitors can enjoy spectacular views from picnic sites built metres above the ground, amid the trees. The variety of wildlife to be seen is vast, ranging from dwarf chameleon to waterbuck to black rhinos and leopards.

Watching the majestic leatherback produce the next generation of ocean giants is humbling and awe-inspiring.

Combine this with the area’s beauty and abundance of wildlife, and Isimangaliso Wetland Park provides an experience not easy to forget. - The Mercury

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