Photographs by Chris Marais
March and April are very busy times for tortoises. They’re on a mission to eat as much as possible, building up reserves for their annual winter hibernation.
And often, on their quests to gorge on succulents and soft grasses, they will cross roads – sometimes with disastrous consequences.
One cloudless day in March 2013, Chris and I were driving back to Cradock after a trip to Port Elizabeth and spotted a handsome leopard tortoise slowly trundling across the busy N10, just before the little town of Paterson.
Tortoise lovers that we are, we stopped to help it across, but then tragedy struck.
Unable to get to it in time because of a passing truck, we watched helplessly as a vehicle hit the poor tortoise head on. It bounced high in the air and when it hit the tar, the top of its shell sheared clean off, leaving its vulnerable organs open.
As I scooped it off the road, and the traumatised tortoise released a bladder-full of urine.
At the side of the road, Chris and I agonised over this poor animal, so beautiful one minute and so broken the next. Eventually we came to the conclusion that there was absolutely nothing we could do.
So we left the mortally wounded reptile at the side of the road in the shade. By nightfall, surely, it would have become part of the food chain.
Or so we thought.
All the way back to Cradock and several days after that we were depressed over that tortoise. We kept second-guessing our decision, wondering if we shouldn’t have tried to save it somehow.
For comfort I’d go and sit with Gordon, the leopard tortoise that lives in our garden, rescued from the dog over the road.
Fast forward several months, and our friend Ryno Ferreira, a Cradock-based property evaluator who roams far and wide every day of the week, mentioned he’d met an interesting woman in Somerset East.
“She fixes up tortoises that have been hit by vehicles,” he explained.
We pounced on the contact details he gave us. If we couldn’t save the Paterson tortoise, then at least we could put the word out so that others might be rescued. We owed the tortoise nation that much at least.
Gia de Goede, the tortoise lady in question, used to live in Hermanus but moved to Somerset East with her husband Andre in 2012.
Part of the reason for moving was because they are both crazy about fishing and were here every other month anyway with local flyfisherman Alan Hobson, seeking out trout and yellowfish in the waters around this heritage-rich Karoo town.
It was in Hermanus that Gia joined the Animal Welfare Society and immersed herself in the saving of all four-legged beasties.
This was where she learnt that a tortoise shell can heal. She worked out a way of covering the open parts with disinfected gauze or netting and creating a new ‘shell’ with Plaster of Paris or even Pratley putty.
The tortoise shell uses the new matrix to regrow. Within a year or two, you’d hardly realise how badly a shell had been injured.
Andre and Gia’s house in Paulet Street is full of animals. There are five dogs, seven cats, two naughty pigs and at least seven tortoises (with the requisite permits). Some have been injured and fixed up, while others are simply too small to survive the Karoo’s pied crows, which have learnt to crack open their shells by flying up in the air and dropping them.
Five other tortoises were recently been released onto a nearby farm.
These reptiles love Gia’s garden so much that they are mating and one has even laid eggs in the vegetable patch.
Apart from being avid fishermen, Andre and Gia are also keen bikers. In fact, on a few occasions, Gia has even tucked a wounded tortoise into a special bag on the Harley Davidson’s fuselage.
Armed with ginger beer and her homemade cookies, we sat under a shady tree in her backyard and confessed our tragic tortoise story.
“March last year?” mused Gia, as she passed us the plate of biscuits.
“What date? Do you know, Andre and I also drove up from Port Elizabeth on that day. I saw this leopard tortoise at the side of the road with its shell broken off and asked Andre to stop. We had a look at it and Andre said no, there’s nothing you can do. But I thought I must just try something.
“So I put it in a box and we brought it home with us. I used the gauze and the Plaster of Paris. And now it’s absolutely fine. You’d hardly even know if was injured except for a bit of white still on the shell.”
Could it be the same tortoise? Was this the miracle we’d hardly dared hope for?
Perversely, it was the only tortoise we couldn’t find that day. It had completely vanished (as they can) and was resting up in the garden undergrowth.
Months later, we dropped in again and we all slowly walked about Gia’s garden, hunting for the Paterson tortoise.
With a cry of delight, Gia found it, walking up near the hedge on the side of the driveway.
Was it the same one? Hard to say, but how could it not be? It was found on the same day, on the same route, and was the same size, the same species and had the same injuries.
And here it was, right as rain, hissing ungraciously as Gia picked it up. The remains of the Plaster of Paris were still white on its shell and there was a discernible line where the new part of the shell had grown.
Gia gave it an affectionate kiss on the nose before putting it down again to join the others.
Will the Paterson tortoise ever walk free again? Maybe one day, when Gia is completely convinced it is well, it will once again seek out succulents and mates in the Boschberg nature reserve.
I felt such relief at the happily-ever-afterness of the moment that I had to blink back tears. The tortoise, entirely oblivious, just trundled down the driveway and settled on the grass in the sun.
- Gia de Goede can be reached on cell phone number 083 226 0511 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) has an initiative called The Wildlife and Roads Project, which needs volunteers to help identify the roadkill hotspots of South Africa. For more information on this, click HERE.