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Trip Report See You Later, Alligator!

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It had long been my German husband's dream to visit Okefenokee Swamp. It was so out of the way, that it was difficult to fit in into a vacation, but this year we finally made it! (We are both late 50's, by the way.)

Friday, April 19

Let's put it this way: 5 a.m. is not my time. I can function when needed, but it sure is not fun. Kitty was thrilled to have us up so early, though, and got in an extra cuddle. OUr son was up before we left, so we could say goodbye to him. Left the house about 5:45.

Got to Düsseldorf airport and found a parking place rather easily. We had already checked in online, so we just had to turn in our suitcases. Sat for about an hour before boarding.

Flight was 100 percent full. There was an extremely strong headwind, so the flight took nearly 10 hours. Surprisingly, it seemed to go rather fast and we never had that “Oh god another five hours of torture” feeling.....thank goodness! It got rather bumpy as the flight went along.

Immigration in Atlanta went fast, but we had to wait about 10 minutes for our bags. This was bad, since the late arrival made it tight to catch our next flight. Then we had to wait what seemed like forever (but what was likely 5-10 minutes) to go through security again. From there we caught the train and literally ran to the gate, where they were calling final boarding. We were NOT the last people to board.

The flight was so bumpy they didn't offer any service at all. Since it was only about a 45 minute flight, it didn't really make any difference.

Jacksonville, Fla, is not a huge airport and we easily found our way to pick up our bags and then the rental car counter. Sadly, they had not mid-size SUV ready at the moment, we could either wait for one or take a free upgrade to a van right away. “Free” and “right away” hit the right notes, so we took that.

Walked out to the garage and were given a Dodge Grand Caravan – a seven seater! That sucker is BIG! Ridiculous for the two of us, but hey, we took it!

Hot and humid, and it had rained a lot, obviously. It also rained overnight.

From there it was only a mile or two to the Best Western Jacksonville Airport. hotel. Checked in and then took off again to a nearby shopping center. Bought the necessities of life at Wal-Mart, including a nifty folding cooler. Bought dinner there, too, a burrito for Norbert and a sub sandwich for me. Ate in the hotel room. To bed by 8:15.

Saturday, April 20

Up at 5:45 or so. Took our time. Breakfast at hotel, before heading north on 95 for a few miles. Then headed northwest on the back roads, which are always so much fun. Flat and deserted landscape. I kept wondering why the schools were closed, until Norbert pointed it out that it was actually Saturday.......

We went through Folkston to the East Entrance of the Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. Walked through the visitor's center and watched the glorious film. Booked a boat trip and waited about half an hour for it.

The weather was drippy and significantly cooler. I ended up wearing a tee-shirt, cardigan and rain jacket, and wasn't really warm enough.

We were lucky enough to have a private tour, that is, just the guide and the two of us. She was 29, had worked there 9 years and was quite passionate about nature, the swamp and the environment. The trip was wonderful. The swamp is incredible. It is impossible to describe. We saw alligators, owls, Sandhill crane, pitcher plants, sundews, all sorts of things. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. It ended up by going into what can only be described as a huge lake filled with water lilies – not blooming unfortunately, but still an incredible sight.

From there we backtracked to Folkston and hit the Burger King for lunch and Rite Aid for some cough medicine for me. Also hit Harvey's grocery store to get something for dinner.

Then we headed south and then west to Fargo, Ga., and the entrance to the Stephen C. Foster State Park. The main impression from the drive is that there is a lot of nothing in this area – but “nothing” can be fascinating, too.

Went straight to the Trading Post within the park and signed up for another boat trip, which started in about 5 minutes. One other family of four went with us. The first part was perhaps not so interesting, but when we went off into a side canal, it was gorgeous.

When we got back, we went ahead and checked in to our cabin. Dinner was chicken breasts, peas and yellow rice.

There are 8 cabins, and only five are in use. It is fine, with living room, dining room-kitchen, full bath and two bedrooms, with two beds each. The kitchen assortment is – interesting – but certainly adequate for our needs. There is a tv, with only about five stations! (how old-fashioned.....) And no internet, which is actually rather nice.

Saw several deer outside the cabin in the evening. There are also several squirrels who apparently live here, who we love to watch.

Sunday, April 21

Slept relatively well but up early, of course.We left about 8 and headed to Waycross, Ga. We passed a lot of fields of bushes, and berry processing places, and discovered later they were blueberries. Pretty impressive to see a field of hundreds if not thousands of blueberry bushes.

Once more, lots of nothing along the way, but still fascinating. ON the way out of the park, we saw several wild turkeys.

Waycross is a nice little town and we actually found out way without too many problems. Okefenokee Swamp Park is a semi-commercial place within the park. They have it really set up so you take the boat trip at 12, the train trip at 1 and then catch the nature show at 2. We had time first to look at the little zoo area – a bunch of gators – with several squirrels following us arounds and providing entertainment.

We also went out on the boardwalk into the swamp, which was beautiful. It continues, after a gate, on to a “low boardwalk”, at water level, which of course the critters can get on. fortunately, it was closed due to the recent rain. Not that I would have gone on it anyway!

The boat trip was full and the guide didn't stop talking. That didn't distract from the beauty of the swamp, though. And it was significantly warmer, which helped.

From there we drove back to Waycross, had lunch at Arby's and picked up dinner at Wal-Mart, and a coffee at Starbucks before heading home. Once “home”, we went to the nature walk within the park and saw a deer with a small fawn...... cuuuuuute. Then we hit the Trading Post where I bought a cookbook, a Christmas present for my brother, and some postcards.

We have enjoyed watching the wildlife out in back of the cabin. We have seen a number of deer and of course the squirrels. This evening we saw first a turkey, and then a flock of large birds, which we suspect were turkey buzzards. Fascinating! Two more deer showed up, too.

What is it about the swamp that is so fascinating? Hard to say. The tall cypresses enclosing everything, give it such a closed-in feeling. The water quite literally everywhere, but so little of it open water. Okefenokee translates as “the land of the trembling earth”, because so often what looks like solid earth absolutely isn't – just stuff floating on the water. It is mysterious, intriguing, and so much of it untouched by and indifferent to the human race.

And of course the wildlife. We really did see alligators in the wild, including several little ones. Believe me, they are truly scary creatures! But also Sandhill cranes (Huge!), deer, owls, chameleons and all sorts of birds. Even the ditches often have beautiful bright white egrets – their spotless shining white such a contrast to the muck.

The plants are equally fascinating. The cypress trees, dripping with Spanish moss, the thousands and thousands of water lilies, the pitcher plants, the sundew plants, the wild iris – and so many more that I don't recognize.

NOTE: I was told there are no buzzards in North America, and what we saw were Turkey Vultures.

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