Durban - Ghost crabs by the hundreds scuttle sideways across the sand to escape being squashed under the wheels of our safari vehicle.
The creatures have a scary, almost eerie, aura about them as they invade the long stretch of beach after dark in search of tasty morsels – including newly hatched turtles struggling to get to the sea in one piece.
As we drive on, the moon goes behind the clouds and the wind picks up, propelling a rain squall through the side of the vehicle that catches us all by surprise.
Then, as suddenly as it came, the rain goes and the moon returns, casting a soft, silvery glow over the ocean.
I am on a drive with several others in search of loggerhead and leatherback turtles at Rocktail Bay between Kosi Bay and Sodwana Bay on KwaZulu-Natal’s North Coast – an area world-renowned for providing nesting sites for turtles, which come ashore between October and March every year to lay their eggs high up on the beaches.
We are all guests at Rocktail Beach Camp run by Wilderness Safaris. The camp is deep in the area’s Maputaland Coastal Forest Reserve behind dunes within the Isimangaliso (formerly Greater St Lucia) Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site.
It’s a 20-minute walk or a short drive from the camp to the beach at Rocktail Bay, where there is safe access to the Maputaland Marine Reserve, which offers some of the best diving and snorkelling experiences in the world.
There are 14 dive sites with most of the reefs 14m deep, providing adventures for novice and experienced divers.
A dive shop next door to the camp has a full range of gear for hire as well as lessons available from experts.
Snorkelling off nearby Lala Nek beach is ideal for beginners, with the shallow-water reefs containing a variety of sea creatures. The camp provides transport to and from the beach if required.
“Game drives out to sea’’ in a dive shop vessel uncover such treasures as bottlenose dolphins, turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, and humpback whales (in winter).
Close by is Lake Sibaya, South Africa’s largest natural freshwater lake (70km2), with an abundance of hippo and crocodiles.
And just an hour’s drive from the camp is Thembe Elephant Park, boasting all the big five, including some of the largest tuskers in South Africa.
Add forest walks, 150 wild bird species, quad biking and the bliss of total isolation – plus solitude if you want it – and it’s easy to see why it’s a marine and wildlife destination of distinction.
There are 10 double and seven single luxury tented en suite chalets at Rocktail Beach Camp, as well as a honeymoon suite.
Many of the rooms have spectacular views from their decks of the forest and the sea in the background.
Efficiently managed by Gary and Ellen Rose, the resort welcomes families and provides a wealth of activities for children.
The camp organises activities for young and old, supplying items such as goggles, snorkels and flippers for all ages.
There is a central dining room area, plus a bar, lounge, veranda, swimming pool and big-screen TV.
Our first two-hour night turtle drive revealed only tracks the sea creatures had made in the sand. But the second night we found a leatherback turtle nest with hatchlings frantically digging themselves out of the sand.
It was a heart-warming and emotional experience to watch the baby turtles struggle down the beach and, with the moon as their beacon, head straight for the surf.
Amazingly, many of them will return as adults to lay eggs on the same stretch of beach where they hatched.
On their short scramble to the sea, they are a targeted “dish” for ghost crabs, honey badgers, genets and rock pythons, among others. Only a small percentage of the hatchlings survive into adulthood.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife runs an annual project to monitor the number of nesting females and protect the beaches from disturbance. It’s supported by donations from the World Wildlife Fund and the Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust.
For several years, Rocktail Beach Camp guides have monitored their beach area through a concession which the resort has with Ezemvelo.
Part of the fees the camp pays go towards the wages of the seasonal scouts who protect the nests and patrol the beaches.
Guests accompany the scouts on the research drives, which take place every night from around 8pm, whether there are passengers or not.
The marine and forest experiences at Rocktail Bay and at the camp are unusual, invigorating and yet relaxing.
If You Go...
Wilderness has a safari club for African residents, offering members a discount of up to 80 percent. Check out the offer at www.wilderness-residents.co.za
Getting there: Take the N2 north from Durban and turn off at Hluhluwe. Go though the village and get on to the R22, travelling through Mbazwana. About 30km past Mbazwana turn right at a sign indicating Coastal Forest Reserve and another reading D1849. 2x4 vehicles continue about 5km on a gravel road to the Coastal Cashews farm where guests are collected by camp transport, while 4x4 vehicles follow signposts all the way to the camp.
The journey to Coastal Cashews takes more than four hours from Durban. - Sunday Tribune