Upon arrival at Rocktail Camp, the general manager detailed all the available activities – snorkeling, nature walks, scuba diving, and turtle drives to see loggerheads and leatherbacks laying eggs along the stretch of protected South African coastline. This is why we were here. My previous attempt to see turtles the year before was a comedy of errors – a flat tire, a swollen river that impeded our access to the beach, a night guard who didn’t believe our permit was valid, and then we got stuck in the soft sand. The only evidence of turtles we saw that night was the tracks of a lone female that came ashore only to turn around and head back into the water without building a nest. This time around we were at Rocktail Camp in the Maputaland Marine Reserve where the chances of seeing the turtles was better. I was feeling lucky.
“We are already signed up for December 30th,” I eagerly interjected. A quick consultation of the activity log revealed there was a mix-up. There was no record of us having booked and paid for the activity. “The next two nights are fully booked, but I do have space December 31st,” she cheerily informed us. December 31st was our last night at the camp and if we didn’t see turtles on that drive, we wouldn’t have another opportunity to do so. Plus, it was New Year’s Eve and being slightly superstitious, the possibility of spending New Year’s Eve unsuccessfuly searching for turtles seemed like a bad harbinger for the upcoming year. Still it was our only opportunity and we committed ourselves to this rather unusual New Year’s Eve celebration.
Slightly dispirited by the mix-up we lunched at a table overlooking the pool, unsightly trampoline, and surrounded by kids of all ages. My Dad commented that Rocktail Camp was a bit like summer camp. It was not meant as a compliment. I began to worry that a three night stay at family-friendly lodge was a mistake, but one look an hour later at pristine beach in the late afternoon sun and we were ready to join in the camp activities with gusto. We laid out our beach towels in the shade of the sand dune and watched the crabs get swept in and out of the ocean waves. Relaxing on the beach was the perfect way to spend three days after our three day safari. Like most of South Africa’s coast line, the beach is beautiful, expansive, and loud due to the waves pounding against the sandy shore. The beach is a pleasant 25 minute walk from the dining area and we saw a number of red duikers on our daily forays to the beach.
The next morning most of the other guests had signed up to go snorkeling. Perhaps the main attraction and appeal of Rocktail Camp is the superb marine life. There is a dive centre on the property and at an extra cost guests can scuba and snorkel, but given my inexplicable fish phobia, we elected to skip the water activities and stick to the land based ones. Our first activity was a 2 and a half hour walk through the coastal forest where we focused on the small things like plants, small mammals, and ants. And the ants were fascinating, especially the weaver or tailor ants who create purse-like colonies in the trees out of leaves that are joined together with silk produced by the grubs. After another relaxing late afternoon on the beach, we re-joined our guide before dinner for a nighttime scorpion walk. He used a touch with a blue LED light that illuminated the scorpions making them appear like glow in the dark toys. A
At breakfast on the morning of the 31st, we overheard other guests recounting their experience seeing five turtles, 3 loggerheads and 2 ginormous leatherbacks on their drive. Leatherbacks are the largest turtles and are currently listed as endangered. They can grow up to seven feet in length and weigh in at 2000 lbs. On safari and in terms of wildlife in general, my philosophy is to enjoy the moment. What happens can’t be scripted. When other guests on safari describe seeing a leopard kill that is stolen by hyenas when the leopard loses its grip on the carcass as she climbs a tree, I just marvel at the sighting instead of comparing it to what I saw. But, we were supposed to be on that drive. I couldn’t help but be envious and I convinced myself that our turtle tracking activity was jinxed.
The turtle trips depart according to the tides and low tide was late, significantly later than we had been going to bed. We tried to do all that we could to avoid falling asleep before we left – an afternoon nap, late dinner, no alcohol, and plenty of coffee. At 10:45pm we loaded into the vehicle and headed to the beach. After almost hour, the only sign of turtles we came across was the tracks of female loggerhead coming out of the water and going back to the water without laying her eggs. I took this as a bad omen for our evenings prospects. Then, about 10 minutes before the start of 2016, our guide spotted tracks. Metal goblets were passed around, a small swig of sparkling wine poured, and we welcomed 2016 with a lovely British family and a loggerhead turtle as she put the final touches of sand on her nest.
Although I had a camera with me, there is a strictly enforced policy about shining a light on the turtles. A red light is allowed only after the turtle finishes laying her eggs and a white light can be shone from behind when she goes back into the water so as not to confuse or disorient her. Needless to say the photos are terrible and is a perfect example of why you have to put your camera down and enjoy the moment.
We saw one other loggerhead who had finished her nest and finally a leatherback who spent an hour digging and then filling in the hole she created only to wander around and start a new one nearby. Our guide speculated that the cloud cover was confusing her as to where exactly she should deposit her eggs. She was still busy excavating her second nest when we left. Amazingly, she will lay on average 80 eggs and the sex of the hatchlings will be determined by the temperature inside the nest. There is something surreal about sitting in the dark and watching the outline of a huge pre-historic looking turtle. With no light and the moon obscured by clouds, we only caught bits of movement and sound as she awkwardly used her flippers to dig, but it was incredible. I cannot imagine a better way to welcome 2016 and all of the adventures I hope it brings.
Open your arms and embrace all that comes your way. To travel, health and joyful merriment. Happy 2016!
Rocktail Camp is located in the Maputaland Marine Reserve in KwaZulu Natal. The nearest airport is three hours away in Richard’s Bay, although there is a small airstrip outside the park for charter flights. There are 17 purpose-built rooms with canvas walls and wood flooring. The rooms are scattered along the hillside and contain all of the necessary creature comforts, including an overhead fan that was in constant use. The coastal forest largely obscures the view of the ocean, but from the chairs on my deck, you could see a small sliver of water and this was my favorite place to read and have my morning coffee.
Rocktail caters for families, an incredible plus for many and a negative for some. If you belong to the later group, I wouldn’t recommend this camp. The food is incredible. Breakfast and dinner are served buffet style with an amazing array of options, while lunch is ordered a la carte. Turtle drives are available October – March when female turtles come ashore to build a nest and then 60 days later when the hatchlings emerge.