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

Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor