Swamp walking is the best way to demystify Florida’s primal Everglades, and get startlingly close to its weird, wild residents, says Adrian Phillips
It lies broad and still at the side of the track, polished peaks rolling along its olive-coloured length. I'd love to run my fingers over that back. “Only idiots get bitten by alligators,” says my guide Rick, turning around in his seat and eyeing me from beneath a hefty brow. “If you get bitten, push in towards the back of the 'gator's throat to make it gag and release.”
He drives on, putting a little distance between the 'gator and the idiot in his charge, before pulling up alongside a break in the spiky tangle of vegetation at the water's edge. As I clamber clumsily from the back of the van, Julie, his co-guide, hands me a thick hikingstick. “Rick'll take the lead and I'll follow behind. Just walk where he walks,” she gives a reassuring smile. I return a thinner one and we step down into the swamp.
It is difficult to believe that this primeval patch in Florida's Everglades region lives and breathes so close to crops of tidy civilisation. The town of Naples — with its peach-hued homes and a beach spread thick like lorry loads of spilt sugar — is just 20 minutes west of here along the Tamiami Trail. Fakahatchee Strand, by contrast, seems sodden and brooding.
Measuring 15 miles long and five miles wide, this is the world's largest cypress forest. Alligators wait gape-mouthed in its gullies; fish-catching spiders watch from their webs; bald cypress trees choke in the snaking embrace of strangler figs. I'm walking into a place where the violent wrestle for life seems unrelenting. Its wetness creeps steadily up my trouser legs.
We wade between trunks that taper high into the canopy. Fakahatchee is a Native American word meaning “muddy creek”, but there's no stinkiness or squelchiness. The swamp bed doesn't try to suck the boots from my toes as I lift my feet. I rub a plant and release the scent of sweet lemon and fresh grass. It's all cleaner, calmer, more fragrant than I'd expected.
“We want to demystify the swamp,” Julie explains. “It's like therapy — you come in here and forget all your worries.”
“But watch out for water-moccasin snakes!” Rick calls to us over his shoulder.
Set up last year, Rick Cruz Photography offers walking, photography and kayaking trips into the wetlands, but its guides have been part of the landscape for far longer. Julie Cardenas is a trained biologist, while Rick Cruz is a nature photographer with the energy of a seven-year-old.
The swamp is full of things that Rick itches to show me. He splashes ahead, zigzagging from branch to stump, stooping to peer into the water and stretching to lift a twig. He waits impatiently by a tree full of holes — “It's like a bunch of eyes starin' at ya, isn't it?” — and points to four woodpecker feathers caught in a wispy ball of Spanish moss. Orchids are his particular passion. We find a clamshell orchid, a dingy star orchid, a vanilla orchid with leaves like green beans and a delicate night-scented orchid in bloom.
It's late afternoon as we climb, dripping, from the swamp and drive a short distance to the Big Cypress Strand Boardwalk for a final stroll before the sun dips away. We stop to listen to the muffled bark of a barred owl — “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you?” — when Rick's eye is caught by a dark and rounded body 10 yards beyond a bank of ferns. “Boar,” he says — and then corrects himself in an urgent whisper: “No. Bear!” The animal pauses to raise a sniffing brown snout in our direction before returning to its business, tugging at sinewy stalks of alligator flag. It feeds for a full five minutes before ambling into the swamp. A black bear on my first visit. “Wow, you're lucky,” says Julie. “That's only the second I've ever seen.” She's lived here since the 1970s.
“Manatees guaranteed!” the brochure had proclaimed. The following day, I'm met at the marina by a man in a lime-green polo shirt embroidered with the words “Captain Barry” above a brace of crossed fishing rods. My guide was for many years a banker, before he upped sticks to Florida and reinvented himself as the man who knows manatees. He's a New Yorker with six little boats and a wit as dry as Saharan sand. I like him instantly.
The manatee is one of wildlife's weirdos. Its blob of a body opens with a chubby muzzle pricked with whiskers and ends in a rounded tail like a salad spoon. Related to the elephant, nicknamed the cow of the ocean, and tipping the scales at 2,000lb, it could fairly be described as a portly beast. A daily graze on 200lb of fibrous sea-grass also makes it a shamelessly flatulent one.
We putter gently away from the moorings in the Port of Islands Marina. A mullet flings itself skyward, twitching in mid air before landing with a belly-flop. We stay alert for signs of a manatee. A patch of surface boils and swirls before settling once more. “Tarpon,” says Captain Barry. “Big fish eatin' little fish.” He points to a bald eagle sitting hook-beaked and barrel-chested on the roof of one of the waterside villas.
It's a rarity, the manatee; there are 10,000 or so worldwide, with populations in Africa and Asia. Florida's waters host 20% of that number, and this stretch of coastline, 15 miles south of Naples, buffered from the Gulf of Mexico by a sprinkling of tiny islands, is a hot spot. Manatees eat at sea but they must drink fresh water; every few weeks they ride the incoming tide to this seven-mile river so that they can slake their thirst for a day or two.
A stringy bird lands heavily among the branches. “Ancient Egyptians believed the ibis carried them from this life to the next,” says Captain Barry. A shoe-sized bull shark — one of the few of the predatory species that venture into fresh water — makes its swaggering passage beneath the boat.
Two hours pass without the faintest whiff of a windy herbivore. “They ain't playing ball today,” says a tight-jawed captain. He spins the wheel to take us home; the brochure curls in his back pocket like the sneering lip of a hollow promise. But as we chug along the final straight of the manicured channel that leads to the marina, Captain Barry suddenly cuts the engine and mouths a relieved “Bingo!” There, in water that is as black as a crow's eye, a tan-coloured shape cruises beneath a wooden landing stage before heading out of the shadows and losing us behind a thousand shards of sunlight. We wait. After a few minutes there's an abrupt hiss from a blunt nose five yards away; the manatee hangs in the water, nostrils flaring as it sucks hungrily at the surface. It's beautifully ugly, with deep-set eyes like currants in a bun. Bubbles stream from somewhere below. And then, with a lazy paddle of its broad tail, the manatee dives once more.
Getting there: Adrian Phillips travelled with American Airlines ( aa.com); a return from London, Heathrow, to Miami International (via Boston) costs from £468. Add around £100 for flights from Belfast.
Where to stay: The Inn on Fifth ( innonfifth.com), Naples, has doubles from £97. The beachside Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort ( marcoisland.hilton.com) has doubles from £87. Glades Haven Cozy Cabins ( gladeshaven.com) has characterful wooden cabins from £55; the adjacent Oyster House Restaurant serves good value local produce, including stone crab.