I hated driving behind the huge logging trucks up the narrow, twisting mountain roads. The giant trunks protruded from the end of the flat bed trucks and loomed ominously over our small hire car, held in place by a wholly unconvincing system of chains. Any one of them could have flattened several cars like the one we were in had it chosen to break free.
“There is no logging in Malaysia” repeated Hans, my colleague and travel companion for this trip. At least that is what we had been told. Repeatedly, during the last week by the Malaysians we had been working with. Yet we kept encountering these trucks.
After a few days in the not very inspiring Port Dickson running a training course for regional staff, we were on our way to Terengganu on the East coast of Malaysia in the hope of encountering a giant turtle. It was egg-laying season and there was at least a possibility that one would come ashore during our weekend visit to lay her clutch of eggs. It was a bit of a long shot on such a short visit but worth a try. And it was a welcome tonic to get out into the countryside before heading back for a couple of weeks analysing the Malaysian motorcycle market.
Somehow we had got through Kuala Lumpur. Despite his precise gestures and analytical mind, Hans had turned out to be the kind of navigator who specialises in saying “that’s where you should have turned left” – eschewing the more popular concept of advising the driver before the turning. We had looped around the freeways of that throughly modern town more times than I cared to remember, always with the road we needed to be on within sight but no obvious way to get there other than a James Bond style manoeuvre over the crash barrier and through too many metres of empty space. We had eventually emerged from the city on the right road to get to the east. And now we were winding through spectacular countryside. I occasionally dared to take my eyes off the road long enough to appreciate it. But the combined challenge of twisting curves, slow mopeds, pedestrians and logging trucks (no, sorry, I must have imagined those) was demanding most of my attention.
When we checked in to the small hotel promising ‘turtle service’ they gave us a 40% chance. There was a good moon (partly auspicious and partly practical for seeing at night) and it wasn’t expected to rain. But there had only been two sightings in the previous week so we shouldn’t go counting our turtle eggs before they hatched. They were well organised and by signing up for turtle service we would benefit from their all night beach watchman who was all set to alert the hotel night porter at the first sign of life. I slept half dressed just in case and hoped that my travel motto (trust to luck) was in good working order.
Sure enough at 3am there was a pounding on the door. I woke with a start and leapt up to pull on shoes and socks and grab my camera. A few minutes later half a dozen confused looking tourists were crammed into the jeep and bouncing down the road to the next beach. We were reminded of the rules on the way. No flashlights (it can temporarily blind them and makes it hard for them to navigate back to the sea – they use the reflection of the moon on the water as a beacon and a flashlight can give a false signal). No touching, talking to, shouting out or poking the turtles as it causes them stress and interferes with their egg-laying (apart from being just plain rude to interfere like that with anybody in the middle of such an arduous and personal task). No stealing eggs as they are a protected species. All perfectly sensible rules.
We tiptoed onto the beach whispering nervously. At first it was hard to see anything, but after a while we could make out one of the turtles. Despite the name I was shocked at how big she was. It was like watching a mini car climb onto the beach. The effort for her to move at all seemed overwhelming – let alone across soft sand and uphill. She seemed to know where she wanted to go though and dragged herself to the spot before starting to dig out a hollow with her back flippers. She then got to work, with quite some heaving and noise, laying her copious quantities of eggs.
Heartbreakingly, during our two hours on the beach I saw every single one of the respect rules broken several times. At first I tried to stop people. Politely reminding them not to use their torches or poke the poor beast with sticks. But it was a lost cause. They didn’t care what I thought and there were a dozen of them. I didn’t want to make things worse with a big scen
e, and the driver warned me that egg poaching was big business and there could be violence if I upset the locals.
It was a great privilege to see this legendary event first hand. I’m very glad I was there. But it was also torment to see the way the turtle was treated and to know that this would be replicated on other beaches and other nights all over the world. The arrogance of mankind shone in the moonlight and made me ashamed of my species. I went back to bed with very mixed feelings. Of course the egg trade will most likely continue regardless. Laws never stopped man plundering nature especially where the promise of aphrodisiac properties is invoked. There are charities like See Turtles campaigning for conservation and more stringent controls.
Meanwhile I am honoured to have personally met one of these huge gentle globetrotting creatures.