…. is probably NOT cycling in the Everglades with alligators. But we did it anyway.
We rented some bikes from a friendly Park Ranger, although that probably wouldn’t be my usual first stop for top-notch cycling equipment. In fact, just like our cycling trip to the Outer Banks some while back, it wasn’t so much a bicycle as a very comfy old armchair on wheels. With no gears and no brakes. Not necessarily the best equipment for a fast getaway. However, Shark Valley is a very flat, traffic-free (apart from the occasional tram and much more frequent alligator) environment, so in fact the cycling aspect was pretty easy, despite the heat and humidity, and the two hours it took really did seem to fly by in about half that time.
We arrived at 8.30, park opening time, in order to beat the heat as much as we could. It was “only” about 26c at this time so it was the best we could hope for. We also had our arms and legs fully covered in an attempt to avoid the mosquitoes, which added to the heat for us. This ploy did mostly work as I only ended up with a couple of bites, which is amazing for me who is normally regarded as a buffet table by the mozzies.
There were two other cyclists who set off just ahead of us (excellent idea, they were the bait for any gators up ahead so we could then assess whether it was safe for us) and we hardly saw anyone else for the whole ride. We picked a good time because, of the numerous gators we saw, most were sleeping and/or just not interested in bothering us as long as we didn’t bother them. There are very few safety signs in the parks about them; mainly you are just advised to stay ten feet away and not to feed them, whereas in bear territory there are way more signs telling you exactly what to do to avoid a bear attack. So we weren’t too worried. Plus at the start of our ride, all the alligators were on the opposite side of the river bank – only about five feet away, but still, we felt like we’d have a headstart if one of them decided to come over and say hello.
Pretty soon, we started seeing more on our side of the river, but by this point we were getting used to them and the fact that the most movement they were going to make was to slowly open one eye. Then up ahead we spotted one gently ambling across the path we needed to take. We weren’t sure what to do, but the two people ahead of us had just cycled past it without incident, so we decided it was better to do that than to hang around. It’s very difficult to give an alligator a wide berth when then path is only about fifteen feet wide anyway. And did you know they can apparently run at speeds of up to 11 mph? However, it’s amazing how fast you can cycle on a rusty, gearless bike when you need to!
Halfway around the trail, we stopped at a lookout point and got an amazing birds-eye view of the gators swimming in the waters below, as they were just all starting to wake up and move about. At this point, they really looked like Disney animatronics and we did have to keep reminding ourselves that they were real. We also had a slight worry that there might be one lying close to our bikes when we returned to where we had left them at ground level, and decided that our best course of action would be to go back up the lookout point and wait for it to get up and move on …. however long that took. Thankfully, this problem did not materialise.
The second half of the trail was away from the waterway and in more kind of open country. Every few feet there were little ponds and every one had a small alligator lying in it. We also saw a congregation of tiny baby alligators, who were utterly adorable, but their doting mother was just a little more scary. We did not hang around there.
By the end of the trail, we had seen so many alligators that it was like “oh yeah, ANOTHER one ….”. They were amazing though, very prehistoric-looking and almost too strange to be real. It was so nice to see them in their natural habitat instead of at one of the horrible places where they are kept in captivity and forced to wrestle with the people who run it.
The rest of our week in the Florida Keys was pretty much spent relaxing poolside, although we did have a trip through the Keys to see some of the islands, as well as getting in a few short runs around the local golf course which, of course, warned that alligators might be hiding out there. But hey, we were alligator experts by this time….