Gators, Gulf and Getting Cold (again)!

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January 26th 2009
Published: January 26th 2009
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Behind you!Behind you!Behind you!

Wild gators with no barrier between them and me, luckily they eat at night time...
I started this post just over a week ago when we were still in Mississippi but only had the chance to finish and publish it now that we're in Austin, Texas.

Howdy ya'll, it's been a while since our last post because we have been busy exploring Florida and cruising from one state to the next taking in civil rights, civil wars and several chain motels! M has done lots and lots of driving (and moaning about doing so - F. Like she never does! - M) and to make you all feel better, it's colder now that we've left south Florida and it's back to wearing my cardi and PJ's in bed (yes I know we're mad to leave the sunshine of Miami but we were bored of beaches!).
After leaving Miami we headed further south and explored the Everglades for several days, and it was utterly fantastic - the amount of wildlife we saw on our first day (especially birds) was unbelievable - the RSPB guys are gonna be sooo jealous, ospreys were nesting only feet away and other birds of prey/waders were everywhere, not to mention tons of gators, a few crocs and turtles! The first day we went from one place to the next along the main road that goes through the 'river of grass' and at the first stop we walked the Anhinga trail - within minutes we saw gators in the water only a few feet away, as well as birds galore, including anhingas - relatives of the cormorant (I think), and ibis, herons, egrets - I couldn't write my bird list fast enough! This was the most popular tourist trail and all this wildlife was in easy view of everybody. We spent a good while here, it really was like a zoo with all the wildlife only feet away. Further on, other stops included ponds with more birds (inc roseate spoonbills and belted kingfishers) or overlooks across the sweeping vista of grass, until we reached the southernmost point of the Everglades and the coast. Here we saw some American crocs (not the same as gators - crocs like salt water while gators are found in fresh) and too many ospreys/pelicans/vultures to count! We were told a bald eagle lived nearby too so we went hunting for it but alas it remained elusive - that would've been the icing on the cake. It was a full-on first encounter of the Everglades, not to mention darn hot, but by the end of the day we were still eager for more, so after a refreshing key-lime milkshake at the local store, we returned to the Anhinga trail for a night walk with the ranger. Although there was a large number of us in the group, it was easy to hear the noises of the various creatures at night, inc owls and frogs, and the splashing of water as nearby gators swam by. We even saw the wet outline of a gator that had been lying across our path minutes before we disturbed it. Needless to say we went home that night maxed out (and burnt!) so could only manage a takeaway from good ol' pizza hut and TV (This is also where F acquired her new addiction to LOST - M). On the second day, we went to a nearby gator farm, where they are bred for meat (we didn't try gator meat but reckon it tastes like chicken!), and saw gators of all ages and sizes, as well as holding a baby gator too. But the main draw here was going on an airboat ride through the river of grass, like what you see on TV shows with the big fan on the back. It was great fun, and the pilot was spinning the boat 360 in the water really quickly so everyone got at least a little bit soaked! The poor birds were taking off as soon as the boat approached, but it didn't seem to bother the wild gators, and it was very noisy so you had to wear ear mufflers. Afterwards, we returned to the Everglades and walked some more trails until the sun went down and the mozzies got too ferocious! In the evening, we resorted to dinner at Dennys, a cheap chain where three courses is only $6 (less than 5 quid)! We were up before dawn the next day to go on a free canoe trip with the ranger - the best way to see the Glades is on the water. The park was lovely and quiet as the sun came up - I wish I could get up as early more often! Needless to say the canoe trip was well worth the early rise - after me and M managed to get the hang of how to steer the bl**dy thing! I had done canoeing many years before but kinda forgot so whilst M was up front paddling I was supposed to be steering from behind, and I thought we'd never get out of the narrow mangrove tunnels as we bumped from side to side! After a few heated words with each other (and holding up the patient couple behind us) I managed to get the hang of it once again, and the rest of the trip was calm and serene (For some reason F wouldn't listen to me when I told her just to steer - M). We saw another croc and some birds but just paddling through the quiet waters was a joy. In the afternoon we tried to hike some more trails but it was so hot we stayed around the coastal area and saw a couple of manatees in the bay - another first to add to our wildlife list. We searched in vain again for the bald eagle but saw so many ospreys either nesting on top of the visitor centre or in nearby trees - an RSPB ABB! event ten times over! What was also great about our visits to the Everglades

Air boat ride
was that it wasn't too crowded cos we went midweek. In the evening we mustered up strength and treated oursleves to a proper nice dinner. All in all we had three full days at the Everglades and tried a variety of activities so we felt we had a good grasp of the special habitat and its wildlife, a welcome change from Miami and a definite highlight of the US so far.
Our next destination was even further south as we left mainland Florida and ventured to the Florida Keys, a string of islands connected by bridges and surrounded by crystal clear waters, feeling more like the Carribean than the US. Whilst M is driving along the road, what the heck do I think I spotted sitting atop a telephone pole??? Only a bleeding bald eagle!! Now the car was moving fast and we couldn't stop but I am 90% sure it was an eagle, pure white head and dark brown body...and I'd seen enough ospreys to tell the difference...anyway, it made me happy to finally see one, I think! We stayed on the island of Islamorada for a couple of nights in the cheapest motel we could find - Key
Canoe tripCanoe tripCanoe trip

This is the calm after the storm!
West (the last and most well known Island) was so much more expensive so we figured we'd just drive there instead. After checking in we drove to a nice beach (one of America's best apparently) at Bahia Honda state park and watched another great sunset from the nearby bridge. In the evening, to save dosh and get rid of some food we'd been carrying since our days at Koinonia farm, we made use of our in-room kitchenette and had tinned chilli and rice for dinner, yum yum. Glamourous this travelling malarkey is not! The following day we zoomed over to John Pennekamp marine park on Key Largo in time for the snorkelling trip - one thing the Keys are good for is snorkelling the nearby coral reefs. Whilst I opted for the real thing M decided to go for the glass bottom boat trip instead. We both saw lots of weird and wonderful coral as well as lovely bright tropical fish (including some Scuba divers we passed over, very 007 - M). I was in the water for about an hour using M's snorkelling gear, which I got him for xmas (I knew I'd use it first)! The water wasn't too cold and it was great to see the fish upclose, but unfortunately I was one of only two people in the group who missed the nursing shark that swam by! In the afternoon we drove all the way down, going across bridge after bridge (inc one of seven miles) to reach Key West - famous for being a laid back party town with a history of pirates and Ernest Hemmingway. The main drag was pretty cool - shops, bars, galleries etc - and we made sure to grab a beer in time to watch the sunset and accompanying celebration, which takes place every night (essentially various street performers, market stalls and tourists) (I was hoping for some chanting and weird druid stuff, but it was just like Covent Garden - M). We stuck around til evening time then made the long drive back to our motel. Perhaps it would've been nice to stay on Key West but to be honest it wasn't too dissimilar from party places like Miami or any other holiday destination in Greece/Spain (as in too many chavs - M). And there was too many tourists for my liking (FYI we are travellers, not tourists!).
Another great sunsetAnother great sunsetAnother great sunset

Seen from Bahia Honda state park in the Keys
we left the Keys (and the heat, I'm pleased to say!) and headed back up through the Everglades, stopping enroute at a different place to see gators even closer to us than they were before! (Shark Valley) We noticed the difference at the weekend - way more people and queues for parking spaces, but that didn't seem to bother the wildlife (guess they're used to gawking tourists and screaming kids). We drove cross-country towards the Gulf (west) coast of Florida, quieter and not so crowded, and stayed at a place called Anna Maria Island (halfway up the coast) for a couple of nights - apparently it's Florida like it used to be before Mickey and the roller coasters etc, with no high rises. This also meant it was a favoured spot with retired people and the accommodation that existed on the island was fairly pricey. However, we found a motel for under $100 with its own kitchenette, meaning a trip to the supermarket and 'home-cooked' food for the next couple of nights (pasta and toast) to save $$$. The island was definitely lovely and very different from south Florida - the beaches were pristine with white powdery sand and sand dunes, clear and calm water and a definite lack of people and beach paraphernalia. A shame the day we were there it was overcast but it meant we could do lots of walking along the beach and tour the small island on the free bus that ran from one end to the other. People were very friendly too, and we were probably the youngest visitors the island had seen for some time but that suited me fine, we were there to relax and not to party! One evening we decided to sit on the beach with a beer whilst the sun went down, nice and romantic right? Unfortunately, enroute to the beach, the Island's only probable homeless man/weirdo said something about the weather as we walked past, and me being nice and friendly replied. Little known to me he would then pursue us (slowly/drunkenly) all the way to where we were sitting and plonk himself down, even though I said we were having some 'quiet time' together! He then went on about his issues and found it quite amusing that I was gulping my beer down, thinking I was a woman who liked her drink (never) rather than wanting to
Is it lucky...Is it lucky...Is it lucky...

...for a gator to cross your path?
finish asap and move on! He didn't turn out too bad though, reckoned he was hiding from his girlfriend and liked going skinny dipping and getting spanked...we soon finished the beer. Despite this, the island was still quaint, and it was great to see the pelicans and terns diving in the water beside us as we walked along the beach. The next day was overcast again, with some rain, but it was okay cos we spent most of this driving northwards towards the panhandle of Florida. We did think briefly about going to Orlando, for the water park if nothing else, but we were never that bothered about Disneyworld, we'd already seen the real Florida! We overnighted in a town called Perry, with nothing too exciting to report, another cheap motel, though we did notice how much cooler it was. Why did we leave the Keys again?? The next day was very unplanned as we drove further west along Florida's Gulf coast for a scenic drive past beaches and through forest before deciding we'd had enough of the coast and duly headed north to neighbouring Alabama and its capitol Montgomery. Although Northwest Florida looked lovely and much less touristy than

An uncrowded beach on Anna Maria Island
the south, we felt we needed to see something different and perhaps more cultural. If I come back to Florida I'd def explore the panhandle more. Just before crossing the state line into Alabama we also passed Florida's highest point of elevation - an amazing 345 feet! We went to Montgomery because it is famous in Civil Rights history - the place where Rosa Parks, a black woman, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, which sparked mass protest and a bus boycott by the black community. Martin Luther King was involved in all of this and helped pave the way for him to go on and do greater things. We saw the places of interest in one day, inc a bus ride round the city for $1, and we were practically the only tourists in town! It was so cold though we did constantly keep asking ourselves why we had left Florida! But hearing the fantastic southern drawls of these southern states made it worthwhile. We then drove across further west to the state of Mississippi (3 states in 3 days ain't bad) and the town of Vicksburg on the
The wheels on the busThe wheels on the busThe wheels on the bus

M taking a ride on that bus with civil rights heroes
Mississippi river/delta. This town was the site of an important civil war battle, and we visited the huge battlefield and trenches, with an enthusiastic ranger telling us more than we could ever wish to know about why this battle was so important. In the evening we went to a recommended restaurant for some southern cooking and we were not disappointed - I had baked catfish and pecan beer whilst M had the more delicious fried chicken (way better than KFC - F, which I was forced to share - M) complete with fried bread and brown sugar (we later discovered the brown sugar was to put on the sweet potato but it sure tasted good on the fried bread!). The following morning we stuck around the town and explored its quaint and charming antebellum houses. We were also planning to go on a boat ride along the Mississippi, assuming it would be one of those huge paddle steamers (Huckleberry Finn-style) but on approaching the river and seeing nothing but this tiny flat-roofed motorised boat we changed our mind - it's gotta be the real deal or nothing at all! It wasn't all bad though as it meant we could instead

On the civil war battlefield in Vicksburg, Mississippi
watch the town's street parade in celebration of ML King day/Obama's inauguration, however, this only consisted of a couple of school bands and several cars, lasting all of 10 minutes. So it was onwards once more driving south along the Mississippi delta to the town of Natchez. We didn't see much of the town, arriving just before sunset, but it was another quaint and historic place by the river. We did go to the Biscuit and Blues cafe in the evening however, to get in the mood for our next big stop - New Orleans - which we were due to arrive in the next day. However, I'm going to stop right there and let M write all about The Big Easy and our subsequent journey to Texas in the next blog!

Additional photos below
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Steamboat on the riverSteamboat on the river
Steamboat on the river

Now that's more like it! Shame it's a casino...

27th January 2009

Wish I were there!! ........have fun guys, what an experience :-) xx
28th January 2009

a good read
Super account, brings it all to life. Keep it up! Chris
28th January 2009

Bet those RSPB boys are envious!
Hi Fi and M - the latest blog - about time too! What a great one though, it was so interesting; it was almost exhausting to read how much you had done. Look forward to the next episode. Everything fine here. Mum

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