Photographing for our book Wild Heritage – KwaZulu Natal, we took an expedition in search of aliens on the pristine beaches of Maputoland. Our aim was to record their existence. Little did we know about the magical powers of these creatures and how dangerous they can be.
Leading the expedition was an official from Ezemvelo/ KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife. We left camp after dark as the tide began to go out. As we drove south over the deserted sandy wonderland, we were looking for signs of a landing. In the beam cast by the vehicle’s light, ghostly crabs in their thousands were scurrying out of harm’s way. We were told that alien landing signs were easy to spot in the sand – they resembled the tracks of a giant tractor emerging from the sea. We were brimming with anticipation.
We drove for what felt like hours along the beach, keeping between the low and high water marks where the sand was still firm. The timing was crucial, because if the tide started coming in there would be nowhere left to drive and the waves would take the vehicle to a watery grave.
There were no signs of aliens and the tide was starting to turn. It was just after midnight and we had to head back without delay. Then suddenly we saw signs of a landing. Hearts beating with excitement, we got out and followed the tracks. And there she was – a massive hulk of at least 900kg depositing her eggs in the soft sand far above the high water mark.
While she dropped one egg after the other into the hole she had dug, she was sighing deeply as if she was extremely sad. What appeared to be tears were running down her leathery cheeks, conveying to us a strangeness that could only have had its origins in another world hidden from our eyes.
As if accentuating the strangeness, there was a full moon that night. The combination of sighs, tears and eerie moonlight cast a magic spell over us all. Leatherback turtles are truly magnificent and indeed aliens in our world.
Slowly, after she had buried all her eggs, she sighed once more, turned round, and as quickly as she could made her way back to the sea. Still under the spell of this whole amazing event, we ran ahead to photograph her as she approached the water. Just then a huge wave crashed over me and I dropped my camera in the sea.
We suddenly realized that we had completely lost track of time and that we would have to hurry back to avoid being overtaken by the high tide. As the driver started up, we discovered the vehicle was stuck in soft sand. It was the middle of the night, on a deserted beach with no cell phone reception. We tried our best to dig, heave and push, but to no avail. The tide was coming in. As we frantically continued our efforts we imagined ourselves being washed out to sea.
As a safety precaution, Ingrid carried all the camera equipment up the dunes so that it didn’t get submerged with the vehicle.
I believe that the only reason we eventually got the vehicle out of the sand was because the alien’s spell wore off. As the turtle was swallowed by the waves and slowly put distance between us, her powers over us diminished.
Yet for me her alien powers have not worn off completely, even to this day. Since that hauntingly beautiful moonlit night, I find myself sighing much more deeply and more frequently. Especially when I look out to sea.
This story is an extract from PhotoTips: Composing Nature.