Published first in the Sunday Times’ Accidental Tourist – 13 May 2018
They say there are things we know we don’t know and things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown unknowns.
Before going to the Seychelles, I knew there would be blue sea and white sand and coconuts and I had heard talk of bats and turtles. Other than that, I knew I was going in blind. And that excited me. I like not being a know-it-all. Perhaps I have no choice in the matter, but the surprise element was very appealing. I wasn’t prepared, though, for the things I discovered that I didn’t know I didn’t know.
The best case of this came one evening on a beach on a private island in the archipelago – the remote North Island that had taken three planes and two boats to access from Cape Town.
We had been hiking through the jungle terrain of one of the island’s peaks, slipping down fallen palm fronds and scrambling up giant black boulders. The guide led the way as we emerged from the wilderness onto white beach sand. I hung on her every word about Seychellois animal and plant life like a young Gerald Durrell aching to take them all home with me.
Standing before the Indian Ocean, we watched the sun drop from view and blackness fill the world. And then we saw it. The long path leading up from the water to where beach met forest. We saw, in the light of the moon, turtle tracks.
At least, the guide saw them and pointed them out to me, before scurrying about like a turtle mother about to lay eggs herself – which is what she was looking for. A female about to lay eggs.
We snuck up to the end of the turtle’s trail – as marked by hind flippers trying to haul one heavy hulk on land. And there, above the high spring tide mark, we knelt down beside a huge green turtle and watched as she concluded the uncomfortable task of digging a hole. The remarkable part for me came when she reversed her tush over the hole and began to lay her offspring.
Having made an egg myself – in a frying pan in the kitchen – I expected a hard shell to drop from her. I didn’t know that I didn’t know that these ancient reptiles lay their young in soft, leathery casings that can land gently in the nest of more than a hundred sisters and brothers. In the dim red light of our torch, the eggs looked a lot more like ping pong balls (but with the softness of mascarpone) as they plopped free from Mum.
As the guide continued her soliloquy of I-know-more-than-you-isms, another fact came to light that I had never thought to think about: how to have a turtle daughter or a turtle son.
In the human world, old wives tales encourage you to drink a cup of coffee 20 minutes before sex if you want a boy. To conceive a girl, it’s recommended the man wear tighty-whiteys and the woman eat plenty of vegetables and sweets. In the 18th century, to ensure a son, men were advised to cut off their left testicle.
For turtles, the gender of juveniles is determined by the temperature surrounding them during their 60 days of incubation. Turtle fathers everywhere must be rejoicing! Cooler nests give rise to a male-dominated clutch while warmer nests produce females.
Just how these turtles do the fandango is a whole other nest of mascarpone balls and a particular detail I was quite confident to announce that I knew I didn’t want to know. We watched the mother tuck her babes in for the long sleep ahead and then switched off our light to let the family rest. And because, sometimes, not knowing how a story ends is part of the great mystery and delight of life.