Spoilers: it’s hardly a valley and it’s got no sharks in it.
Peril alert: it does have gators. And a least seven million biting insects by the look of my normally pristine – ha! – skin this morning.
Dragging a teen out of bed for early breakfast is eased by the temptation of sugary calories in the US. Using this tooth rotting momentum we bundled into the car and presently – 45 miles later – are first to arrive at the ‘Park entrance and first to hire bikes. By now the teen was almost awake.
Asked to sign a disclaimer by the bike hire attendant I cheerily quip “does it matter if the teen gets eaten by a gator?”
“You’ll be lucky to see anything.”
- We’ve come to the famous Everglades National Park from a land far across the sea.
- We’re at the visitor centre festooned with pictures of dramatic local wildlife.
- We have been charged $30 entrance fee.
- We’re hiring bicycles for a 15 mile wilderness trail which is best tackled early when animals “are more active”.
- We’ll likely not see anything (delivered with a world weary sub-sigh).
My experience of US Park Rangers is they are fit to burst with childlike enthusiasm*. However, the park ancillary staff…? This one had the demeanour of someone who works for Dudley council answering the stoopid questions hotline and was having a worse-than-usual morning in ill fitting shoes. It’s almost a dark-superpower to have a day job at a world famous park and simultaneously make it the worst one in the world. (The job, not the park. In fairness, she was super hot on the finer points of the un-funny disclaimer form. Yay bureaucracy!)
Unbowed, we pedal off along the path. Whilst we are intrepid of spirit our riskiest encounter is likely to be a tourist trolley ambling toward us. Once per hour.
The stakes were low.
To up the ante, a $10 cash reward was offered – bank of Dad – to the first person to spot a gator. We’d been in Florida for 5 days by now and nothing more reptilian than an iguana spied. I was beginning to calm my fiscal nerves and keep the bounty. We stopped off at a point of interest – hardwood hammocks and otter caves, which were underwhelming -when he everso quietly intones “dad.”
I freeze and turn. I am $10 poorer.
We are being watched. (Shades of the late Bob Peck in Jurrasic Park: “No, we’re being hunted.”) All but submerged with slowly blinking assassin’s eyes was our first gator. The first of 10 of these ancient beasts it turns out ranging from (I estimate) 6 feet to over 10. Personally, I shudder when encountering them: this is their manor, they blend in perfectly and strike at will. Himself? A little more cavalier until the big one basking on the trail dead ahead spooked and bolted for the water: when they want to they move like lightning. Impressive.
The concrete observation tower at the southernmost point of the trail was deserted and surely a semi-ruin from a dystopian sci-fi movie. It gave great views of the expanse, while Turkey Vultures circled above. Our early start was worth it. On the whole 15 mile loop we met two trams, four cyclists. It was hot, humid, peaceful and gave a real sense of wilderness. Contrary to grumpykins of Shark Valley bike rentals, besides our magnificent gators, we saw heaps of wildlife in this epic slow moving river of grass. Fish, turtles and an impressive array of birds.
Writing this I am imagining all the gators we didn’t see, silently concealed alongside the trail. As we drove to our next destination – Naples beach for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico – we passed mile-upon-mile of Everglade containing deer, otters, panthers even. Didn’t see one. Bloody mammals. Fickle.
* Ranger enthusiasm: On the Big Island of Hawaii we encountered Ranger Travis who took us on an accidentally exclusive walking tour regaled us with tails of Pele: Goddess of Fire and Volcanos. He played traditional nose flute to accompany his epic story. Utterly priceless for fans of Little Britain.
(Did you spot it? I smuggled in exercise in the form of the bike ride. $10 poorer but still winning at parenting.)