The day of the tor­toise

Odd go­ings-on in an olive grove in the south of France

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - DAN FREE­MAN

WITH one fi­nal ef­fort, she hauled her­self out of the olive grove. She lay qui­etly in the long yel­low grass, weak­ened by the heated rit­u­als of the past few days.

De­spite her own late ar­rival, she had man­aged to find an equally late part­ner, and had now buried their fer­tilised eggs.

With luck, the hun­gry bad­gers and beech martens that came sniff­ing in the night would not de­tect them be­low the sur­face. Be­yond bury­ing her eggs, there was noth­ing more she could do to pro­tect them. It was time to go. Ahead lay the long, ar­du­ous jour­ney back to the for­est, where the canopy of leaves would shield her from the des­ic­cat­ing sum­mer sun.

The open, man-made olive grove might be per­fect for her de­vel­op­ing em­bryos but it was no good for her. Shade is a tor­toise’s ally and she would seek it out and rest wher­ever she could.

Five thou­sand me­tres above the olive grove, Tony Allen and I were de­scend­ing on our flight from Lon­don to Mar­seilles. At the air­port we picked up a car, stowed our film­ing gear and headed east to­wards the lit­tle Proven­cal town of Le Luc, a leisurely two-hour drive into the moun­tains of the Mas­sif des Mau­res, over­look­ing the blue Mediter­ranean Sea. It was hot, even for the end of June, the re­lent­less mu­sic of ci­cadas fill­ing the air.

Close to Le Luc, we fol­lowed the in­struc­tions on our sched­ule to the front gates of a hideous tourist ho­tel. We­had been booked into this piped-mu­sic mon­ster by a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant who knew ex­actly how much we had to spend: our daily BBC rate for the south of France. But one look was enough.

We can­celled our reser­va­tion and drove down into Le Luc. A gen­darme on traf­fic duty, slightly agi­tated by our dis­rupt­ing his work with ques­tions about places to sleep, dis­patched us to a nar­row side street where, not see­ing any­thing even re­motely ho­tel-like, we as­sumed we had drawn a blank. But then a door opened and a mid­dle-aged man stepped out on to the pave­ment.

We made eye con­tact, held, per­haps, a lit­tle longer than nec­es­sary, as though each of us was ex­pect­ing a re­sponse to ex­plain the other’s pres­ence.

Fi­nally, I asked if he knew of a ho­tel nearby. He smiled. He was the ho­tel, the door be­hind him its front en­trance. Were we, by any chance, look­ing for some­where to stay? I ex­plained that we were here for a week and that we would, if pos­si­ble, like to stay in his ho­tel un­til next Sun­day, when we would be fly­ing back to Lon­don.

He stroked his chin thought­fully. Yes, but there was one lit­tle prob­lem. His ho­tel was for travel- ling sales­men, so it was open on only four nights of the week, Mon­day to Thurs­day.

Ev­ery Fri­day he re­turned to his fam­ily in Paris for the week­end. To­day be­ing Mon­day, he had just ar­rived from the north to be­gin an­other short week’s work. June was al­ways a busy month for him but he could fit us in for four nights if we didn’t mind shar­ing a room — with each other, of course.

Our first thought was that we should take up his of­fer and look around for some­where else to stay for the week­end. But he beat us to it. We were (he now beamed as though he had j ust solved the rid­dle of the uni­verse) wel­come to stay un­til Sun­day morn­ing. He would leave us a front door key to post through the letter box when we left; we could eat all our meals at the lit­tle bistro not 50m away. He would also leave us the key to his wine cel­lar and we were to put the money for what­ever we con­sumed into the box by the cash reg­is­ter. There were no fixed prices, just an ad­e­quate amount would do.

By early evening we had un­packed and were con­fronting our favourite French meal: steak, frites, salad, bread and red wine.

The next morn­ing we were to meet the on-the-spot tor­toise ex­pert, Bernard Devaux, in the square of a lit­tle vil­lage high up in the sun-bleached hills of Provence. Bernard was puz­zled. He wanted to know why we had come look­ing for mat­ing tor­toises in the mid­dle of June. The peak time for this ac­tiv­ity was the slightly cooler month of May. There might still be strag­glers, of course, but we had missed the real ac­tion by weeks.

This was em­bar­rass­ing. I had cho­sen this par­tic­u­lar week be­cause the ex­pert in Eng­land had told me that the tor­toise-mat­ing would con­tinue un­til at least the end of June. The olive grove Bernard was to show us was the of­fi­cial study site and we had been as­sured of find­ing enough tor­toises to con­struct our se­quences in just a few days.

Early in 1986, in the BBC can­teen in Bris­tol, I had bumped into Ian Swing­land, for whom, 10 years pre­vi­ously, as an un­der­grad­u­ate, I had car­ried out a proj ect on rooks around Ox­ford. Over cof­fee, I had told him that I was mak­ing a film about an­i­mal de­ci­sion-mak­ing and he im­me­di­ately of­fered his own re­search for con­sid­er­a­tion. Ian was work­ing with Her­mann’s tor­toises in the south of France. As with other rep­tiles, the eggs of these tor­toises hatch as males or fe­males ac­cord­ing to the tem­per­a­ture at which they have been in­cu­bated.

But if the fe­males buried and aban­doned their eggs to be kept warm by the sun, how could the sex ra­tio of the whole pop­u­la­tion be main­tained at 50:50?

The key ques­tion for Ian was whether each clutch pro­duced an equal num­ber of males and fe­males or whether half the clutches pro­duced all fe­males and the other half all males. Ei­ther way, the sex ra­tio would re­main the same. To help an­swer his ques­tion, Ian needed to know if in­di­vid­ual fe­males were ge­net­i­cally pro­grammed to choose sunny or shady places, or how, if this were not the case, there was suf­fi­cient tem­per­a­ture vari­a­tion within each nest to ac­count for the dif­fer­ent sexes.

It sounded like an in­trigu­ing piece of an­i­mal de­ci­sion-mak­ing and I was happy to in­clude it in the film. We had noth­ing else planned for the mid­dle and end of June, so the date was set. Tony and I would film tor­toises mat­ing, dig­ging their shal­low nests and then bury­ing and aban­don­ing their half­dozen or so eggs.

Had Tony and I man­aged to find j ust a few of the mat­ing tor­toises we had been promised, we would have cov­ered the se­quences well enough. But, as it turned out, we spent five days scour­ing the olive grove to no avail. Tor­toises are just a lit­tle slower, a lit­tle more con­spic­u­ous and a lit­tle less both­ered than other crea­tures we have filmed. Had they been there, we would have found them.

Tues­day be­came Wed­nes­day, be­came Thurs­day and then Fri­day. And still noth­ing.

The heat and the end­less rat­tling of the ci­cadas were in­tox­i­cat­ing, dream-like, blur­ring the edges as we wan­dered to and fro with man­tids, shrikes, lizards and snakes all around.

Late on the Satur­day af­ter­noon, we gave up and made our way back to the car. I sat be­hind the steer­ing wheel of the Mercedes parked at a pre­car­i­ous an­gle 40m from the track lead­ing into the olive grove. Tony packed his last cam­era case into the boot, closed the door and gave the all­clear. I started the en­gine, put the car into re­verse and en­coun­tered a slight re­sis­tance, fol­lowed by a sud­den, sharp bang. A punc­ture on this un­even ground, with the equip­ment stowed, the shad­ows be­gin­ning to lengthen and both of us feel­ing de­pressed about the se­quence that didn’t ex­ist.

I switched off the en­gine, opened the door and went round to join Tony. He was al­ready kneel­ing by the near­side rear wheel, hold­ing his head in his hands.

There was no punc­ture. Just the ex­ploded shell of what may have been the very last tor­toise to bury its eggs in the olive grove that year. The same one, per­haps, who hauled her­self away not long be­fore our plane came down from the clouds a few days ear­lier. But now her eyes were closed and her head lay gen­tly on a small rock to one side of the tyre that trapped her bro­ken body.

Her job done, her buried eggs des­tined to hatch as both males and fe­males, she had been rest­ing nearby when we parked early that morn­ing and cre­ated an­other bit of shade to help her jour­ney back to the for­est. This is an edited ex­tract from Man­groves and Man-Eaters and Other Wildlife En­coun­ters by Dan Free­man (Whit­tles Pub­lish­ing, $39.95); avail­able via In­books: in­books.com.au.

TOM JELLETT

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