Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation
Hendry County, Florida 33440
To see Florida like a native, you have to get out of the fast lane of Miami or Orlando, and head inland and a good choice is the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in southeastern Hendry County. The pace eases as soon as you head into the heart of the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation. It gears down still further as you turn onto the dirt and stone road that leads to Billie Swamp Safari, one of the Seminole tribe's latest business ventures, geared to a growing appetite for soft adventure.
From here on, you'll go no faster than a swamp buggy can roll through the jungle-like Big Cypress Swamp. This is a Florida attraction of a different sort. There are no high-tech rides, no phones, video games or MTV. No traffic jams in the parking lot. No hordes of people waiting in line. The safari offers visitors a chance to explore nature and sample a bit of the Seminole life in the sprawling wetlands for a day, an evening or overnight. For Emma and Jan Trollerud, and their 12-year-old daughter Veronica, it's become a regular escape from the bustle of Miami.
The family has spent almost every weekend at the safari since it opened last year. "It's not far from home and I like the idea that you can be here without a busy schedule," Emma Trollerud says after a leisurely horseback ride through the swamp. "It's not like Disney with all the lines and the waiting. Here you can walk around and enjoy nature. And these are very hospitable, nice people." For Veronica the attraction's much simpler: "The horses. I love the horses," she says. Visitors live in thatch-roofed huts called chickees that are lit by oil lamps. They listen to Seminole stories told beside an aromatic campfire. They explore the Big Cypress Swamp by horseback or swamp buggy by day and night.
Of course, it's not quite the way it used to be on the reservation. Dale Grasshopper, a Seminole woman who grew up on the Big Cypress reservation, says as recently as 20 years ago, virtually all the Seminoles lived in the traditional thatch-roofed huts. Extended families cooked and ate together, sharing food and stories. But that's all changed now, Grasshopper says. "Just about everyone has a house." And while the Seminoles may not live in them anymore, the tribe has constructed dozens of chickees of varying sizes that now attract people who pay money to stay in them. "It surprised me that people would want to stay with no electricity and only outdoor water," she says. "As long as I was growing up, we all wanted to move into a house." (There are outhouses near the chickees and modern bathrooms and showers in a nearby building.)
Clearly the attraction offers visitors something that's ever rarer in this rapidly growing state: a chance to experience Florida's wilderness, to see the land as it was before it became a mecca for developers and cold-weather refugees. It's not that the 50,000-acre reservation is devoid of development. Besides the safari, there are homes dotting the landscape, cattle farms, a rodeo complex, a campground and there's talk of a motel going up soon. A museum devoted to Seminole traditions is also under construction. Still, most of the 2,000 acres within the safari are undeveloped, home to native creatures as well as some the Seminoles imported. A swamp buggy ride takes visitors through now bare cypress heads, scrubby palmettos and flowing sawgrass. Grazing Watusi cattle, bison, axis deer, wild pigs and scimitar-horned oryx are among the creatures to be found on the safari property. But first, the preliminaries.
Check-in takes place at a simple desk in the welcome hall. After paying up and signing a form that releases the tribe from any liability should you get hurt, you get a plastic wrist band reminiscent of the hospital variety that identifies you as an overnight guest. For those who arrive late in the morning, the first stop is usually lunch at the on-site restaurant, the Swamp Water Cafe. The big wood-filled building is nestled on the banks of a canal that's a favorite with local gators.
One particularly large gator likes to loll about behind the restaurant, sunning and foraging for meals. Inside the air-conditioned cafe, meals are served either buffet style or off the menu. There's nothing flashy, but prices are low and the fare substantial. On this day, three Miami-based tour buses have emptied their cargo - German tourists - at the safari. After lunch, they filter out of the cafe and cluster around the fenced-in pond just outside. In residence are two gators, a crocodile, several turtles and a box of poisonous snakes. They watch with expressions of fascination and horror as Daniel Yzaguirre of Immokalee handles each of the creatures and explains some of their characteristics, which the tour guides quickly translate. He straddles a gator and pries its mouth open for everyone to see the fleshy white interior lined with an impressive set of 80 razor-sharp teeth. They let out a communal gasp as the crocodile, a far more aggressive beast than the gator, suddenly takes a flying leap out of the pond toward Yzaguirre who quickly jumps out of the way while a fellow employee races forward with a stick to ward the beast off. This isn't for show - both men are clearly shaken. It's a real-life demonstration of just how dangerous these animals can be.
Yzaguirre's brother, who also works at the safari, lost an index finger to an angry gator a few months back. He says he can't even watch the gator show anymore. Yzaguirre imparts some valuable advice: "If a gator ever bites you, stick your small finger in his ear to make him let go." Several of the observers appear to make a mental note of that hint. He also pulls out several poisonous snakes - an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake, an adult water moccasin and a baby water moccasin. Finally, he extracts a non-poisonous indigo snake from the box and holds it up for guests to touch. Most are now ready to see less threatening species.
On to the swamp buggies. Everyone clambers up the ladders to the elevated platform atop the buggy and the odd-looking vehicle lumbers into the swamps. Guides are good at spotting animals tucked inconspicuously among the palms, including the various types of deer the tribe imported to create a more safari-like setting. They also share information about the vegetation in the swamp. Depending on the time of day, route and luck, visitors can see all sorts of creatures. Between the day and evening swamp buggy tours and a lengthy horseback ride, white-tailed deer, axis deer, Watusi cattle, a herd of bison an oryx and a couple of adult pigs and five of their squealing offspring made appearances. Two species rarely seen alive - a possum and an armadillo - were also visible tooling through the swamp.
The dinner buffet is the same as lunch, but guests can also order off the menu. We tried the fried chicken and fried shrimp, both of which were hot and crisp, served with french fries and cole slaw. It was a chilly night and we gratefully parked ourselves in front of a campfire burning in the center of the grounds. Soon Monica McCowan came to sit with us and tell Seminole tales. There were only the two of us that night but it was possible to imagine what it must have been like when the women in a Seminole family would gather at night and share tales. McCowan says that's how she learned the tales - stories that explain all sorts of natural phenomena - how the alligator got such tough skin, how the possum got such an ugly tail, why buzzards are black, how rivers were formed.
The evening's final activity is the night swamp buggy ride, on which the guide uses a large spotlight to illuminate the animals. Some, like the oryx and bison, are so accustomed to the nightly visits, they barely acknowledge the presence of the buggy and its passengers. At last, it's time for bed. It's a cold night, requiring serious layering of clothes, blankets and sleeping bags. The chickees have screens but no windows and it's as cold inside as out (a good point to remember when booking a trip). Without an alarm and so far removed from the rumble of civilization, guests tend to wake up gently, naturally. The morning chill urges us toward the cafe for some heat, coffee and - what else - a buffet breakfast. We're talking hearty breakfast: scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, fresh biscuits and gravy and grits. There's time to stop by and pet the three Florida panthers who live in large runs on the compound.
Raised by man since they were born, they purr loudly and rub their tawny necks up against the side of the cages for petting. Then, full of breakfast, a new appreciation for Florida's wilderness and the peace that comes with some time out, we reluctantly drive away from the reservation, back to the fast and furious pace of daily life.
IF YOU GO ... TO BIG CYPRESS INDIAN RESERVATION WHERE: On the Big Cypress Indian Reservation in southeastern Hendry County, Fla.
GETTING THERE: From Southwest Florida, take Interstate 75 south to Exit 14 (where the Miccosukee Shell service station is) and drive 20 miles north on BIA Route 1281. Follow the signs to the safari. (From Miami, take interstate 75 north to Exit 14). They also have a private airport on the reservation if you'd like to fly in by private plane.
COST: There are several options from which to choose. Overnight safari: Costs $99 per adult, $65 per child 6 to 12 years. This includes lunch, dinner and breakfast, a day swamp buggy tour, a night swamp buggy tour, storytelling, gator and snake show and accommodations in a chickee. Day safari: Costs $35 for adults, $25 for children 6 to 12. This includes a swamp buggy tour, lunch, orientation and welcome beverage. Night safari: Costs $45 for adults and $35 for children. This includes dinner, a night swamp buggy tour, storytelling, beverage and orientation. Chickee rental: Chickee rentals are $35 for a chickee that sleeps two. Dorm chickees may be rented for $18 per person, with a minimum of three people. The large ones sleep eight.
ACTIVITIES: Swamp buggy rides, guided hiking and horseback riding, camping, storytelling, wildlife shows, hunting (packages available and must be arranged in advance). WHAT TO BRING: This time of year, extra blankets and warm clothing are vital. (You are supplied with a small bed which has sheets, blankets and a pillow but it can get pretty cold.) Also take gloves, a hat, flashlights and cameras. In warmer weather, mosquito repellant is a must.
INFORMATION: Call 1 (800) 949-6101 or 1 (813) 983-6102.