Travel Long Haul: Things are stirring in the swamp

Florida's Everglades are a haven of indigenous culture and rare wildlife, but don't forget the mosquito repellent.

Darkness had fallen and the steady pitter-patter of rain on the car gradually became heavier as we drove along the Tamiami Trail. Yet curiously the road ahead was bone-dry.

These were no raindrops. It was raining insects, so rich in such creatures are the huge swamps of the Big Cypress National Preserve. Vast numbers of flies, bees and moths were hitting the windscreen by the dozen.

The thought that mosquitoes were high on the mortality list gave me a perverse pleasure. We had made the mistake, earlier in the day, of attempting a walk among the swamp cypress trees common in this southern part of Florida's enormous Everglades marshes.

My intention had been to photograph some of the showy bromeliads or air plants, flowering scarlet on the branches of the trees. No chance.

We were barely 10 yards from our vehicle when clouds of mosquitoes descended, forcing our rapid retreat to the car, where we spent much of the next hour swatting them.

The Miccosukee Indians, around 500 of whom still live in these swamps on land allocated belatedly to them by the Federal Government, knew a thing or two about how to protect themselves from the piercing mandibles of mosquitoes.

Or so we were told when we visited the Indians village-cum-mini-theme park on the Tamiami Trail, now US41, less than 25 miles west of Miami. Their traditional dress, known as a Big Shirt, covered them from head to toe. It was woven thickly enough to deter a hungry mosquito's mouthparts. Even the wearer's hands were drawn up under it for protection.

That's why, in the photographs of traditionally garbed Miccosukees in their village museum, they appear armless and handless. There are still a few who dress traditionally, we were told, but they are rarely seen. The closest we came was a collection of photos from the 1930s.

Descendants of the Miccosukees who escaped the compulsory march in the mid-1800s along the pitiful Trail of Tears west of Oklahoma, still preserve their culture and their independence.

They have their own schools, their own health department and their own police force, complete with Miami Vice-style cars distinguishable only by the words "Miccosukee Police".

Most of the Indians income, these days, comes from a huge gambling complex further north.

The traditional village is run almost entirely by white people ("Miccosukees don't mix a lot and keep themselves to themselves," we were told). It is more exhibit than community. However, a few Indians, most of them making wooden crafts, apparently sleep there in their "family living chickees".

The chickee is the centre of Miccosukee home life, even though the main village, a few miles further west on the 41, consists of neat, concrete block houses with all the up-to-date conveniences.

We learnt that most Miccosukees retain a cooking chickee: a small, wood- framed building open to the breeze to keep cool (and mosquito-free), whose centre-piece is a cypress log fire. This is left in a constant state of smouldering: a symbol of eternal life. Chickees are roofed with palm leaves. A living chickee - much the same in appearance - has no fire but a large table to work on during the day and to sleep on at night. It wouldn't, after all, be a long-lived Indian who simply slept on the ground - unpredictable water levels and abundant alligators need to be taken very seriously.

Hereabouts, Miccosukees - and whites - have converted some alligators into a rather tasteless "attraction", billed as alligator wrestling. It is a kind of macho-man-overcomes-dangerous-beast entertainment, advertised on billboards erected along this main highway across southern Florida.

We watched a heavily-built (a prerequisite, I suppose) Miccosukee start an alligator show. Selecting one out of three or four captive alligators, he hauled all eight feet of it backwards by the tail on to the sand-covered wrestling area. Timing it carefully, he pounced on top of the creature - from behind, naturally - before clamping its jaw closed, sitting astride the beast and, finally, letting it go again. Rapturous applause. A rather banal form of entertainment we thought. The alligator toddled back into the water to join its mates.

Across the road, we took an airboat ride for a mile or so across the vast swamp, skittering on top of the shallow water over sawgrass, flowering water lilies and a plethora of other marsh plants. Occasionally we flushed out a large blue heron or a small, all-white snowy egret as we roared along. The dark-coloured snail kite, one of the Everglades' rarities, a bird that would give twitchers apoplexy, seemed to be in abundance. We must have clicked up at least half a dozen on our airboat ride.

This particular airboat was operated by a young Miccosukee man. All airboats, he explained, are horrendously noisy, propeller-driven craft, which inevitably damage the marsh vegetation. Conservationists don't give them their blessing. But then, because the Miccosukees no longer use dugout cypress logs to punt through these shallow waters, there is no other way to get off the beaten track.

Apart from canoes, that is. These can be hired in a few places. However, we decided to give canoeing a miss - because of a combination of the dread of mosquitoes and the proximity of alligators when you are that low in the water. They may only eat once a week but when you've seen those teeth, and heard the thud of that powerful jaw clamping shut, a shiver of anxiety can set in awfully easily.

We saw any number of them lounging in the Tumer River - in fact an overgrown canal - when we drove, very slowly because there was so much to see, around the 12-mile Turner River Trail, a circular route in Big Cypress on the north side of the 41. At one of the many stops I watched a few glossy ibis feeding in the muddy shallows a few yards along from an elegant great blue heron which was standing motionless in the water. A few alligators soaked up the sun, either on the banks or near some striped terrapins, lying low in the dark waters with only the tops of their heads and their eyes clearly visible. It was better watching than Wildlife on One, I thought.

This is indeed an amazing place. Protected by the Federal Government, it consists of 2,400 square miles of open, sedge-filled marsh - what the Indians called Pa hay-okee, or grassy water - and vast areas of pond cypress and other trees which flourish abundantly in the wet swamps. They are laden with curtains of grey-green Spanish moss, bromeliads and all sorts of orchids which use the trees as a foothold and get all their sustenance from rainwater. Between May and October at least 60 inches of water fall here, mostly in heavy thunder showers.

Under permit, a certain amount of hunting, fishing and trapping is allowed; so are licensed airboats and four-wheel drive swamp buggies, but only on certain routes. However, apart from the sheer exhilaration of skimming over the marsh in a deafening airboat, you will see far more wildlife if you walk (or canoe) the various waymarked trails.

Just don't underestimate the biting capability of the mosquitoes when you do.

Fact File

GETTING THERE: British Airways (0345 222111) and American Airlines (0345 789789) both fly from Heathrow and Gatwick to Miami. BA also flies from Gatwick to Orlando and also to Tampa. Virgin Atlantic (01293 747747) flies Manchester-Orlando, Gatwick-Orlando and Heathrow-Miami.

Lowest fares are likely to be available through discount agents; they will also be able to offer connections on US airlines from other UK airports and to alternative Florida destinations.

There are also plenty of charters from Gatwick, Manchester and other UK airports to Sanford and Orlando.

Space Coast - the final frontier: Florida's Space Coast Office of Tourism is well-organised, with a freephone number from Britain(0800 897 578), or visit the web site at www.space-coast.com

You can also call Nasa's launch line (001 407 867 4636) or visit Nasa's extensive websites.

A limited number of Launch Viewing Car Passes allowing you to drive onto the Space Center and watch the lift-off are available. Write several months in advance to NASA Visitor Services, Mail Code: PA PASS, Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899. Around 1,500 Launch Viewing Opportunity tickets to board buses to the official site go on sale ($10) five days prior to launch. They can only be purchased in person at the KSC visitor complex ticket pavilion, open 9am-5pm, seven days a week. Outside KSC, the prime viewing sites are inland along Highway 1 and the Indian River in Titusville, and along Highway A1A in Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach.

Forthcoming Shuttle launches:

29 October, 2pm: Discovery - John Glenn returns to space

9 December, 10.09pm: Endeavour - second flight of International Space Station

14 January, 7.26am: Atlantis - third flight of International Space Station

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