The Truck and the Tortoise: an excerpt from Dung Beetle Soap Opera

Preview time! The following is a snippet (because I adore the word ‘snippet’) from my next book, ‘Dung Beetle Soap Opera.’


different day, different tortoise…


“How cute is that? Look! We’re being charged by a tortoise!”

Yep. I was right. We were indeed being charged by a tortoise. A leopard tortoise to be exact. You’d be amazed at how quickly they can ‘run’ when they want to. In this case, the tortoise wanted to move because we’d suddenly pulled up to a dam in those hottest few minutes of the day, thus indadvertedly presenting the tortoise with an irresistible piece of shade.  Before I’d even brought the vehicle to a stop he was racing for us and the cover we promised. It was sweet.

“He’s gone under!” a guest observed as the tortoise slid from view and disappeared under my driver’s side door of the Land Cruiser.

We all moved instinctively to the left side of the vehicle expecting the tortoise to reappear again and make his way down to the dam. He didn’t. Minutes past and it became obvious that he’d made himself quite comfortable down there. It felt good to be of some assistance in providing the tortoise with some shade, but we couldn’t spend our whole game drive parked with a tortoise underneath us. I couldn’t safely move away either. The prospect of crushing him wasn’t one I wanted to entertain. Until he moved, we couldn’t move.

“I think that turtle’s gone to sleep, Ella,” another of my guests offered. “How you gonna get him out?”

Turtle. Ugh. Not a turtle. The names ‘turtle’ and ‘tortoise’ still get used interchangeably, but I can’t blame anyone for that. When I became a guide, I learned for the first time that the critters I’d been calling ‘turtles’ my whole life aren’t actually turtles at all. As a child, I even kept a collection of pet turtles. Except they weren’t turtles. It seems my mom had it right all along. At the time I thought a ‘terrapin’ was just the European way of incorrectly referring to turtles. I’d snap at her every time she talked about my little friends as ‘terrapins.’ “They’re NOT terrapins! They’re TURTLES!” at which point I’d storm out of the room like only a nine year old could.

Nope, they were terrapins.

From now on, let’s start calling them all by the correct names. Here’s how: Firstly, everything that we would describe as a ‘turtle’ belongs to the order chelonii. Within the chelonians, there are three distinct families, the tortoises, the terrapins and of course, the turtles.

So… turtles. Good place to start. A ‘turtle’ is what we’d call a sea turtle. Living in our world’s oceans with their giant flippers. Think Finding Nemo. Most of us will never get the chance to see a real turtle in the wild.  They’re divine.

But we’re much more likely to meet a tortoise. A tortoise lives on the land and just as in cartoons, it can pull its head and limbs safely within the confines of its shell – something a turtle can’t do. Instead of having flippers, it has sharp claws which give it traction as it moves across the land. Tortoises are very common in South Africa, where we have fourteen species of them. However, you’re most likely to see the uber-common leopard tortoise. Like the one sitting under my car.

Now on to the terrapins. One of the easiest ways to make a quick distinction between a tortoise or a terrapin is to look at where it is. Is it on the land? Tortoise. Is it in a body of freshwater? Terrapin. But not always. Leopard tortoises have been known to swim if they really need to and all terrapin species move across the land from time to time looking for better food or water. So failing that method, look at their feet. You can’t go wrong with their feet. Both have claws, but the terrapin’s feet are webbed. It’s a bit sad to think you can’t call them turtles anymore, isn’t it? Teenage Mutant Ninja Terrapins? Doesn’t really work…

So there you have it; three different chelonians adapted to three different lifestyles. Tortoises on land, terrapins in fresh water and turtles in saltwater.

I explained these distinctions to my guests. It took a bit of practice, but they got it in the end. Hopefully they’d never call a tortoise a ‘terrapin’ again…

That addressed, now I could get on to the matter at hand. How I was ‘gonna get him out….’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s