The day of the tortoise
Odd goings-on in an olive grove in the south of France
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.