A safari on a critter-filled 'river of grass'

In Florida swamps, families can learn about Seminoles and cozy up to alligators

Destination: The South

April 27, 2003|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,Sun Staff

Eerie sounds of the swamp floated through the warm, quiet night -- wailing, hooting, clicking, splashing -- as we lay in our bunks under the thatched palmetto roof of the darkened hut.

"I want to sleep in the van!" demanded my teen-age daughter Katie. Her protest was echoed by Kerrie to her parents in the shelter next door -- and by other kids who had listened to the ominous warnings of Charles, our campfire storyteller at Billie Swamp Safari here in the heart of Florida's Everglades.

Whether as required legal disclaimer, or to heighten the sense of adventure, he cautioned overnight visitors to check under pillows for snakes or scorpions, to keep sheets off the floor from climbing rodents and to latch the screen door against wandering bears or other critters.

"Other critters" was readily understood as alligators, for this 2,000-acre preserve of the Seminole Indian nation on the Big Cypress Reservation is up to its eyebrows in alligators of all sizes. They swim wild in the muddy, grassy waters just behind our chickee (chick-EE) hut, which is raised on cypress poles for modest protection.

The flashlight stayed on for hours before a welcome rainstorm cooled the night and encouraged sleep, and we awoke refreshed without intrusion.

In the daylight, however, we watched with renewed excitement the armored reptiles gliding ever so lazily just outside the perfunctory wire fence that separates the row of native-style guest accommodations from the permanent denizens of the swamp.

Water buffalo languidly ate grasses, and egrets and heron carefully stalked fish in the shallow waters, seemingly unconcerned by the gators.

Deeper in the interior forest of sabal palm, cypress and sawgrass, wild razorback hogs and shaggy bison and an occasional endangered Florida panther roam along with imported African ostrich, European fallow deer and Indian black buck antelope.

Billie Swamp Safari, located halfway across Alligator Alley (Interstate 75) and then 20 miles north on Route 833 into the Seminole reservation, draws more than 200,000 visitors a year, more than half of them from overseas.

Visitors can come for the day to explore the Everglades by airboat or swamp buggy, stroll the nature boardwalk, enjoy the reptile show and crocodile pit, view exotic birds and sample traditional Indian foods. Overnight guests can sleep in a chickee and tour the swamp by searchlight.

It's fun and exciting, and educational in its own way. There's no preachy, don't-touch, purist attitude of some nature preserves, no programmed animatronics or humans in animal costumes as at amusement parks. No asphalt parking lot and limited paved walkways, but a comfortable, entertaining access to the natural wonders of the Everglades.

Riding a swamp buggy

Transported by giant swamp buggies and deafening airboats, visitors can experience a unique blend of ecotourism, Native American culture and some admittedly corny patter from enthusiastic guides.

The seemingly inhospitable swamp has been home to the Seminole people for centuries, where they survived repeated campaigns of the U.S. Army and other land grabbers and endured as the only tribe never to sign a treaty with the government.

A bouncing, yet surprisingly quiet ride in a swamp buggy through the flooded cypress forest exposes guests to a new view of the "river of grass." The buggy is a custom-made contraption of school bus seats on a truck chassis mounted on huge tractor tires that afford the necessary 6 feet of ground clearance.

Our guide, Sherry, explained how the Seminoles wisely adapted to this environment -- rubbing on dog fennel as mosquito repellent, cooking heart of palm tree as vegetable, grinding wild coontie (arrowroot) as flour for fry bread, making leggings of palm leaves for protection from snakes. Dugouts carved from cypress logs were poled through the waters in the wet season, chickees were erected quickly and simply from palm and cypress to allow for quick relocation in the face of threat.

And the abundant Everglades alligators were a source of food for the people, rather than vice versa.

Alligator on the menu

Visitors can dine on alligator tail today in the Swamp Water Cafe, along with frog legs, catfish and Seminole fry bread. (Less curious diners can still find hamburgers, grilled cheese and the soup-and-salad bar.) The air-conditioned restaurant and bar is particularly popular in the hot, humid summer months.

At the gift shop, one can buy souvenirs, beadwork, books and preserved alligator heads, reportedly from animals that died of natural causes.

In fact, a day at the Safari teaches that these ancient reptiles typically shy away from humans, though it is never prudent for people -- or pets -- to tempt them.

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