The city was built in the worst conceivable place: on the edge of a swamp. But the Frenchmen who established it saw its potential as a port,
giving access to the Gulf of Mexico one hundred river miles away. So they set about draining the land.
You can see that the place was constructed by engineers from the street-names: Canal Street, Rampart Street, Basin Street. The ground is so soft that the skyscrapers (yes, there are even skyscrapers in New Orleans) need 200ft deep pilings beneath them for support. The highest land is a 27ft hill
at the City Zoo, built entirely from dredged mud. The rest lies several feet below sea level, bounded to the south by the river, and to the north by the massive Lake Pontchartrain.
This being the deep South, there is a lot of history here too. During the Civil War a Confederate submarine was lost in these muddy waters and did not appear again for more than a decade. A mere 20ft long, the rusty hulk now rests at the corner of Jackson Square, in the heart of the French quarter, overlooked by the paddle steamers as they come wheeling in to the wharves which stretch all the way from the Old Brewery to Canal Street. Stand behind the levee and the ships appear to be at rooftop level.
And if the levee breaks? Who cares? Nobody seems very bothered down in New Orleans. The Corps of Engineers are taking care of that, aren't they? Most people seem more interested in sampling the pleasures of America's busiest port. Like the big guy covered in tattoos who came on board the streetcar with his scantily clad girlfriend. He leaned and whispered in her ear. I don't know whether or not she liked what he said, but she responded by whacking him hard where it hurts. He just rolled back and laughed. They sure are tough down there.
I had taken the St Charles Streetcar which heads west from Canal Street and out through the Garden district. Here are situated the huge antebellum houses built by the 'American' incomers who arrived following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, when Napolean sold the territory to the United States for dollars 15m. (They settled here because the creoles in the French quarter did not like them).
The gardens are fabulous. The climate here is so lush that grass grows between the rails of a streetcar line that operates day and night around the clock. Entire gardens look as though they are trying to escape out
on to the road. Giant arum lilies and bamboos push and shove at the cast-iron fences which surround the properties. Crooked fern-and-moss covered oaks force up the paving slabs, across which tiny lizards scuttle. These Louisiana Oaks are lovely, uninhibited specimens. (There is even a Live Oak Society to look after them.)
The Garden district is so quiet compared with the French quarter where live music belts out of almost every bar: one of the cast-iron fences had been manufactured to resemble corn-stalks, and to it was fixed a sign: 'On this site in 1897 nothing happened.' The streetcar returned and I arrived back at the riverside to find my wife in close company with the captain of a Mississippi paddlewheeler. They were just casting off.
There are many things to see from the river: revetments, plantation houses, sugar quays, even a battlefield. In the meantime I headed for the swamps. There are, of course, lots of swamps in Louisiana: I chose the one at Honey Island, mainly because I liked the name; the honey bees go there because they like the nectar.
The road to the swamp passes a Nasa industrial plant. It was here that the Saturn V booster and fuel tanks were made for the Apollo missions. They had one left over and it was on display inside the gate. It was large and impressive, but I could not help thinking that the redundant rocket would look better standing up instead of laying on its side.
Soon after that the road signs began to announce 'No driving on shoulder'; the ground was getting soft. This was bayou country. Bayou originates from the Choctaw Indian word for creek. And I was soon up one.
I used to live by a lake, and the only thing I did not like about it was that the water was always cold. Since then I have always had this daydream about sultry swamps on hot days, with dripping cypress trees dappling the sunlight, and methane bubbling up here and there. Maybe a landing stage and a small boat.
Well the Louisiana swamps are like this. But the day I was there, the very moment I stepped into an open boat, it began to rain heavily. I consoled myself with the thought that swamps require rain.
These swamps are actually hardwood forests that are flooded most of the time. There are no levees here and any landfalls are formed naturally: it's that sediment again. My guide was Gary Taylor, a third-generation swamp-dweller with a genuine Cajun twang. The open boat meant we could head deep into the swamp, ducking under low boughs, and entering remote bayous and sloughs (pronounced slews). Spanish Moss hung like grey beards from the branches, the cypress's knobbly knees stuck out of the water, herons flew by, and snakes lounged about.
Then Gary spotted an alligator. I did not. There are possibly half a million alligators in Louisiana, but I could not see even this one. Gary said that the hardest part of his job was getting people to see or think they see, the alligators.
I peered through the driving rain. Gary waited patiently. . . and at last I saw it. The top half of a long expressionless face gazing into the gloom. Could it do anything?
'Not today,' said Gary, 'they don't bother coming out when it's raining.' Can't blame them really.
We floated on, past wooden houses built on stilts at the end of the bayou. Weekend fishing camps, one with a romantic swinging seat suspended over the murky depths, another with a bike parked on the verandah. The last one had
a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig guzzling round the back. A sign said: 'Bay of pigs.'
Just when it was time to leave the sun came out. Back to New Orleans and Coops Diner in Decatur Street. 'Give me fried alligator,' I ordered, 'and make it snappy.'
Visitor's Fact File:
GETTING THERE: Thomas Cook Delta Airlines pounds 312 (inc airport tax)
Airport shuttle bus goes to any hotel for a flat fare of dollars 10.
Le Richelieu Hotel,
1234 Chartres St
Room rate dollars 105-dollars 120 for two people
They serve a fine Southern breakfast of eggs, grits, biscuits and coffee.
Honey Island Swamp Tours. dollars 40 including minibus
(504)-641-1769 or 242-5877
AQUARIUM: Aquarium of the Americas next to the river
has nasty sharks and two white alligators.
FOOD: Everywhere good Creole and Cajun cuisine.
For a change try Kolb's at the beginning of the St Charles Streetcar line for German
food served under 13 gigantic whirling fans driven by drivebelts and pulleys.
STREETCARS AND TROLLEYS:
dollars 1 flat fare as you board.
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