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The Everglades National Park, Florida, USA

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The Everglades National Park is the second-largest national park in the USA, after Yellowstone, and it's a mad place (unless, you're used to living in an alligator-infested swamp, that is). If you just jump into your car and drive from one end to the other you might be forgiven for thinking that the Everglades is nothing but a flat swamp. But take some time to soak up the atmosphere and you'll be rewarded with a unique look into an environment that you won't find outside places like Australia's Kakadu.

The Everglades is about an hour's drive from Miami.

The Geography of the Everglades

To find out what's going on in the Everglades, you have to get out of your car and investigate. The whole expanse of what looks like grassland is in fact a huge, slow-moving river, albeit a very shallow one, and it's a fantastically rich ecology, made up of water, sawgrass, pockets of tropical jungle and clumps of trees (called 'hammocks'). The overflow from Lake Okeechobee to the north-west of Miami slowly heads south to the sea, creating what's called a 'sheet-flow ecosystem'

Although it's harder to get an appreciation for the Everglades on a short day trip, there's so much life here that you're guaranteed to see some of the more prolific inhabitants, such as alligators, herons, gar, kites and all sorts of exotic palm trees and pines. Don't make the mistake of leaping out of the car, burning round the walks and thinking that you've 'done' the Everglades: instead take the time to sit in a quiet spot, listening and watching, and slowly you'll notice the bird song, the lapping of the waters and the cracks and crunches of life moving around in the undergrowth.

What to See and Do

If you've only got a short time in which to experience the Everglades then there are a number of possible day trips that will give you a flavour (though if you can spend longer in the park, it's recommended).

  • Royal Palm Visitor Center - Situated just inside the southern entrance to the park, the Royal Palm has a couple of very short walks that really teem with life, especially at dawn and dusk when the park's inhabitants are most active (though, annoyingly, so are the mosquitoes). On the Anhinga Trail you will see plenty of alligators swimming through the still waters, you'll see heron catching fish, and it's a beautiful spot to catch the sunrise and sunset, and on the nearby Gumbo-Limbo Trail there are royal palm trees, orchids and lush vegetation.

  • Shark Valley - Closer to Miami and on the northern border of the park is this 15-mile round-trip tram track. You get off halfway for 20 minutes at an observation tower that has one of the best views in South Florida, a panorama over the Everglades. There are tour guides on the way, and it's a great introduction to the park

You may be tempted to take a ride on an airboat - and it's certainly fun - but don't. These extremely noisy contraptions are doing the fragile ecology of the Everglades no good at all, and although it's doubtless a hoot to burn through shallow swamp like something out of a James Bond movie, it's missing the point of the Everglades and destroying it in the process. They're illegal inside the park but you can find plenty of operators who'll take you on a trip on the 'glades outside the park boundaries, if you must.

If you have more time to spend in the Everglades, then the best way to explore the park is by canoeing and camping. You can get equipment and provisions in Everglades City in the north-west tip of the park, which also happens to be the start of the longest canoe route, the seven-day 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. There are countless routes you can take, and there are loads of campsites on beaches, islands and 'chickees' (wooden platforms built above the water, suitable for free-standing tents only). As a way of getting intimate with the Everglades, this is the way to go, and makes airboating look like the fast-food experience it is.

Threats to the Everglades

The biggest threat to the Everglades is, not surprisingly, man. The extensive canal systems that man has built to irrigate farmland to the north of the Everglades have diverted water away from the park, and the crud that mankind tends to dump in its rivers has eked into the fragile ecosystem of the wetlands, threatening the very existence of the Everglades.

Money is being put into saving the Everglades, but it might end up being too little too late. 900 new residents are moving into Miami every day, and the demand for water is going up all the time. Be aware of your impact on this unique place when you visit, or you might find it's gone next time you look.

Nasty Things

The biggest threat to visitors to the Everglades isn't the alligator or the four types of poisonous snakes in the park (you've got to be very unlucky or very stupid to have any trouble with these). It's the more familiar mosquito. If you visit the park between April and October, then beware: you'll need some very serious protection if you're going to survive. There are also some really ferocious 'no-see-ums' in the park, nasty little midges who'll make your life a misery; we recommend Avon Skin So Soft or the bushman's formula in our entry on insect repellent.

The second most annoying thing is running out of water, though this is potentially much more dangerous than the mozzies. It's hot out there, and although you'll be surrounded by water, that's not much help when it's infested with more bacteria than the human system can cope with. Bring lots of non-alcoholic drinks with you, and if you're camping go for purification tablets, boiling or a ceramic water filter. This is a sub-tropical wilderness, and it's best to remember that.

Crocodile or Alligator?

To the uninitiated crocodiles and alligators might look alike, but there are a number of differences, not the least of which is the fact that there are fewer than 500 American crocodiles left in the US. Here's how to tell which beast is chewing your leg off:

AlligatorCrocodile
Broad snoutNarrow snout
Blackish colour (adults)Olive brown colour
When mouth is closed, only upper jaw teeth are visibleWhen mouth is closed, teeth from both jaws are visible
Found throughout the south-eastern USAOnly found in southern Florida, the Caribbean, and Central and South America
Nests in a mound of vegetation in fresh waterLays eggs in mud or sand in salt or brackish water

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