Getting my African Safari Fix at Everglades National Park

Much has been said in the expat community about culture shock and its sneaky twin, reverse culture shock. Meaning you come home thinking you’re glad to return to all that is dear and familiar, and instead you find yourself desperately missing that crazy foreign land with all its bumps and warts.

I knew about that kind of culture shock. I thought I was prepared for it. But in all honesty, something much simpler afflicts the expat returned from Africa: You miss your safaris.

Perhaps I was particularly fortunate to have traveled so widely, and not everyone is as spoiled as I have been. When I think back to Africa, I think of a place where you can wake up to a baboon’s bark; take pictures of giraffes striding across an orange-streaked sky; or glide through the reeds in an ancient mokoro, steered by an almost as ancient Tswana guide, and watch elephants swim across the Okavango with their trunks held high for air. The more time goes by, the more glorious these images appear in my mind, and the harder it is to find something here that can live up to that experience.

Everglades National Park

What set these safaris apart was a combination of two things: breathtaking scenery and that jolt of adrenaline you experience when coming face to face with pointy teeth. And this, my friends, is precisely what I got treated to on a recent visit of Everglades National Park, about as far from Africa as you can be.

The scenery:

Everglades National Park
Exploring the Everglades by Airboat

The adrenaline:

It’s hard to believe I’d never been to the Everglades before, since I’ve been to Florida many times. But somehow we always ended up touring that other Florida attraction where, come to think of it, adrenaline is not in short supply either, and where you just as doggedly pursue your quarry for that perfect photograph as you do on an African safari, except you also ask it for a signature. (Somewhere in our basement, a collection of autographed princess pictures is gathering dust.)

Everglades National Park was established in 1934 to protect the dwindling wetlands of Southern Florida, and today only covers 20% of the original Everglades. And yet it is still the 3rd largest national park in the lower 48 states after Death Valley and Yellowstone. It’s the largest tropical wilderness in the United States and the largest wilderness area of any kind east of the Mississippi. It’s not only home to countless species of birds but also much more exciting creatures, like the Florida panther and the American crocodile. No, I’m not making a mistake. There are indeed crocodiles in the Everglades, though you probably won’t trip over one anytime soon, as they’ve only recently been taken off the endangered species list.

What you will, however, most likely trip over as soon as you enter the park, is the tail of an alligator. I was visiting my brother who’d made his temporary home in the Fort Myers area to escape the Northern European winter, and on our very first morning we drove to Shark Valley, one of four visitor centers for Everglades National Park. With untypical simplicity, we rented two bikes and set off along the path to the park’s interior. It was untypical in that all we had to do was leave our driver’s licenses at the window and grab a bike each. No complicated disclaimers to sign, no lectures about any dangers that might lurk, no warning signs admonishing us to take gallons and gallons of water. It felt like I was back in Africa.

alligator in Everglades National Park
It looks like it’s disappearing into the water, but in fact they were just laying there like that with their butts turned to the road.
biking in Everglades National Park
Same picture with bike so you can see how close we passed by them.

We hadn’t even pedaled one minute along the path to the observation tower deep inside the park, when I came to a screeching halt. I’d almost gone over what looked like the shredded rubber of an old truck tire sprawled on the side of the road. Instead, it was an alligator tail, its owner lazing in the sunshine with its head resting at the water’s edge. What excitement to park our bikes and take pictures with an actual alligator in the background! Back on the bikes we climbed and went on our way, only to stop again just 50 yards down the road, because here was an even bigger alligator. We soon realized we couldn’t possibly take pictures of every one of them, as they were simply everywhere. It was winter in Florida, and these gators were enjoying the warm sunshine outside of the chilly water.

As time went on, we got more cocky and walked right up to them to get a better shot. Except they are never really fully asleep. If you come too close, they open up one eye and follow your every movement. It’s a look that says “come one step closer and you’ll regret it, lady!” Most of them want to be left alone and will lumber into the water to get away, but I can tell you that the sudden movement of an alligator you thought was sleeping is enough to make you want to pee your pants.

If coming so close to a predator you could count his teeth wasn’t enough, then the sweeping landscapes of the Everglades did their part in transporting me back to Africa. To Botswana, to be precise. Like the Okavango Delta, the Everglades are essentially a vast river system covering a large area of land. You might think of either of them as a swamp if you’ve never seen them, but nothing could be further from the truth. The water is completely clear in both places; instead of stagnant like in a swamp, it moves surprisingly fast. The  difference between the two is that in Florida, the water travels all the way to the coast where it seeps into the ocean, whereas the Okavango Delta has no outlet, making it the largest inland delta in the world.

Another difference? The kinds of water-dwelling mammals you come across.

manatees in Fort Meyers area
Hippos in the Okavango, Botswana 2012
manatees in Fort Meyers area
Manatees in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida 2016. (Just to be clear, these manatee pictures were  not taken in the Everglades, though they do live in its coastal areas as well.)

I can highly recommend an outing to Everglades National Park. It’s a whole lot easier to get to than the Okavango Delta, but once you’re there, you’ll feel that same serenity, that sense of remoteness. And the sense of gratitude that your guide knows where the hell he is driving that boat.*

*Airboat rides are not offered inside Everglades National Park but there are many providers just outside the park gates.

If you’ve liked this post, you might also enjoy Dewees Island: Safari on the Beach.

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