Breathtaking moments in time

There was nothing ahead except sand and sea on this notorious stretch of coastline dubbed ‘Doodsakker’ or ‘Acre of the Dead’ that is known to claim at least five vehicles per year. At Spring low tide on the full moon, however, it appeared benevolent. The sea lapped gently against the shore, the water glittered and the sun shone. All looked promising ... as long as we kept moving.

The possibility of getting bogged down in southern Angola between the Atlantic Ocean and the Namib Desert kept our adrenaline pumping even on the calm morning. We knew that we only had a window of a few hours to traverse the coastline, with a 60km narrow channel of beach between a ridge of sand dunes and the sea.

It had been a journey that had pulled heartstrings. The plight of the Olive Ridley turtles had called us from our very different lives and brought us to witness this clear indication of the earth moving out of balance. The turtles have laid their eggs on Angolan beaches for aeons. But, now, fates had turned as humans tipped the scales. The seal population had moved northwards from Namibia into Angolan waters presumably because of warmer waters due to climate change or because of overfishing. Their arrival on southern Angolan beaches attracted a population of opportunistic black-backed jackal that previously had only been present in small non-threatening numbers.

We watched the 45kg female turtles lumber up the shore like prehistoric aquatic queens, dig holes and enter a trancelike state, eyes glassy, oblivious to all as the future generation was carefully deposited into the sand in their soft leathery casings. Time paused as each series of golf ball-sized eggs plopped into the hole with an accompanying hiss from their mother. Life and death danced hand in hand for a brief moment as she paused from the effort and then continued, oblivious to the onlookers. It was just her, the moonlit night and the purple sea. Finally, her work done, she covered her progeny with sand, heard the sea calling her name and made her way back down the shore to disappear into the surf. It was only a few minutes later that our rapture ended abruptly and our bubble of awe burst as our attention was drawn back up the beach where a jackal was busy raiding the nest for the newly-laid eggs.

What could we do? This was a situation that required so much more than a handful of well-meaning people trying to save a few eggs. We hastily removed the contents of the coolbox, gently placed the eggs inside and transported the box of treasure to the lodge. Here we dug holes above the high water mark on the beach, laying the eggs carefully inside at the same depth and in the same orientation in the sand as in their former nest and built a fence around them. We knew our efforts to give the eggs some form of protection were futile. Long-term research is needed and a solution found that could benefit all species. We couldn’t change carbon emissions, the super powers planetary decisions and humankind’s path and journey. We also couldn’t turn back the clock. So, what difference could we make? All we could attempt to do was to tell the world that here on this southern Angolan beach, a species is struggling - and that there are consequences to everything we do. It was a drop in the huge ocean.

On the following nights we watched the situation repeat itself over and over again. The females lumbered down beaches following nature’s call and had no idea their gargantuan efforts were wasted. There wasn’t a nest that remained intact, all were pillaged. It looked like there wouldn’t be a single turtle youngster to run the gauntlet of enemies to the sea. The odds were already against them.

It was with mixed emotions that we left Flamingo Lodge, just south of Namibe, heading towards the Kunene River Mouth and one of the most treacherous stretches of beach. We camped in the dunes in preparation for the next morning and the anticipated Doodsakker drive. When the sun sleepily popped its head above the dunes we made our way to the beach and kept our feet firmly down on accelerators. The strip between dunes and sea was our narrow channel of accessible beach for the next few hours. Wheels spun in the sand, vehicles crabbed on small sand dunes and then righted themselves, white knuckles grasped steering wheels and we kept going, at times driving through the encroaching water. The excitement was palpable.

I remembered watching a film clip of vehicles stuck halfway up the sand-dunes waiting for the tide to ebb after spending hours pulling their companion’s vehicle from the soft beach sand. Our journey would be easier. Our hearts stopped racing as we sped past the dunes and sea, making it through the treacherous passage intact. We slowed down and stopped. The next stretch would be excitement of another kind. We were entering Baia dos Tigres, known for its wild bird populations.

We started up. I left the vehicle’s cab to the driver and climbed onto the back with the vast blue sky as my roof. As we slowly edged forward I caught sight of them. Bobbing on the water were thousands of cormorants, more birds than I had ever before seen in one place and at one time. The instant they saw us they began to take off from the water. There was an epic commotion of wings flapping and splashing as they lifted into the air. It was energy and water and massive avian movement; a huge Earth moment. Momentarily torn between taking photographs and watching this awe-inspiring event, I soon forgot my camera and stood, holding on, mesmerised by the glory.

Like many things in life it came and went so quickly and the opportunity, memory and utter beauty merged into the fleeting moments that make up our lives. Somewhere though, deep in my being, I remembered those birds in that remote area of desert and sea and kept the essence and power of it alive. It not only touched my inner core but gave me hope that as smoke from factories pollutes the sky, as toxins spill into river systems and as ancient icebergs melt as the earth totters precariously on its axis, there is still pure and sublime beauty untarnished by any of us. And, this I believe will remind us of who we are, our Earth home and our interconnectedness, and will make all the difference.

R Swilling

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