Where Nature Lives

Ron Toft goes on safari at the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in Florida swamp country

Eerie, pinpoint flashes of light lanced the all-embracing darkness as driver-cum-tourist guide Mark Blanset brought the large, open-sided swamp buggy to a shuddering halt. We were, it seemed, in the middle of nowhere on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation to the north of Everglades National Park in Florida.

As Mark turned off the vehicle’s engine and headlights, I became mesmerised by the sounds of myriad unseen nocturnal creatures and those ephemeral, greenish lights, some of which emanated from barely visible trees and bushes and others from on or just above the ground.

“They’re lightning bugs,” he finally told me, breaking the human silence. “When I was little and lived in Alabama, these bugs used to swarm all over the place at night. We would catch them, put them in a jar and use them as a lantern. Ten or 12 of them are very bright. The thing is, you can’t tell when they are going to turn on or off! They are black and maybe the size of a housefly. If you are driving along the road and these bugs hit your car at exactly the time they light up, they leave a glowy residue on the windshield.”

Mark, I soon discovered, was full of fascinating facts, and I had him all to myself, for I was the only passenger on this particular night swamp buggy tour organised by the Kissimmee Billie Swamp Safari & Wilderness Village, which is located about an hour’s drive from Fort Lauderdale on the east coast. It was a memorable 90-minute trip through wide-ranging and often bumpy terrain.

All manner of animals were caught in the glare of the buggy’s headlights in this untamed wilderness where the Seminole Indians took refuge from the Wars of Removal in the 1800s. Razorback hogs snorted as they wandered nonchalantly in front of the vehicle, while others slept fitfully in dustbowls at the side of the trail. Nearly beyond the range of the lights I glimpsed a number of axis and sika deer and a solitary sable antelope. But what I wanted to see more of was Florida’s native wildlife — and I wasn’t disappointed.

As we trundled along another narrow trail, Mark suddenly stopped the buggy and pointed to a spot on the ground just in front of us. “What’s up?” I asked. “Look, there’s a whip-poor-will,” he whispered. At first I couldn’t make out anything, as my eyes struggled to adjust from darkness to brightness. Then I saw it — a cryptically coloured bird squatting motionless on the stony track.

More often heard than seen, whip-poor-wills are nocturnal insect-eaters. I thought Mark was joking when he told me “you can actually catch these birds if you keep a light on their eyes.” But he wasn’t joking. Thrusting a spotlight into my hands, he instructed me to shine it on the whip-poor-will as he climbed out of the vehicle and steathily moved closer and closer to the bird.

The glare from the lights prevented me from seeing what he was doing, but less than a minute later, and true to his word, he returned to the buggy pretty pleased with himself, for the bird was gently cradled in his hands.

“They are very easy to catch,” he said confidently. “My stepfather taught me how to do it when I was nine.” But then he admitted: “This was the first time I had ever tried it, and it was successful! The other guys will never believe me. You are my witness. It’s very quiet out here at night. Most of the time you can hear an owl or maybe two talking to each other, but more than likely you will hear a whip-poor-will. There’s always a whip-poor-will.”

Mark counts himself extremely fortunate in having seen one of the reservation’s rarest and most endangered inhabitants — a genuinely wild Florida panther. Known scientifically as Felis concolor coryi, the Florida panther is a sub-species of cougar. Found throughout the south-eastern United States until the late 1800s, this magnificent carnivore is now protected by the US Federal government. According to the National Park Service, there may be less than 30 left in the whole of Florida. One animal found dead in Everglades National Park contained enough mercury to be toxic to humans.

“We spotted the panther one night while I was still in training. It came within 25 or 30 feet of the buggy. I think I am one of only three guys to have actually seen a wild panther out here.”

Not surprisingly, I didn’t see or hear one during my buggy trip. I had to be content instead with viewing the village’s own panthers, all of which were raised in captivity.

What, I asked Mark, was the most unusual animal he had come across at night? I expected him to name another rarity. His answer came as a bit of a surprise. “It was a domestic cat — a yellow house cat, not a bobcat. It ran across the trail. I got out of the buggy and tried to catch it, but it acted like it didn’t want anything to do with us.”

Mark stopped the buggy several times during my tour, on one occasion disappearing briefly into the thick, tall vegetation bordering the trail. Upon his return, he showed me a grassy stem. “If you run your finger upwards, it kinda tickles, but if you do so downwards it can give you a nasty cut. That’s why it’s called sawgrass.” He carefully stripped the outer layers from the stem, explaining that part of the soft inside was very nutritious and, if necessary, it could keep me alive for up to two weeks.

Mark, who is well versed in local history, told me that when US soldiers used to chase the Seminoles into areas of sawgrass, the Indians protected their legs by wrapping sable palm leaves around them. “The soldiers didn’t know this. Wearing thin Army issue pants, they ran ten or 11 feet into the sawgrass and started getting cuts on their legs. They would camp around the sawgrass knowing there was no way out for the Seminoles unless they could fly.”

But it was the soldiers, not the Indians, who eventually started running out of food. Deep within the sawgrass, the Seminoles survived by eating sawgrass shoots. All they had to do was stay put until the soldiers were forced to leave.

Wildlife abounds on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, and there are various ways of seeing it. Visitors can go on a daytime or night-time swamp buggy tour, take a short but exhilarating airboat ride through a sea of grass or simply stroll around the village. I tried them all during my 24-hour stay. Sometimes I found wildlife without even trying, such as when I returned from my nocturnal buggy tour and discovered an industrious armadillo burrowing beneath an office building. Then I spotted a raccoon, that ubiquitous swamp dweller, foraging in the bushes.

Airboat rides seem an unlikely way of observing wildlife because of the noise they make. In fact, they create such a din that anyone travelling on one is given a set of earplugs. Wildlife, however, you most certainly do see, including a well-known local alligator called one-eyed Jack, who is extremely partial to dried dog food. The pellets thrown into the water by the airboat “pilot” are also snapped up by fish, wildfowl and big, iridescent blue-black birds called boat-tailed grackles.

The first airboat I went out on developed an engine problem and had to return to base. The second ran aground, so we all jumped out and helped push it back into the water. The ride itself was breathtaking.

Armed with binoculars, I spent several hours exploring the environment in and around the village and was surprised at how many birds I saw, the “best” in my books being the delightful red-winged blackbirds, cattle egrets, wood storks, white ibises and black vultures. The commonest and noisiest birds by far were nesting grackles.

The village has captive as well as wild creatures, the former including alligators, crocodiles, turtles, the previously mentioned panthers, a great horned owl and a herpetarium where a variety of both harmless and venomous Florida snakes can be seen in glass tanks, including the yellow ratsnake, the diamond back rattlesnake, and the beautiful but endangered indigo snake. The herpetarium is also the setting for reptile and amphibian shows.

When I visited the village in mid-April, towards the end of the dry season, I was the only overnight guest. As I lay in bed in absolute darkness, a cacophony of insect sounds filled the night air, but not a single bug breached the screen. Only once did I hear a rustling in the undergrowth outside, and that was probably a raccoon looking for discarded food or other easy pickings. As dawn broke, the insect chorus was superseded by an avian one.

Dining at the village’s Swamp Water Cafe can be as adventurous as you wish to make it: frogs’ legs, gator tail nuggets, swamp water shrimps, Indian fried bread, pumpkin bread and jalapeño peppers were on the menu while I was there. Having travelled thousands of miles from the UK, I couldn’t return home without having tried one of the local delicacies. I ordered gator tail nuggets which, I was assured by one of the café staff, had not come from any of the reservation’s own alligators. With a little trepidation, I tucked into the nuggets. They weren’t unpleasant, but I can’t say I really enjoyed them either. I found them rather chewy.

My visit was like stepping back in time to a bygone era when humans did not seek to dominate the environment of which we are an integral part, but lived in harmony with it. I left the reservation spiritually refreshed. Long may it be preserved just as it is now — a pristine wilderness where nature, not Man, rules supreme.