“C’Mon Gators! COME AND EAT US” screams our captain as he lobs chunks of meat over the side of the boat.
Mr Kiwi and I swap uneasy looks with each other, both wondering if going on a swamp tour was such a brilliant idea after all. Miles from New Orleans we were floating on a glorified tin can, surrounded by rusting steel structures wrapped in mangroves and very little else as far as the eye could see.
We wait a just a little bit longer in apprehensive silence*. The
smooth surface ripples, two prehistoric eyes appear before an elongated
snout rises out of the murky waters. His** jagged back sways through
the water as he gets closer and closer to eating us, sorry, start
nibbling on the scraps of treats our captain threw in the water.
We all crowd over to the side of the boat, captivated by this primeval
creature who haunts the Louisiana Bayou. We learn (thanks to our
cackling captain) that the American alligator can grow up to 11.2 feet
(3.4 meters) long and
weigh nearly half a ton (1,000 lbs. or 454 kgs) but, due to the
time of year, we’ll only probably spot juvenile gators as the adults
retire with cooler weather to hibernate (or brummate to be technical) in
their riverbank burrows for the winter.
Much relieved, we try to forget the fact that they can swim up to 20 mph (32.18 km/h) – I looked it up – and simply marvel over the surprising grace he has, cutting through the calm swamp surface.
A congregation of smaller alligators live along the privately owned
Manchac swamp we are visiting, a wildlife refuge around 25 miles out of
New Orleans, where native flora and fauna live in an uneasy ecosystem
that dates back to the dinosaurs. And tourists gasp.
After taking up a little while of his busy gator schedule, we begin to drift along a different stretch of the bayou hoping to spot one of his mates or perhaps even catch a look at a larger, more territorial male that breaches the surface to take a much needed breath.
We float along peacefully through a few stretches, before the captain opens the full throttle to cane through long empty swathes of swamp. The adrenaline rush was incredible as the sheer speed of the vessel
knocks any kind of London-induced cobwebs from our brains and the
strength of the wind takes the breath from our lips. Mr Kiwi likened the rush to the experience of being on a motorbike, making smooth turns and decelerating rapidly.
Trying a few different areas where the vegetation beds are regular haunts for sunning lizards, we cut the speed and are guided through a small village. Sadly the effects of Hurricane Katrina can still be seen with broken houses folded in on themselves. Families are rebuilding their homes & lives on stilts, hoping that they can escape the next bout of extreme weather.
As we cruise further through, we spot native birds, the occasional turtle and a couple of family dogs that taunt the gators before the speed is cut further, and we glide into altogether more close area of bayou.
The interlacing tree branches create paths for gators to lay their eggs and nurture their hatchlings. We manage to peep at a few more baby alligators slipping around, but mostly enjoy the strange stillness of what feels like a very remote pocket of Louisiana. Switching off the motor, we just marvel at the tranquillity of the moment we’re in.
It also creates the ideal environment for cheeky raccoons to scamper along tree roots and wild pigs to rampage along the undergrowth. Our guide has lived in the areas since he was small and tells us of the amazing seasonal fresh food that the swamp and surrounding areas provides – catfish, shrimp, crabs, crawfish, alligator and all other kinds of deliciousness.
Laughing his butt off, our driver guffaws that “uhoh, we’ve run out of gas and won’t be returning to civilisation anytime soon.” We all chuckle and continue to snap our photos, quite safe in the knowledge that he’s stuck with us all for company and probably has scavenging skills that will keep us fed if we really had run out of gas – or that there’s another tour tomorrow morning that would rescue the townies.
Sadly all good things come to an end, and we begin to make our way back to civilisation and an evening of blues bars and oyster Po-boys. Our swamp tour was definitely one of the unique highlights of our short time in Louisiana, even though it’s a tourist classic.
I’m goin’ back some day, come what may, to blue bayou
Where you sleep all day and the catfish play on blue bayou
All those fishin’ boats with their sails afloat, if I could only see
That familiar sunrise through sleepy eyes how happy I’d be
* OK, that’s a total use of writer’s license – actually the captain was telling us all about the ecological history of the bayou.
** We say he, but the boat captain says the only way to tell if a gator is a boy or a girl is to take them in your arms, flip them over and have a good gander. He’s only had one person in his career take him up his offer, and she was a fully trained vet. And crazy.