Dewees Island: Safari on the Beach

Ever since moving back to the United States, our travel schedule has slowed waaaay down. Partly due to the fact that we couldn’t very well financially sustain the frenzy, but also because there seemed to be no place to go that could even come close to what we’d seen and done in Africa. I mean, how can you top silently gliding into the sunrise on a mokoro, a type of dugout canoe, expertly steered by your Tswana guide who is setting out to spot the rare Pel’s Fishing Owl native to the Okavango Delta? What can be more memorable than waiting submerged in a cage tied to the side of a boat in the freezing Atlantic near Cape Town, teeth, chattering, waiting for the Great White Shark to make another turn to pass right in front of your face?

And yet, we may just have hit on the perfect American equivalent to our beloved safaris, featuring all the elements of our forays into the bush: A remote location, endless drives on bumpy paths, an abundance of wildlife, cheeky tree-dwellers stealing your food, and gorgeous sunsets.

It was all put together rather hurriedly. Christmas vacation had rolled around and we were faced with two weeks of kids housebound, when Noisette became slightly panicky: How to survive without going somewhere to get out of the house? Which was when I remembered that my friend Judy, who lives on Dewees Island near Charleston, SC with her family, had invited us repeatedly to come visit over the course of last year. As it’s a 9-hour drive to get there from Tennessee, I hadn’t paid all that much attention, but considering that the nearest Gulf Coast beaches are seven hours away from us, it seemed entirely feasible. And when it turned out our longtime friends from North Carolina were going to spend a few days there over New Year’s, a plan was hatched for us to join in the fun. The house was already full of company, but since Judy very conveniently is also the owner of Dewees Island Real Estate, we were booked into Marshview Cottage more or less within the blink of an eye and hardly any effort on my part at all. A dream vacation if there ever was one – you might remember my perfectionist tendencies usually have me exhaustively analyzing and comparing vacation destinations for months.

Dewees Island marshes
Banoka Bush Camp, Botswana, April 2012
Dewees Island turtle show and tell
Kitara Camp, South Africa, New Year’s 2011/2012
Dewees Island bald eagle on osprey platform
Savuti Camp, Botswana, April 2012
Alligator skeleton at Dewees Island Nature Center
Elephant skull, Banoka Bush Camp, Botswana, April 2012
Unseasonal rainfall on Dewees Island
Unseasonal rainfall in Waterberg, South Africa, Easter 2010
Sunrise on Dewees Island; photo credit: J. Fairchild
Sunset on Zambezi, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, March 2011

I was immediately struck by the similarities between Dewees and some of our African safari destinations. As you can see above, the parallels to some of the pictures I dug up from my archives are striking. Of course I cheated a bit by not digging up any lion, hippo, leopard, zebra, or giraffe pictures, which I would have been hard pressed to hunt for on a South Carolina barrier island, private or otherwise. But you get the idea.

Much like when you arrive at a game lodge in the bush, you are instantly transported into another world when arriving on Dewees Island. It’s not the fact that it is remote – it really isn’t, you can easily leave your house, catch the ferry to Isle of Palms and make your way to downtown Charleston in less than an hour – but that life there is much more laid back.

First of all, there are no cars. No maneuvering out of parking spaces, no traffic, no traffic lights. Just a sandy path through moss-hung trees and a golf cart awaiting you at the dock. By the time you arrive, chances are you’ll already have watched a beautiful sunset over the marsh or had some dolphins swim alongside the ferry, so that you’ll feel like you’ve left your busy life far behind, ready to operate on Island Time.

Island Time means you might start your day on your porch sipping tea and taking in the view. If you’re a birder you’ll be thrilled. From egrets to herons and pelicans and even a rare nesting bald eagle on an osprey platform, you will have more than enough to train your binoculars on. I admit that in our case the porch sitting part lasted not more than two seconds, because an unusual cold spell, even for winter, had us all bundled up in down coats with our ears falling off. But I already can’t wait to return in the spring or summer for some balmy evenings listening to a cacophony of crickets all around.

We took the kids to the nature center next to the ferry dock and learned all sorts of things from our realtor-cum-nature-guide, Judy. We looked at shells of lobsters and horseshoe crabs and learned that they shed their shells as they grow, leaving behind a succession of outgrown ones much like a Russian nesting doll. We heard about the Red Knot, a tiny bird that makes the long journey from Patagonia to the Arctic twice a year and chooses this precise location for its midway stop while feasting on horseshoe crab eggs, leaving them much decimated in numbers. We took a good look at Bucky the alligator or rather its skeleton and were sort of glad that this time of year alligators are hibernating.

We were advised to never leave any food outside or screen doors open. Apparently, racoons are to Dewees what baboons are to Africa, and memories of our last run-in with those guys involving apples and ceiling fans were enough to make us slavishly follow Judy’s advice. In an interesting aside, racoons, together with rats, bobcats, and deer, are among the animals that survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, because they can all swim. Squirrels do not, which is why you won’t find them on Dewees.

We learned about the turtle program on Dewees, which is an effort to protect Loggerhead turtle nesting grounds during the summer months. We learned about a variety of seashells while Sunshine was busy collecting the biggest and most beautiful ones she has ever seen. And we learned a little bit of the history of the island. We learned all of this while Judy tirelessly drove us all over the island, not in an open Landrover but rather in a golf cart, and she might be driving us still had we not eventually bailed due to the rapidly dropping temperatures.

The newly-minted Dewees polar bears (and dogs), January 1, 2014

We even went to the beach, in the dead of winter, to have a polar bear swim. Although when I say “we” what I really mean is that some crazy people dove into the freezing ocean while I, sensibly, opted to take their picture. In hindsight their choice of day wasn’t altogether bad, as the temperature dropped from about 15 degrees Celsius that day to below freezing the next in what was the first sign of a record breaking deep freeze all over the United States. Normally, or so I’m told, Dewees has the mildest of winters, as evidenced by a very balmy 27 degrees Celsius at Christmas just a few weeks earlier.

That’s the kind of weather I’m hoping for the next time we are there.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Dewees Island, check out this guide Judy wrote: Inspired by Nature: Dewees Island.

Contact details:
Dewees Real Estate
Judy@DeweesRealEstate.com
Phone: 843-882-5052

I am currently writing a book about my Kilimanjaro adventure, if you are interested to learn more please visit my author website to keep posted about the publishing schedule and further details.