“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Dirtiest Place in the World

In the parched savannah of Tanzania’s interior everything seems dusted with a thin film of ochre powder. Along the fringes of what passes for roads here, the dust is even worse, kicked up by passing trucks and pedestrians and hanging like a filthy cloud in the still afternoon air. I can feel the grit between my teeth, taste the people and diesel fumes and animals on my tongue as our tough-as-nails 5 ton truck, a beat up but determined blue beast, chugs through the African heat. The truck is old and primitive, a basic machine.

It’s also unstoppable, bucking and lurching along a grueling gash that slices through the African countryside. I can’t call it a road; it’s too primitive to deserve that moniker. Decades of rainy season floods followed by the hammering tires of heavy trucks make this never-maintained trail a nearly impassable ribbon of tortured earth. I’m thinking that nothing could be more punishing--except the alternative, a cross country drive across the scrublands, a near impossibility. So we keep pounding onward.

We’re on a mission, driving the beast from the dusty village of Kasulu—a town that my African friend called “the dirtiest place in the world” to Kigoma, a town hard on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. In the back a pregnant woman is bleeding—to death, if we don’t get her to a hospital soon.

We received word that a group of Tanzanians—a church choral group from Kigoma—was stranded somewhere along the road between the two villages, their truck broken down. So we set out yesterday morning, the three of us—myself; Chuck, a jack-of-all-trades type; and Jonathan, a missionary doctor from Kansas—to rescue the 30 or so men, women and children before nightfall. The thought of almost three dozen people stranded overnight in the African darkness without food and water and with bandits and predators lurking was not pretty. So we left Kigoma mid-morning, packed into an SUV with food and water, hell bent for Kasulu, white knights to the rescue.

Kasulu is 100 kilometers northeast of Kigoma, an easy drive under normal circumstances. But nothing is normal in Africa. The road is crowded with people, cows, goats, bicycles and carts. And potholes, damn potholes, everywhere. Fifty meters of smooth dirt is a blessing but even then you can’t pick up any speed lest you flatten a goat or dog or, God forbid, a mother with a child wrapped in a kanga at her breast and a basket of bananas balanced on her head.

Add another element of danger to the picture: the United Nations uses this route as a supply line between the railroad station at Kigoma and the UN refugee camps in the western region. So every few minutes a speeding truck with “UN” emblazoned on the door barrels by trailing a red cloud of dust. We see the drivers through their dirty and cracked windshields, sawing at the steering wheels as they try to keep their rigs from plummeting out of control into the bush. They seem oblivious to their surroundings, eyes straight ahead. People jump off into the bush; oncoming traffic has to pull over as the huge trucks bellow by leaving choking dust clouds and chaos in their wake.

Can the refugee camps be that in need of immediate resupply that these demons endanger themselves and anyone else on the road? No matter, the UN and the NGOs ride roughshod over the region and in addition to the supply trucks, earnest looking bureaucrats rush back and forth on the roads, their new vehicles carrying the acronyms and logo of their organization; WHO, ICRC, HOPE. I suppose they do some good but the results on the ground are not apparent, unless you count the bags of rice marked “USAID” that we saw at a duka in Kigoma—for sale.

Jonathan has been a missionary here for a year and is familiar with the roads. He managed to avoid the largest holes, some of which are deep and wide enough to qualify as craters. Nevertheless, it was well into midday yesterday before we bumped into the tiny village of Kwaga, barely halfway to Kasulu. We waved at the villagers as we motored through and less than two kilometers past the village we saw the beast. She was indeed broken down, her blue hood reaching forlornly for the sky.

All around the truck people huddled under the bed and in the lee side, seeking scant shelter from the searing African sun. We pulled up behind the truck and hopped out. I looked around, most of the strandees are women and girls but there are also toddlers and babies and a few men. The babies are obviously in distress, their mothers, some nursing, in bad need of water. I was amazed at their calm acceptance of their predicament. They patiently stood in line as we dispensed water bottles and fruit, not a word of complaint. I thought about how a like group of Americans would handle the same situation but I quickly erased that ugly scene from my mind.

The driver said the truck overheated and eventually stopped, refusing to start. Chuck took a quick look at the blue beast and figured that the water pump was dead—the truck would not go to Kasulu like this. We needed to get the women and children out of the countryside and to safe haven before nightfall so we packed as many as we could—which turned out to be twenty women, children and babies—into the SUV. This is a standard size SUV now, not some super-size vehicle. The Tanzanians were stacked like cordwood in the back, sitting on laps and atop each other in the seats. There was no room for Chuck and me so we stayed with the truck while Jonathan drove on to Kasulu, hopefully to return before nightfall to get us and the rest of the stranded group.

As Jonathan fired up the SUV he leaned out the window. “Try to be inconspicuous, white people stand out here.” And smiled and waved as he drove away. And that’s how I came to be stranded in the wild interior of Africa, surrounded by Africans, with no transportation, night approaching and one bottle of water.

We played mechanic and climb into the yawning engine bay of the beast. The water pump was indeed dead, the engine nearly drained dry. However, the engine had cooled down in the intervening hours and we were able to get it started. The remaining church group scrambled into the bed of the truck and we limped back into Kwaga. There we found a fundi—anyone who can fix things in Tanzania is called a fundi—and arranged to have the water pump repaired.

We started looking for a place to sleep when Jonathan rolled into the village. He had made it to Kasulu, found a church to house the Tanzanians and returned for us. Good news for all—a night on a dirt floor in Kwaga was not appealing. We wedged ourselves into the SUV, twelve people stuffed into one vehicle. The heat and dust and smell—we all reeked from sweat—was overpowering.

And then the most wondrous thing happened. The Africans—a choir group remember—broke into a joyous lilting African hymn, their voices cool and sweet. Here we were in the most miserable of circumstances, a day marred by mechanical breakdown, lack of food and water, numbing heat, frightened children and crying babies, and these people were rejoicing and singing. I was stunned beyond belief. That one charming, ephemeral moment will never leave me. When I am faced with a difficult time in my life I never fail to think of that moment of unfettered hope and gratitude.

It took us two hours to reach Kasulu, the Africans singing nearly the whole way. We stopped in front of a small Catholic church as dusk swept in. I hopped out of the SUV and pushed the double church doors open. The interior was dark and I was silhouetted in the headlights, undoubtedly a frightening apparition. Shrieks of “Mzungu!”—“White man!” echo through the church and terrified children scurried to their mother's safety. The mothers laughed as the rest of our passengers filed into the church.

The local priest offered us cots to sleep on in a stark dorm room and I stepped out into the night to watch the light fade over the African grasslands. And then the day’s second wondrous thing occurred. Hundreds, then thousands, then millions of African termites began to hatch. There were no electric lights and in the total darkness I could clearly see their delicate silvery wings catching the moonlight. The ground was covered with a shimmering silver carpet that rose into the darkness—an enchanting snowfall in reverse, the snow rising up to meet the sky. It was a blizzard of the most fragile life, entrancing and captivating, and I watched it for an hour before sleep pulled me to the cot. The next morning I stumbled out of the dorm and the ground was littered with millions of paper-thin termite wings.

Today we are heading back to Kigoma. Eight or so of us pile into the SUV and bounce out of Kasulu on the long and aching trek home. We finally pull into Kwaga to retrieve the beast. It is, naturally, fixed; the resourcefulness and ingenuity of these village mechanics never ceases to amaze me.

We fire the beast up and pull onto the road when a large and boisterous group of villagers rushes toward us, yelling and waving sticks. I briefly think we have committed some unpardonable transgression and are about to be beaten to a pulp but then I notice them carrying a prone body on a platform over their heads. It is a woman and she is obviously in great distress. She opens her eyes briefly and weakly struggles to raise her head. I am not a doctor but this does not look good.

Jonathan makes a quick assessment. She is pregnant and bleeding heavily and without help she will surely bleed to death. She needs more medical help than is available in this remote village--she needs a hospital, and soon. We load her into the back of the beast and take off for Kigoma, the poor woman writhing in terrible pain while we bounce over the rutted road for hours.

We make it to the hospital and she lives.

And I think: What if we had not happened to come through Kwaga today? What are the odds that on a rarely traveled backroad, a truck heading toward the only hospital in the region would happen through an isolated village at the exact time that a desperate woman needed emergency transportation? Infinitesimal, I say. And that was wondrous thing number three.

African Dreams

The setting African sun backlit the spreading acacia trees with a blood red wash. After a hard day of trekking over the Serengeti plains, all I wanted to do was melt into my canvas camp chair and mellow out. I had just slipped into a dreamy, staring-into-the-campfire reverie when the distinctive half-roar, half-cough of an African lion startled me out of my trance. Somewhere, just beyond the faint glow of our campfire, a lion was lurking in the waist-high grass of the savanna. The fading sun cast a cinnamon glow on the waving grass and I was certain that a huge maned male was going to lunge out of the grass and devour me. Of course, it didn’t help that I had watched “The Ghost and the Darkness” before setting out on this safari.

Needless to say, I didn’t get eaten by lions, but in Africa that is still a possibility. It’s this collision of brutality and beauty that draws visitors to the continent. And nowhere is this dichotomy more evident than in northern Tanzania where three of the most evocative places in Africa converge; the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Olduvai Gorge.

Located at the center of these three areas is Lake Ndutu, an expansive soda lake on the edge of the Serengeti Plains. Lake Ndutu draws migrating animals by the thousands and is a prime wildlife viewing area for giraffe, lion, leopard, hippo, elephant, and the largest wildebeest herds on earth. Huddled on the shore of the lake is Ndutu Safari Lodge, a cozy enclave of gray stone and wood buildings. Legendary big game hunter George Dove originally established a bush camp here in the 1960’s. The lodge retains the humble feeling of its origins and it has become a favorite with visitors who prefer isolation and access to untrammeled areas to five-star lodging and luxurious trappings. The main building, dominated by an airy dining room and bar, is a low open stone structure with exposed beam rafters that faces the glimmering waters of Lake Ndutu. Small but comfortable stone cabins have replaced the original tents.

We first glimpsed Ndutu Lodge as our bush plane made a low pass over the dirt airstrip to shoo any wayward wildlife away.  We banked steeply, circled around and landed, coming to a stop in a swirl of dust. Our hosts, Paul and Louise White, loaded our bags and shuttled us to the lodge. The Whites are energetic and pleasant Brits who have found their niche in the African wilds. Paul is an outgoing fellow with a dry, understated wit. Louise is down to business, immediately taking us under wing, settling us into our stone cabins, and setting out our afternoon tea.

The Whites being Brits, they offer us afternoon tea, which we quickly gulp down—after all, we came to see animals-- before jumping into Land Rovers and bumping off into the Serengeti. Simply put, the Serengeti is Africa’s most spectacular destination, a bustling stew of wildebeest, zebra, lions, gazelles, giraffe, elephant, birds, Cape buffalo and dozens of other species of birds and mammals. At the height of the annual wildlife migration the nonstop parade of wildebeest and zebra followed by ever-attentive lions and cheetahs is unforgettable.

It’s mid afternoon, a sweltering and dusty day in the height of the dry season. The huge herds have left on their annual northward migration to the Masai Mara so our expectations for spying wildlife are low, especially in the heat of the day. We anticipate an uneventful drive into the interior with the hope of stumbling across animals later in the evening as the day cools and life stirs. But we’re barely ten minutes out of camp when two giraffes step out of a stand of acacia trees. Three kilometers further we nearly run over a lioness sitting alone in the middle of an unshaded savanna.

Paul heads for a nearby marsh, an oasis of green in the unending brown plains, where wildlife congregates in the dry season. Clouds of birds swoop low over the verdant grass and Paul is energized. Birds are his thing and he calls out several species in rapid succession--birds we’ve never seen before, and some we’ve never heard of--Secretary birds, Bustards, African kites, and on and on, colorful birds, colorful names.

OK, this is great, but this is Africa and we’re after the big guys. And then less than 100 meters away we come upon a herd of elephants, milling around the edge of the marsh, kicking up clouds of dust. We edge closer and suddenly out of the middle of the herd a juvenile bull, full of bluff and bluster, charges us. All I see is a massive gray hulk, huge ears flared out and a roiling veil of dust as he stampedes toward us, bellowing and shaking his massive head. We frantically dive onto the the floor of the truck. The bull stops thirty feet away and swings his head from side to side, very pleased with our distress.

That’s enough elephant viewing for us for a while so we’re off across the plains again and as we pass under a spreading acacia I see—no I sense—a presence overhead and look up into the piercing yellow eyes of a leopard crouched on an angling limb. I yell for Paul to stop and we skid to a halt directly under the big cat. If the cat wanted, he could hop right into our open truck. He decides differently and scampers down the gnarled trunk and disappears into the golden grass. The odds of seeing a leopard are slim; we see two before the day is over, plus hippos, foxes, cheetahs, dikdiks, impala, and enough other animals to call the day a complete success.

At dusk we head back to the lodge and a delicious meal of fresh salads, wine, tender beef tenderloin, and desserts. Ndutu Safari Lodge may have its roots as a hunting camp but there is no corner-cutting here, the service and food is first-class. While we eat small genet cats scamper over our heads on the rafters. Later, over drinks around the campfire we hear the nightly serenade of the lions in the darkness. Paul points out the constellations, weaves tales about wildlife encounters, tells lies, and keeps us laughing with a string of jokes that we’ll forget by morning. Conversation wanders to the next day’s itinerary; we’re heading to the Ngorongoro Crater, where Paul assures us we’ll see more wildlife than we ever thought of seeing today.

He’s right. As we drive up to the rim of the crater, a long, slogging climb that rises out of the Serengeti, the land gradually changes from savannah grassland to volcanic hills. We pass Maasai tribesmen herding their cattle, their bright red robes bringing welcome relief to the monotonous brown scenery. This is a sparsely populated area but the imposing Maasai seem to dominate the landscape. We round a curve in the road and two young Maasai stand on the roadside, faces starkly painted in black and white, a looming and eerie presence. The painted faces are part of the Maasai coming-of-age ritual, young men on the cusp of manhood.

We finally crest the rim of Ngorongoro Crater and spread below us, as far as we can see, is a vast concentration of wildlife, 250 square kilometers of zoological paradise. Thousands of ant-sized dots (we are still 1500 feet above the crater floor) are telltale signs of herds of wildebeest, zebra, and impala. Too many ants we think; there can’t be that many wild animals here. But as our Land Rover grumbles and bucks down the narrow rim road to the crater floor, the dots become larger and we can begin to make out distinct shapes: Cape buffalo, Thompson’s gazelle, eland, more variety and numbers than we had dared hope to see.

Ngorongoro is a constant stream of African vignettes. A daft lioness stalks and then charges two massive adult Cape buffalo who initially flee and then, coming to their senses, turn on their attacker and chase her off. A drying waterhole, one of the few remaining open bodies of water in this dry season, has become a grim charnel house of dead and dying animals. A large family of hippos dominates the shrinking open water. Around the open water is a large ring of deep and entrapping mud and in this mud is a scene of sickening carnage. Hippos, Cape buffalo, and zebras have become mired in the thick muck as they try to reach the water for a drink. Hyenas have waded in to feast on the trapped animals and have themselves become victims. Vultures swoop in to pick at the dead and the dying. It is a sad and sobering sight and another reminder that this is not some amusement park but Africa at its rawest.

Such tableaus are contrasted with scenes of captivating beauty and thirty minutes later we watch a troop of more than one hundred baboons parade single file past our truck while a huge bull elephant thrashes nearby, furiously tearing arm-thick limbs from an acacia tree. The show never ends and before the day is over we have spotted extremely rare black rhinos, a family of cheetahs sitting atop a termite mound, herds of wildebeest and zebra, huge flocks of brilliant flamingos.

On the way back to the lodge, we pass by the Olduvai Visitor Centre, snuggled in the middle of the Olduvai Gorge, made famous by anthropologists Mary and Louis Leakey who found evidence of 3.7 million year old Australopithecus Afarensis. This could be the cradle of human existence and standing at the bottom of this 300-foot deep, 30-mile long trench it is impossible not to be awed by its meaning.

Our last night in the Serengeti I was gripped with a sense of melancholy, knowing that the next day I would be leaving Ndutu. But then I remembered something a British mountain climbing guide once told me. “Africa never leaves you,” he said “Once you visit you leave a part of yourself there.”

He’s right of course, Ndutu is unforgettable, a dreamlike memory that I return to frequently.

(This article originally appeared in Marco Polo Magazine)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Safer to Jump

The usual comment when I tell someone I went skydiving is,“Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” In my case I have the perfect reply: It was safer than staying on board.

That’s because “perfectly good” would not be used by any sane person to describe the plane that we were taking us up for our first jump. My first look at the plane was unsettling to say the least. It looked like it had been through the Battle of Britain. I half expected to see bullet holes in the fuselage and Nazi swastikas painted under the pilot window to signify enemy aircraft victories. I know the FAA requires annual flight inspections but this plane apparently hadn’t been anywhere near an inspector since the Korean War. No competent inspector would have allowed such a raggedy aircraft anywhere near a runway. It sat, unpainted and forlorn, the tarnished aluminum fuselage wrinkled and patched, off the edge of a small Kentucky runway. I peered inside; with the exception of the pilot and co-pilot seats, the interior was completely absent any seats, belts or panels. Just a bare outer skin and a scuffed up floor. Yikes!

I double-checked my parachute packing and crossed my fingers that the plane could at least gain enough altitude to allow my chute to open before the plane corkscrewed into the ground. It would be a race to see which of us impacted first. I didn’t need this anxiety on top of my raging fear of heights.

Which brings up the obvious question: Why was I doing this? The usual reason; my friend Ed.

This was just another in a long string of adventures—or misadventures—that we have shared over the years. From mountain climbing, to rafting, to glacier hiking, to racing cars and a dozen other adventures, we’ve dared and bet and ridiculed each other into unreasonable activities. A recurring theme is to find ourselves on the precipice of some peak or flailing through big whitewater asking each other why the hell we’re here. Skydiving was perhaps the stupid pinnacle of that long litany of escapades.

But, I was committed. Backing out now was not an option. Ed would never let me hear the end of it. So we went through ground school, which was a short classroom period explaining the basics of what would happen after we stepped out of the plane (a greasy spot in the worst case), how high we would be jumping from (too high), how to pull the ripcord (I paid particular attention to that topic) and how to guide the chute (in essence, pull on various random cords and pray). Then we adjourned to a nearby field and practiced how to exit from the aircraft and hit the ground. This involved jumping off a six foot high wooden platform and landing and rolling in the Kentucky dirt. Next we were hooked up to a static line and stepped off a platform to experience the feeling of a parachute opening. I closed my eyes before I stepped off the platform—how was I going to step out of an airplane at 6000 feet? I stood on the ground and watched Ed step off after me. I think I could see his lips saying a prayer.

No turning back now, we’d paid our money, spent a morning learning the basics, now it was time to hit the sky. Six of us, most first timers, clambered aboard the airborne version of the African Queen. Much to my astonishment, the engine sputtered to life and the plane actually managed to taxi onto the runway. My last hope for not jumping was dashed. I mean, I never thought this thing would actually fly.

We bumped down the dirt runway, I could feel the bald and patched tires clear the safe embrace of mother earth and we were airborne. The pilot took us up in a lazy spiral to jump altitude and I peered out the open jump door as the lovely farm fields of Kentucky became more and more distant.

The jumpmaster looked at us and asked who wanted to go first. Much to my shock I saw my hand, seemingly detached from my body, shoot skyward. I think at that point my brain said “we’re going to die anyway, may as well go out looking brave”. I lined up in the doorway, Ed next, the others behind us. The ground sure looked a long way down. I felt a tap on my back and the jumpmaster pointed to the door. Wait a minute, did he really expect me to go through with this? I gave him a look: “Who me?”

But I had come too far to turn chicken now. I grabbed a deathgrip on the wing strut, stepped out into the rushing air stream and onto the license-plate-sized platform, looked down at the fields below and let go. I think I heard Ed whimpering above my screams as I exited the plane.

What followed was terrifying. I was falling to my death. I would never see my family again. My friends would remark on what a stupid way to end a life. My wife would live a life of luxury and idleness from my life insurance proceeds.

And then I remembered I was supposed to be counting before pulling my ripcord. How many seconds had I been falling? Four? Ten? I was supposed to count to six but in my panic I forgot everything except my imminent impact with the earth. Pull!

What followed was the most wonderful feeling I’ve ever experienced. The chute popped, immediately putting the brakes on my plummeting body. After the initial jolt, my fall turned into a gently drift and as my heart slowly returned to a rate of something less than 200 I actually began to enjoy the feeling of floating above the earth. I could see for miles in all directions. I picked out the landing field far below and jockeyed my controls to guide the parachute to my target. This was awesome!

I landed near the target, hit, dropped and rolled. The landing was a little hard but I was pumped. What an adrenaline rush! Ed landed shortly after, one field over. We high-fived, whooped and recounted the jump over the next few hours.

Five weeks later, the plane crashed during another jump flight, slightly injuring those aboard. Like I said, not a “perfectly good plane”.

Trekking the Florida Panhandle

Florida’s white sand beaches, lazy rivers and Spanish moss-draped forests offer nature lovers a wide variety of places to visit and play and some 200 miles of beaches and scrubland from the Florida panhandle eastward to Crystal River are still wild and undeveloped. This stretch of Florida, which roughly parallels Highway 98 along the gulf coast, is home to a diverse array of outstanding natural areas in a part of the state best described as retro.

The condos, souvenir joints and beach homes that dominate the state’s coastline are mercifully few here. Unbroken pine forests line the highways and a chain of wildlife refuges and state parks adorns this corridor, offering beautiful natural destinations within easy driving distance of each other.

Linking these stops provides days of exceptional outdoor adventures interrupted by slow-as-molasses towns and out-of-the-way mom and pop restaurants. We took a week to trek through the area, starting at the western reaches of the panhandle near the city of Destin.

We made our first stop at Topsail Hill State Park and its three miles of beaches secluded behind the park’s claim to fame--towering 25-foot white sand dunes. The park is well visited but somehow retains a relatively untrammeled ambience. It is a nice spot for a day hike and as we lace up our boots we spy a few tourists walking the beach but on this cool March day the beach is anything but crowded. We hike between dunes down to the surf and head west along the packed sand where we see dozens of shorebirds scurrying along the beach. Following a faint trail inland through patches of wispy sea oats, we stumble on a tea-colored freshwater lake shrouded in a thick stand of pine trees. Warily tiptoeing around the edges, we keep our eyes out for hungry gators but instead we are greeted with a cacophony of birds irritated at our intrusion. We spend way too much time hiking through the trees and we have to race a gorgeous setting sun to reach our car before dark.

Topsail gets us pumped up for more discoveries and we are not disappointed at our next stop, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Most of the park is a wilderness preserve—no vehicles allowed—so we ditch our car and backpack into the peninsula. The park is a 7.5 mile-long finger of sugary white sand that follows a low ridge line north, the Gulf of Mexico on the ocean side, St. Joseph Bay inshore. The narrow peninsula features high dunes and pine scrub and wide beaches. We are delighted to find that the thousands of acres of beaches and scrub are virtually deserted. On our two-day backpack into the peninsula we see six people. It is hard to believe there is still a place this deserted in Florida. The isolation is refreshing and we delight in scanning the beach both ways and realizing we are the only humans as far as the eye can see.

But we aren’t alone; on our return we follow a trail along a low ridge line traversing the spine of the park and we are repeatedly interrupted by the noisy shuffling of armadillos rooting through the forest duff for tasty grubs. We see a dozen, comical looking critters that momentarily halt to shoot us quizzical looks, completely unperturbed by our presence. We hate to leave St. Joseph but the word is that St. George Island State Park is just as wild and we want to backpack there also.

Our stomachs get the best of us however, and we are delayed getting there. Highway 98 passes through Apalachicola, a quaint town famous for its succulent oysters and we take time to enjoy plates full of these local delicacies. Oyster restaurants are liberally sprinkled along the highway so we pick one with a waterfront view and suck down oysters to our heart’s content.

We linger too long, arriving at St. George Island late in the afternoon. The day turned overcast and a front has blown in and by the time we load up our packs we are fighting a blustery, cold offshore breeze that makes hiking uncomfortable. Like St. Joseph, St. George Island is an anachronism—a wild, undeveloped gem that attracts outdoorsy types. Even on this cold blustery day, we stumble on three other groups of hikers and swap stories with them as dusk settles in. We set up our tent in a light rain and a storm rages all night.

The next day brings typical Florida weather, bright and sunny, as we pull into St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. To use the old cliché, this is one of Florida’s best kept secrets. The road from the entrance shoots seven miles straight through the heart of the 68,000 acre refuge, past thick pine forests and tall palm trees and as we drive we are confronted by a veritable ark of wildlife: hundreds of birds everywhere and where there aren’t birds, there are alligators, or turtles, or otters, or snakes. We run across a ten foot gator on one trail; on another we step gingerly over a pygmy rattlesnake coiled on a wooden foot bridge.

The refuge road ends at St. Marks Lighthouse, a picturesque 19th century structure sitting on the edge of Apalachee Bay. Gunslit-like window openings at the base of the gleaming white lighthouse provide convenient sunning spots for snakes and every windowsill is occupied by a logy grey rat snake soaking up the warm March sun. Pelicans dive in front of us as we eat lunch on the water’s edge.

Final stop: Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, home to one of our most appealing wild animals, the West Indian manatee. These ponderous creatures are very susceptible to the cold so through the winter they congregate in Crystal River around a spring that pumps 600 million gallons of warm 72 degree water out daily. Snorkeling with these huge animals is a real treat and we spend the better part of the morning carefully observing them from a distance until a mother and baby approach us. These close encounters are thrilling and we are approached numerous times.

There you have it: one week, five outstanding natural areas. Easy driving, good food, lots of old Florida ambience, beaches, lakes, rivers, gators and manatees. And you thought Florida was all about Disney World.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)