An evening turtle-tracking safari along Maputaland’s beaches, searching for marine leatherback and loggerhead turtles laying their eggs, or hatchlings emerging from the nest, isn’t your typical safari game viewing experience. Should you be lucky enough to find a turtle, observing their powerful survival instinct will leave you awed.

Did you know?

Leatherback turtles dive deeper and are far larger than any other turtles.

On your turtle-tracking safari, one question your guide cannot answer is how, each year, these creatures navigate thousands of sea miles and return instinctively to the same beaches where they hatched.

Quick-witted nature lovers quip that being female, the turtle’s not afraid to stop and ask for directions, but this nesting ritual is a mystery that still baffles marine scientists.

When going on a turtle tour, choose a licensed operator. There are a number of authorised concessions in the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

Turtle tours can be taken at Cape Vidal, Manzengwenya (guests of Rocktail Beach Camp only), Mabibi (guests of Thonga Beach Lodge or Mabibi campsite only) and Kosi Bay. The concession at Sodwana Bay, operated by Phinda Private Game Reserve, is open to both lodge and non-lodge guests.

Patience and luck are required when tracking sea turtles. Tours commence in the late afternoon, or after sunset. Operators may only be on the beaches two hours before, and two hours after low tide, meaning tours can last from two to seven hours.

During your turtle safari, you’ll see little other wildlife besides scurrying ghost crabs, and the fleeting shadows of bats and seabirds in the 4x4’s headlights.

Since even a passing lighthouse beam can deter the turtle from leaving the safety of the surf, if your guide spots a turtle mom slogging-it up the beach to a suitable nesting site above the high tide mark, it’s lights off, except for the guide’s torch.

For some guests, this aspect of a turtle tour can be frustrating, as they’re unaccustomed to spending prolonged periods in darkness. Whether the female is exiting the sea, or returning to the ocean, it’s only permissible to illuminate her from behind, preferably using infrared beams.

While she's in the egg-laying 'trance', discreet lighting is allowed. Usually, it’s not possible to take photos because the camera flashes could unsettle the female, and it’s vital she’s not deterred from fulfilling her mission.

Another aspect of a turtle-tracking safari, is seeking out baby turtles as they hatch. It’s an awe-inspiring, sometimes heartbreaking experience watching the tiny turtles make a valiant dash for the ocean, all the while beset by sea birds, predators, and ghost crabs.

It’s believed only four in every 1 000 turtle hatchlings survives to maturity, so whether you’ve observed a female laying eggs, or witnessed the next generation’s heroic bid to reach the sea, you’ve been party to one of Maputaland’s timeless miracles.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Rocktail Beach Camp
Tel: + 27 (0)11 807 1800

Thonga Beach Lodge

Tel: +27 (0)35 474 1473
Email: res@isibindi.co.za

How to get here

Maputaland (also called the Elephant Coast) can be reached by driving on the N12 from Jo’burg, and the N2 North from Durban. Richards Bay is the closest airport.

Best time to visit

Turtle laying: November to January Turtle hatching: December to March

Around the area

Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game reserve, Thembe Elephant Park, Sodwana Bay, Kosi Bay

Get around

If you’re a guest at a lodge with a concession, your lodge will arrange transport. Otherwise, you’ll need a vehicle. Alternatively, arrange a transfer with your tour operator.

Length of stay

Up to seven hours, depending on the tides and your operator.

What to pack

Take a windbreaker or warm jacket. Avoid white or reflective clothing. If going on a community-run tour, an infrared torch or headlamp is useful.

Where to stay

There’s a wide variety of accommodation in St. Lucia and Sodwana Bay.

What to eat

Depending on the tides, and your operator, your tour includes a beach dinner, or snacks and refreshments.