So we landed, drove from Melbourne to Adelaide, to somewhere in the middle and marvellous dusty places in between, across the Snowy Mountains to Bateman’s Bay, to Sydney to Toowoomba to Goomeri to Monto to Mount Larcom to Gladstone ... chasing memories of childhood farms, departed relatives in sepia, snakes under the porch, nuns with hard rulers, rodeos, dynamite, cattle sheds with cows’ names, men dying doing men’s work, immigrant homesickness. We found all of them, and gratifyingly, much more. People, who knew and remembered.
Then as if serendipity hadn’t done enough to link the decades, the sat-nav drew our wagon to Bundaberg on the Queensland coast, near Mon Repos beach. That’s like arriving in Stratford-upon-Avon and suddenly remembering it’s where Shakespeare was born. Until then I’d failed to pay attention to the shadow of the thought that was trailing me – it was close to one of the nesting grounds in the world. Where female turtles come ashore at night at certain times of year, to dig pits and lay their eggs, spread sand over with their flippers and cry reptilean tears. Or, later in the season, where tiny hatchlings break out and make their precarious way in darkness towards the sea.
Anyway, there was Mon Repos and I knew I wanted to see turtles. There I would 4qate that very evening (what better place?) with a group leaving by minibus, to await the hatchlings’ appearance on the beach, possibly as late as 2a.m., probably with marine commentary by a keen turtle Ranger.
That’s when I began to feel uneasy. That’s when it began to feel too easy, just a bit voyeurish. Would I like a gang of snapping turtles waiting around to watch me deliver, or to watch my babies hatching into the world without me? It’s a private thing, surely, at least it was, when the turtles evolved and went back to the ocean 150 million years ago. Why were humans permitted to exploit a mysterious, nocturnal miracle of nature? By the way, it was the rainy season, the best rainy for farmers in Qld. for ten years, worst for everyone else. Creeks flooded, dams rose, roads were closed, skies thundered and lightninged, winds bent the motel-palms to the ground and beaches were inclement. In other words, the turtle viewing closed, all turtle tours were cancelled, a wash-out, even on the beach. Straight away I knew it had to be Hobanesquely so. You get there and everything’s shut.
Anticipation turned without much ado to relief at this ‘bad’ luck. Bad for whom? It was an intrusion to which I would have been party, along with engines, headlights, voices, smells, bacteria, litter... tainting the nesting grounds of an endangered species, their fragile existence. We’re assured they can’t hear human voices, well, they don’t have to, they’re bound to feel the vibrations are not quite benign, their sense of smell is greater than a dog’s, everything is a predator and they cannot run!
No doubt the turtle handlers are sensitive, they help more baby turtles into the sea with their hands than nature might allow, and the money may go into conservation. But you can’t help asking, are the shrinking numbers a side-effect of sheer human presence? Like the bats in Carlsbad Caverns and the coral on Great Barrier Reef. And which is more degrading, the zoo tank or the turtle tour? I’m no born-again greenie, but this was planet-priority Australia, I mean, they don’t let you take fruit from one state to another, their traffic police are truly Mad Max, yet this.... Nor did I feel smug, leaving Bundaberg in the sheeting rain, I just felt lighter, knowing they were out there, that they could have hatched in private that night on the waterlogged sand.
I’d left my yellow paper behind in the information rack. Let this belatedly be my report, with apologies, because that, I’m afraid, was February 2010. This year, the weather became cyclonic and I haven’t heard yet what turtles do in a typhoon.
‘I’d been aware of the turtles for some time before I went to look at them. I knew I’d have to do it but I kept putting it off. When I did go to see them I didn’t know how to cope with it. Untenable propositions assembled themselves in my mind. If these were what they were then why were buildings, buses, streets? The sign said that green turtles were the source of turtle soup and hawksbills provided the tortoiseshell of commerce. But why soup, why spectacles?’
‘A turtle doesn’t have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on. Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.’
- from Turtle Diary (1975)