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Looking for Leatherbacks

Looking for Leatherbacks

…And loggerheads. It’s breeding time in Ponta do Ouro, when bales of turtles hatch in the sand and make a run for the sea. Only one in a thousand survives…

Words: Petro Kotzé

Pictures: Petro Kotzé and Supplied

Map“This was cowboy country,” said Miguel Gonçalves. “There was lots of drinking and illegal developments. Everybody was driving on the beach and many people fished illegally.” Case in point, he fetched a couple of confiscated spearguns from the corner of his office, some crudely put together, others slim and expensive looking.

He pointed to one of the latter. “This belonged to a tourist who tried to bribe me with R100 not to fine them for the illegal use of spearguns in a marine protected area.”

The hapless South African got away with a formal apology and a morning of cleaning the beach under the watchful eye of a marine ranger. He should have known better. Miguel is the first park warden of the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve, and he loves it.

Yet to the uninformed, Ponta do Ouro is deceiving. The town almost hugs the border between South Africa and Mozambique at Kosi Bay. Coming from South Africa, the tarred road stops as you cross the border, splitting into many un-signposted sand roads, constructed over the dunes by countless 4x4s. The best direction to get to Ponta, is to keep right.

The town itself is a road or ten lined with a menagerie of fruit and veg stalls, curio sellers, restaurants and dive camps. In the peak season, rowdy crowds take over the dusty streets and clutter the paradise-like beaches. Then there are the R&Rs – a mind-numbing cocktail of rum and raspberry, described to me by a local as something similar to battery acid.

Somewhat surprisingly, Ponta is where I headed to see one of the most spectacular natural events on Earth. As it turned out, the town had many surprises up her colourful sleeve.

Flying_leatherback_Dobela

“The Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve was proclaimed in 2009, and covers an area of 678km²,” said Miguel. On a map in his office, he traced the borders of the reserve along the coastline, stretching from Ponta do Ouro in the south to the Maputo River mouth in Maputo Bay to the north.

The terrestrial section reaches just until the dunes, but covers three nautical miles into the Indian Ocean, and includes the waters around Inhaca and the Portuguese Islands.

“It’s a terrestrial and a marine hotspot,” said Miguel, launching into a careful explanation as to why why this finger-shaped area needed protection. He explained that it’s one piece of a puzzle of protected areas, which could eventually form a corridor for species such as elephants to migrate through again. It is part of the Lubombo Conservancy-Goba Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA), an inspirational cross-border conservation area facilitated by the Peace Parks Foundation.

leatherback_hatchlings_2

Already, when the marine reserve was proclaimed, it became part of the first marine TFCA in Africa, linking with South Africa’s iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site. The TFCA also includes the Maputo Special Reserve, a mosaic of lakes, floodplains, mangrove swamps, woodlands and forested dunes sweeping down to unspoilt beaches. Inland, it is connected to the Tembe Elephant Park via the Futi Corridor.

Together this forms a roughly 100 000ha protected area rich in endemic fauna and flora. It’s also part of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Biodiversity Hotspot and, as such, is one of the 25 biologically richest and most endangered terrestrial ecoregions on Earth.

hatchling_tracks

We were here for a tiny part of it – turtles. Every year around February, thousands of endangered loggerhead and critically endangered leatherback turtles hatch along the coastline from Kosi Bay to Maputo Bay. “Only one in a thousand will make it,” Miguel said. The rest will be annihilated by crabs before they reach the water, or be snacked on by seabirds or other predators in the ocean once there. Many more will meet their end as by-catch in fishing nets. So far, we had not seen one. We drove 35 kilometres both ways along the beach and back with marine guard Vicente Matsimbe on our first night. We didn’t spot one turtle, perhaps in part because the beach was covered with thousands of scuttling ghost crabs. As far as the eye could see, they jostled for scraps and space.

Vicente’s phone rang three times. Each was a call from a local alerting him to the vehicle driving on the beach. “We get a lot of support from the people now,” said Matsimbe. “Recently it was the locals who alerted us to a community member who poached a turtle.” For us, the night brought few other sights. Only the lights from secluded developments that stained the beach here and there, and the waves that rushed to meet a waiting carpet of pale-white crabs.

The turtles hatch when the scorching heat has dissipated, and we had to wait for low tide at about 21h00 on the following two nights to look for them again. So our days were free. Ponta is perhaps most well known as a diving spot, and we happily obliged.

Ponta (69)

We opted for Steve’s Ledge, a shallow reef in the partial marine reserve only about 14 metres deep and a 10-minute boat ride from the shore. There, a boxfish lurked in the distance, a huge honeycomb eel peeked suspiciously from under a ledge and a massive green turtle rested on the reef, while three others swerved past like ancient spirits.

Blowing bubbles really did work up an appetite, and we tackled the sweaty heat and thick sand of Ponta in search of pão – the local bread. From the main beach, the road from our house went past a number of stalls. Mr Price was first, followed by Mr Cheap. Both sold a selection of beautifully carved wooden angels, fish, beadwork and sarongs. Mr Cheap also catered for the South African crowd by displaying one or two carved Blue Bull figurines.

We decided to return later, not feeling the inspiration to drag a wooden potato bass through the heat. We made it as far as the first restaurant, dusty and hot, before we had to break for an ice-cold 2M, the local beer. Shopping in Ponta was hard work. We settled for a couple of samoosas and spicy chicken livers to line the stomach before we continued. Eventually, we made it to the bakery to find that the pão was sold out. Oh well… at least it was next to famous Fernandos, a rickety bar and religious stop for the meanest R&R in town. We settled for a delicious-looking pineapple, some sweet mangoes and a gut-wrenching chilli sauce from the market next door before we headed home sans pão. We made up for it with a mountain of fresh prawns from vendors along the road, punting the fare from their cooler boxes. Ponta was growing on me.

Still, she didn’t hand out her favours randomly. Our second nightly mission was scuppered when bolts of lightning ripped the skies above Ponta and released torrents of rain that drenched the coastline and drowned all possibility of carousing over the beach on the hunt for tiny turtles.

With it, the power went off – something the locals assured us was not too unusual – and, to round it off, our cellphone reception did the same. Our nightly entertainment was provided by two pale geckos hunting moths around the light as the power returned in drips and drabs.

Eventually, when we did see the turtles, they did not disappoint. Huddled in a park vehicle with Miguel after 9pm on our last night, we patrolled the beach for hatching turtles. Miguel suddenly stopped, alerted by hundreds of tiny turtle tracks from the top of the beach to the watermark. We found the nest, but missed the turtles.

On we went, until Miguel stopped for the second batch of Morse Code strewn across the sand. We thought we had missed them again, but were in luck. Three tiny loggerhead turtles were still making a dash for the water, fervently pushing themselves over the sand. We watched them go. If they made it past the crabs and the waiting predators and the fishnets to a long life in the deep sea, they could grow to awe-inspiring specimens of close to 100kg.

They might even return to this very beach in 30 years or so to lay their eggs. Their chances were gut-renchingly slim, but they had the hearts of a tiny crowd of people on a Ponta do Ouro beach behind them. I underestimated Ponta do Ouro. She was somewhat of a regal lady dressed in colourful skirts that dragged in the dust.

On the outside she was all lewd R&R-infused banter but, inside, she was warm, blue ocean sweeping over lively reefs and endless white dunes. She had a hint of lush forest here, over there the promise of heavy elephant footsteps on the beach. And everywhere a giant loggerhead turtle, longing for the deep sea.

I left the broken roads of Ponta the next day, hoping that she stayed that way, and understanding why she needed protection for that to happen.

Where to Stay

Where to Eat

  • There are a number of restaurants within walking distance of each other in the village. The Love Café is a quirky and beautiful option (the coffee is great). Upstairs (also called the Neptune’s Bar) has a lovely view, and
    is deservedly known for its delicious prawn-curry bunny chow.

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