02 December – Nice little jaunt today. Headed off to Merritt Island, the wildlife refuge attached to the Kennedy Space Centre. Got quite a surprise at the visitors centre! As we were doing their little boardwalk through the nearby swampy area came across an armadillo. Really weird little creature – about the size and shape of an american football. Grey and pinkish scales all over it’s body and a segmented middle section. A face like a rat but with pink scales, a nose like a pig and large elongated rounded ears. They are meant to be nocturnal so not quite sure what it was doing out during the day, but it was having a great time digging in the muddy areas. I didn’t have the camera so no cute pictures unfortunately.
On from the visitors centre and around the Black Creek Wildlife drive – only 3.5 miles but it probably took us the best part of 2 hours with the constant stops to observe the different bird life and also an alligator quite close-up.
On the way back to Titusville there was also a manatee viewing area, but the water had dropped a few degrees below the optimum 70F so they were not in attendance.
03 December – Up the road again to Dayton and the Ford Agency for Wanda to go back under the knife. The Agency took us in their courtesy car into Daytona Beach and dropped us off at the raceway so that we could do the tour of the complex. It is currently undergoing a huge revamp but is still being used in the meantime. We were taken into the driver’s briefing room, around the outside of the track, up into their special sky suites which had a magnificent view of the whole complex (currently it seats 140,000 and with the new revamp they are going to drop this down to just over 100,000). Got to see the pit area and watch some of the cars doing test laps, and others offering rides for spectators. If you wished you could drive yourself around for only $550. The tour filled up our time nicely and by 4pm we were back at Ford and ready to pick up Wanda.
Headed back down to Titusville (a little detour because Jilly miscalculated and got caught on an exit only lane – ended up half way to Orlando before we could get off the freeway and back in the right direction!) . The new heavier steering damper has made a bit of difference, but not sure yet whether it was really worth the cost and effort.
04 December – An exercise in patience today. Up at 6am (yes, you read right!) and a short walk down the road to the seafront to join dozens of others lined up to wait for the launch of the Orion spacecraft on it’s Delta rocket. Countdown No. 1 got down to 5 minutes before high winds and a wayward boat called a halt. A wait of over an hour before countdown No. 2 got to 5 minutes then was abandoned again because of sticking booster valve. The window was extended from 9am to 9.44 but at 9.30 it was finally called off for the day. A load of disappointed people, including us, returned to their normal activities – we had a great view over the inlet to Cape Canaveral about 6 miles away and the launch pad was visible.
Oh well, we didn’t get to see history in the making, but the sunrise was worth it. We decided not to hang around for another day for a repeat attempt, so headed southwards again. Made for a spot we had identified on our way back from Key West and had a hassle free drive down the I95 before leaving it at Fort Pierce and heading into Lake Okeechobee and a boat launch on a canal running alongside the lake. Boats are also able to enter the second largest lake in America via a small lock just opposite our pretty parking spot.
05 December – Nice quiet night followed by another fine day. Had a walk along the embankment separating the lake from the canal and a nice chat with a chap who comes down from Michigan for the winter. Plenty of fishermen out and about. Didn’t have too far to go to our destination for the night – Miccosukee Casino where they very generously gave us $30 each to play with. Managed to retain $30 at the end of the day, which went on dinner!
06 December – Very noisy night on the black top – being a Friday night the casino was really packed and people were about until the wee small hours.
Set off on the Tamiami Trail in search of an airboat ride, as this is apparently what you do when you come to the Everglades. Found a smallish operation, had the obligatory talk about the alligators and wildlife before petting the baby alligator. Bit dismayed to see the poor conditions that their captive alligators were kept in – very small concrete pond enclosures and grubby. Boarded our boat – capable of holding around 30 people – and set off into the Everglades. The 45 minute ride did a bit of the fast stuff – skimming over the shallow water, and a bit of quiet contemplation to look for the alligators. Interesting landscape – for the most part we were going through the saw grass, which in places can be a few feet high, and others not much more than a few inches. Over the whole area, water depth varies from a couple of inches to at its deepest about 5 ft, and mostly around 2 ft. There are occasional islands (they call them hammocks), created from birds dropping seeds which germinate and trees take root, the leaf fall gradually building up into silt for more plants to grow. Along the natural channels there were water lillies which seem to be able to tolerate being run over by the boats. All in all it was noisy but interesting and we were pleased we had done it.
Carried on a little further to a National Forest primitive campground at Burns Lake – just 10 sites around a small lake complete with little alligators milling about in the middle of it.
07 December – Our little campground proved to be very quiet overnight and such a pretty spot to wake up to. The small lake still had a single alligator floating in the middle. We headed off after mid-morning to continue on the Tamiami Trail – this is an incredible piece of road put through in the 1920’s with the aid of a walking dredge which cut a channel and then used the spoil to build the road and basically dammed off the swamp (which is really a very wide and slow moving river), changing the nature of the Everglades from that point on. It is 60 miles of very straight road, with swamp on either side of the road. We were in the Everglades National Park for half of the road – this had a channel on our right side and marshland beyond, with marshland coming right up to the road on the other side. In places (probably installed after the initial road build), breaks were put in to allow the water to drain through. When you look at diagrams of the original flow of the water (all out from Lake Okeechobee), it mostly went south and south-west out into the Everglades and finally to the ocean. Nowadays only a small portion of the flow goes into the Everglades with the rest being diverted for farm irrigation and out to the East Coast and all the development from Miami north. As a result of this over 90% of the wading birds have disappeared – we could still quite a lot, but it must have been magnificent in the past. In the channel on the right side, alligators could be seen every half minute or so, just basking on the banks.
On leaving the Everglades we came into the Big Cypress National Preserve – it was like a line drawn in the sand – on one side of the line the marshes were grassy, then over the line suddenly it was Cypress territory – tall trees and ferns but still swampy. We took a boardwalk through the swamp – quite a dark and eerie place. A few birds and when it opened out into a clearing with a pool, an alligator resting in the distance. I must admit I would rather see an alligator than come across any of the snakes that abound around here. It is supposedly black bear territory as well – so hard to imagine that a bear would be able to survive in this sort of territory.
Made a small detour down to Everglades City and Chokoloskee – what a nice area, not spoilt with high-rise abominations, very colonial looking with loads of palm trees, and best of all, Bob found a nice coffee shop where he was able to get proper espresso coffee made by the owners the way he likes it.
Our stay for the night was in the Collier-Seminole State Park Campground in the Ten Thousand Islands Wildlife Preserve – again really impressed with Florida’s State Parks – nice sites, clean facilities and we really haven’t struck one that is very busy.
08 December – Bit of a foggy start but that cleared off by late morning. We decided to drive down to Marco Island for a little look see. Not for us! Very pretentious, full of high class shopping, very flash cars and houses. Only 50 years ago it was untouched and now to look at before and after aerial photos of the place, there is not a single bit of it that is not built on. Came back ‘home’ and decided to do some laundry instead, and a bit of socialising with campsite neighbours.
09 December – Earlyish start to the day to get down to the boat launch area in time for our canoe trip through the mangroves. We had a real treat – Bob and I were in a double canoe and had four guides in kayaks with us – Bob and Nancy were the “old hats” and were taking newbies Ben and Rose through the steps. With a few pointers on not getting caught up in the mangroves, we were off. First off we went through a fairly open channel and had a following tide so paddling was relatively laid back. Stopped about 30 minutes in where Nancy gave us a talk about the flora, then entered into a canopied channel with the mangroves meeting above us. I thought you would have to worry about snakes dropping down off the branches, but when told that wouldn’t happen, was able to relax and enjoy the atmosphere.
Not much in the way of bird life but just going through the mangroves was so peaceful and what a neat way to see them. The further on we went, the more the level of the water dropped revealing more and more of the mangrove’s roots. About 1 1/2 hours in we pulled up on a sand bank and Guide Bob took us through the history of the area and the early Indians, who were virtually wiped out by the diseases brought in by the white man. It was then homeward bound through the same route, but looking different with the still dropping tide. It needed a bit more work going back against the tide but nothing too strenuous. What a great way to spend a morning – certainly whet my appetite for more such adventures.
10 December – Decided that we would have early Christmas presents and get a bike each, as we have seen many places along our travels where a bike would have been good to have. Checked out of the State Park after lunch and headed West towards Naples. Three Walmarts later we finally had settled on ones that would suit – for the grand price of $100 each we got 18 speed pseudo mountain bikes. We also needed a rack to put on our tow hitch, but found that the one we bought would not fit securely, so decided that Wallies would have to put us up for the night so we could find a trailer specialist who may be able to supply a reducer so that the rack would fit properly.
11 December – Found a trailer specialist and that was a good move – we were able to get the right part and they did the little bit of work needed to adapt to our hitch correctly. With that settled we headed back to the State Park and checked in for a few more days. It took a while to get the bikes adapted to each of us, but with that done it was a relaxing end to the day.
It is nice to be stay put for a few days, gives you a chance to socialise with neighbours. Had a nice chat with a German couple who had also been to Africa, travelling the world in a Mercedes Unimog type vehicle shipped from Europe – all equipped for off-roading in the roughest of conditions.
12 December – Set off after lunch to try out our new bikes on an off-road trail just up the road from the camp. Nice ride – it was the old road to Marco Island, just a sandy surface in among palm trees and the swamp. The alligator warning sign was correct – saw one basking in one of the ponds as we rode by. We are told they are not interested in humans unless you torment them. The bikes still need a bit of fine tuning – I bought a different sort of seat and still trying to get a comfortable position for it, but the bikes performed well on the differing terrain.
13 December – Nice lazy day, another book out of the way and with an exchange library in the camp common room, was able to pick up a stock to keep me going for the next few weeks. Nice treat in the evening – the ‘Friends of the Park’ put on an ice-cream fundraiser in the common room. They got plenty of takers, we spent a pleasant evening chatting with our other neighbours – nice young couple travelling in a large brand spanking new rig. They live near Tampa and had come down for the weekend to try it out. Those rigs are certainly very nice inside – all the mod cons including a washer and drier and nicely appointed. Not quite so sure that I would like to be driving around in something that size though – Wanda has her good points!
14 December – Had a short run back down to Everglades City so that Bob could get another coffee fix. Took our bikes off and rode down to Chokoloskee Island and lunch at the very popular Havana Cafe. Nice food – I had the shrimp special and it was delicious (the shrimps here are what we would call prawns). Biked back along the cycle track to Wanda, loaded up and returned home.
15 December – Fully loaded with fresh water, empty tanks and clean washing set off in a new direction – up Highway 29 bordering the Big Cypress Refuge for about 30 miles. Several of the areas we passed through were in panther territory – not the sort of animal you would expect to be domiciled here. The edge of the road was bordered again by swamp on one side and a canal on the other – alligators were prolific in this stretch, just basking on the banks.
Immokalee Casino was the destination of choice – amazingly they even provide power hookups for RV’s here, although they were all in use when we arrived. A cheap night for us – our $10 limit lasted for several hours before we eventually came out even (though Bob pointed out that we could have left earlier and come out with $40!) – it is a bit of fun and makes a change from our normal routine.