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Where the Wild Things Are

Orlando is known for its high-tech attractions. But the surrounding wilderness has plenty of excitement and adventure on offer as well.

Downtown Orlando looks much like any other large city. Skyscrapers with offices and shops, traffic-congested streets, bars and restaurants filled with well-dressed evening guests. These very same people spend the day strolling about dressed as Goofy or Spiderman, selling ice cream and operating rollercoasters. Almost every resident of the US “Holiday Capital” works in a theme park, of which there are more than 100.

Fotos: Carsten Heinke

Adventure away from all the hubbub

If ever proof were needed that fun and thrills can be had without an electricity supply or high speed, it can be found in the national parks and eco-farms in the Orlando area. Even some of Orlando’s urban amusement parks focus on nature. A case in point is “Gatorland” where a living fossil in jagged leather armour doses under a palm tree, its sharp teeth gleaming from its pink mouth. The animal is roughly the length of a mid-size car – and one of 1750 Mississippi alligators at Gatorland. Visitors wishing to see more of these impressive reptiles can go on an adventure tour through the grounds set in a dormant landscape of marshlands. Small lakes and waterways, some directly connected to the Everglades, glisten in the sunlight. Often, the abundance of life becomes apparent only at second glance – in the “Breeding Marsh” for instance. As the name suggests, it is where the alligators breed. The marsh is surrounded by reeds and bushes where cranes and herons nest. Visitors can observe the animals up close from the safety of a fenced wooden walkway, as well as from an observation tower.

The lord of the gators

A few birds use the floating alligators as a resting spot. “Usually nothing happens to them,” Timothy Williams says. The man with a permanent smile on his face and strong forearms is something of a “lord of the gators“. The sculpture in front of the Orange County Regional History Centre in downtown Orlando could be dedicated to him. Just like the nineteenth-century bronze cowboy sitting on an alligator, Tim is a gator wrestler. He can handle fully grown reptiles – without using a weapon and without killing or injuring them.

Fighting a powerhouse

Gator wrestling is considered a tradition in Florida. “The Native Americans used this fighting technique both to catch the alligators and for purposes of self-defence without bloodshed,” Tim explains. Later on, cattle breeders adopted it to protect their herds and also publicly displayed their skills. Gator wrestling is, still today, a part of the regional culture and presented daily at the park. “The rowdy gators enjoy measuring their strength,” Tim says. The son of an adventurer and a girl scout grew up in the great outdoors. “We were often out in the wilderness and would sleep in a tent,” Today, the father of seven and grandfather of four is passing on his knowledge to his descendants.

At 68, Tim is the same age as Gatorland, Orlando’s oldest theme park. When the alligator expert first started working for the park as an advisor, he turned the concept of the gator zoo on its head. His basic idea: to entertain the public and to keep the animals busy – because even if their habitat is a natural setting, their movement is nonetheless confined. “Each alligator has its own character. That is why you need to know which job to give to which alligator,” says the man who knows how to get these up to six-metre-long bundles of energy to listen to their names and to respond to commands. Alligators not suited to wrestle can serve as photo models or display their natural talent in jumping.

Mermaids in a fairy tale landscape

As powerful as Florida’s wilderness can be, there is also a very gentle side to it. In the “Blue Spring State Park”, for instance, where quiet moments can feel like an adventure, too. Long, grey Spanish moss hangs from gnarly oak trees. According to a Native American legend, the moss once adorned the head of a princess who died on her wedding day. The girl’s black hair, it is said, has since turned grey, but continues to grow from branch to branch. The Spanish moss has converted the protected forest along the banks of the St. John’s River into an eerily splendid fairy tale landscape. The springs in its midst constitute the source of the river.

The clear waters of the Blue Spring State Park are home to what Christopher Columbus once believed to be mermaids. However, their appearance disappointed him. They featured too many “masculine features”, the explorer wrote in his log in 1493 on seeing the creatures up close. Seafarer Columbus had never seen or heard of a manatee before. On this beautiful morning, a female manatee swims up to the observation platform with her baby. The mother is three metres long, grey and un-shapely, resembling an aerial bomb from the Second World War. Bristles grow from her wrinkled skin, and she has a beard around her mouth and nose. The sad look in her eyes is endearing.

Save the manatees

Cora Berchem takes a picture. The scientist works for the “Save the Manatee Club”, a charitable organisation dedicated to the protection of manatees. Cora, who is wearing a navy blue Manatee Club T-shirt, documents the behaviour of the animals in this park. “The closest relative of the manatee is the elephant,” the young scientist from Germany explains. However, unlike elephants, manatees never leave the water. The springs of the Blue Spring State Park provide the ideal winter quarters for them. Between November and March, when the water temperatures drop below 20 degrees Celsius, hundreds of animals gather here. The largest spring in the park is a constant 22.5 degrees Celsius. Since manatees only have a thin layer of fat, they are ill-equipped for colder temperatures and only return to the cool river to eat seaweed.

The manatee calf at the visitor platform is still being nursed by its mother. The mother turns to her calf with great tenderness. Cora points to a large scar on the animal’s side: “Two years ago, she was injured by a ship’s propeller in St. Johns River. Fortunately, we found her in time and were able to rescue her,” the 35-year-old scientist explains. Accidents caused by boats are a daily occurrence in summer. 2016 marked a sad record year, with 520 manatee fatalities. Although Florida’s Caribbean manatee population has risen from 1267 to 6620 over the past sixteen years, they are still considered an endangered species. Visitors in the park in winter are not permitted to leave the paths or observation areas, so as not to disturb the animals.

Flying above the marshlands

Outdoor adventures in the Florida wilderness are also to be had in the “Forever Florida” eco-farm. By way of conservation of a piece of primal forest, Margaret and William Broussard have created a living memorial in honour of their son Allen who died young. Through his work as a biologist, Allen had spent a great deal of time in this very same forest. “Put your helmets on! We will start making our way up now,” Cole Houston says. The tour leader with blond, shoulder-length hair is accompanying a group of visitors to a zip line safari, a tour that will have them whizzing through the canopies of the primal forest on a cable. A few hundred steps later and we have reached the upper deck of the first tower. What a mesmerising view! Wilderness as far as the eye can see in every imaginable shade of green, right up to the horizon. Crowns of pines, palms, oaks and cypresses. This is getting to be very exciting!

We can still feel the wooden boards of the starting platform beneath the soles of our feet. But our toes are already hanging over the edge. The floor of the forest is a more than twenty-metre drop. “No need to be afraid, you are very safe,” Cole reassures the group while making sure everything is in place, including our harnesses. We attach ourselves to the pulley on the double cable using snap hooks and two lifelines. “Enjoy!” 26-year-old Cole says. And off we fly, buzzing quietly through the upper tiers of the forest, our legs dangling in the air, at a maximum speed of 20 m/h. The zip line partly leads from tree to tree and partly above the treetops. A sense of freedom unfolds and triggers an indescribable sensation of happiness. This bird’s-eye view displays the full diversity of the biotope that is the size of 2000 football pitches. One’s gaze is alternately drawn to the crown of a pine and then captivated by the tangle of old oak branches and leaves. Clear waterways and black mirrors of muddy marsh waters glisten through the thicket. Also to be seen: a group of horseback riders and converted agricultural vehicles, known as trail buggies. Because tours into the wild of the eco-farm can also be done on horseback or in a trail buggy. None of it seems to bother the wildlife here. “They know people are no danger to them,” Cole had mentioned earlier. Some birds have built their nests so close to the zip line that zip-liners can look in while whizzing by. A heron prepares to take flight. Two stags graze undisturbed. Terrapins plonk themselves into a shallow pool of water. We even spot an armadillo from our aerial view. What an adventure - away from all the hubbub!

Tips

Author’s Choice ;;; The seafood takes less than an hour to get from the Atlantic to the “Big Fin Seafood Kitchen” – in my opinion, the best restaurant in town. It has won awards, is stylish, has a lively yet pleasant ambience and the servers are very attentive. My personal recommendation: the “Big Fin Shells & Tails Platter” with lobster, king crabs, shrimps and oysters. Price: USD 48 and enough for two. ;;; (www.bigfinseafood.com)

Gatorland ;;; The adventure park in Orlando presents alligators in ponds and marshlands that can be explored from wooden walkways and bridges. There are various shows and tours on offer, including a one-hour night-time walk. ;;; (www.gatorland.com)

Blue Spring State Park ;;; The state park 45 minutes north of downtown Orland encompasses forest, springs and parts of the St. Johns River. Caribbean manatees can be observed in the protected area from mid-November until mid-March. The water may not be entered during this time. Swimming, snorkelling, diving, canoeing and fishing are permitted at other times. ;;; (www.floridastateparks.org/park/Blue-Spring)

Forever Florida ;;; The adventure eco-farm one hour south of downtown Orlando offers tours by zip line, on horseback and in trail buggies. ;;; (www.foreverflorida.com)

Text: Carsten Heinke und Brian Blanco