I have always hankered after a visit to Rocktail. And now I know why. It is quite literally out of this world.
And if the comments in the adjacent Dive Centre’s guest book are anything to go by, I am not alone… it’s filled with nothing but superlatives from local and international divers alike. And so it should be. The underwater experience at Rocktail is absolutely world-class.
Imagine you’re the only party diving exquisite, pristine coral reefs in a marine reserve seasonally rich with whales, sharks, turtles, rays and innumerable reef fish. And if you’re not that into diving, there’s always the ‘ocean experience’ option or an excursion to Lala Nek to snorkel shallower waters, albeit with equally rewarding sightings.
Avid birders will not be disappointed either, and an early outing to Lake Sibaya, South Africa’s largest freshwater lake at 70 km2 and 15m at its deepest, is a must.
Exploring Maputaland’s pristine coastal forest – with more trees and vegetation than you can imagine (or try to name, though the beautiful white pear is most prevalent) – rewards with birds, butterflies, the occasional red duiker and other small mammals, and even snakes… we were disappointed not to see the forest cobra our guide MB hurried us past as it nestled in a tree cavity on our morning guided walk!
But it’s the turtle-tracking that is most thrilling. Not that sightings are guaranteed, but given Wilderness Safaris’ conservation imperative, a turtle guide drives the route every day to record activity during the season (October 15 through March 15). Loggerheads and leatherbacks come ashore to lay, while green and hawksbill turtles are seen offshore in the marine reserve. On the drives, guests are invited to join the guide as he notes tracks and nesting activity in the conservancy.
On our evening’s drive (worth noting that it is tide-dependent and entails a small extra fee which goes directly to the conservation fund) we were delighted to find a loggerhead early on, heading into the waves having completed her task of digging a nest and laying her +/- 120 eggs.
Really, it would have been enough, but there we were trundling along, bundled against the sea breeze and night chill when the vehicle headlights picked out a set of enormous tracks. In any other situation they might have been mistaken for tractor tracks, but this is prime leatherback territory. We were not to be disappointed! Up in the dunes a 1.68m, 750kg+ leatherback female was digging her nest, tortuously scooping out the wet sand, first with one rear flipper then the other.
Our guide on the night was Gugulethu Mathenjwa (Gugs), a legendary turtle conservator who hails from the local community, originally working with the then Natal Parks Board before joining Wilderness Safaris and helping to construct Rocktail Bay Camp some 23+ years ago. Gugs has famously dug a nest for a loggerhead which was missing both back flippers. She allowed him to dig to the required depth (usually the length of her flipper) before dropping her eggs into the nest and then allowed him to cover it over, just as she would have.
On this particular evening we watched rapturously as our leatherback dug her hole, laid her eggs and covered the nest, all over a period of about an hour. Cautioned to keep a respectful distance, we waited for her to achieve her trance-like state while dropping her eggs before taking any photographs. We had to leave her then to avoid the incoming tide, but she would go on to laboriously dig a decoy nest, at least another hour’s work, before lumbering back down the beach and slipping into the impenetrable darkness of the midnight ocean.
In two or so months’ time the hatchings will make their long and dangerous scamper to freedom, returning as adults to dig their own nests and lay their own eggs on this very same stretch of beach.
Having profoundly imprinted on this unique and unspoiled corner of Maputaland, it’s only a matter of time before instinct brings me back here too...