houston we have a problem
The headlines around the world read, “7 Dead, 1,200 rescued” as Houston experienced the second wettest calendar day on record (dating back to 1888), with 25cm of rain falling at Bush Intercontinental Airport. Of all the days to be booked for a flight out of Houston, we had to have chosen this day. The previous day we had arrived in Houston, a stop-over on our way to Orlando, and had driven downtown to watch the Astros vs the Tigers at the Minute Maid Stadium. It was a normal day, admittedly our first time to Houston and our first time to watch a baseball game, but nothing predicted the deluge that was to come the following day. We were woken in the early hours of the morning to the sound of thunder as sheets of lightning lit up the night sky and were lulled back to sleep by the sound of rain falling on the roof of our hotel. By the time our alarm went off to tell us to get up and get to the airport the sky was still somewhat dark outside and the room was even darker inside; there was no power. Undeterred we headed off to the airport, a little disheveled but ready for our 10am flight to Orlando. Little did we know we were in the middle of one of the wettest days on record and our chances of getting out of Texas faded with the days light. To describe what it was like to be at an airport ALL day as flights were rescheduled, altered, and eventually cancelled would take the whole article, but trust me when I say it was full of emotion as people struggled to get out of the area and back home to loved ones. For us, we needed to be in Orlando to pick up our RV to get underway on our Southern adventure. We were driving from Orlando along the Southern States to see Van Morrison play at the New Orleans Jazz festival and then back again to Orlando. With limited days to travel over 2000 miles we simply did not have time to waste. When the final flight of the day was cancelled at 4.30pm we were told to go wait in the line to see a staff rep who would rebook us on the next available flight the following day. As we walked to join the end of the queue, which ran the length of the airport and had an approximate wait time of 4 hours, our 13 year old made a suggestion, “why don’t we just drive there?” Now you have to remember we are from New Zealand and driving great distances is simply not in our DNA, however the alternative of another day at the airport was enough for us to think that this was a good idea. By now it was 7pm and with darkness falling we were keen to hit the road. To be honest, we didn’t really think too much about the distance, I don’t think we could get our head around exactly how far 1,400km was. To put it into perspective, the whole length of New Zealand, from Cape Reinga to Bluff is around 1,900km, a bloody long way. We also didn’t really think too much about the state of the roads, and if the flooding was enough to close the airport then surely the roads wouldn’t be much better. Little did we know that at one point, flash flood warnings covered more than 183,000 square miles of Texas, larger than the size of the whole of New Zealand, as Texas experienced its second 100-year rainstorm in less than a week. We hit the road and after a few nervous miles we joined highway 10, the southernmost major interstate highway in America, and drove East towards Orlando managing to avoid any further rain along the way. We later discovered that had we been anywhere else in Houston our chances of getting out would have been slim. Over 240 billion gallons of rain fell in the Houston area that day, that’s enough to fill 363,400 Olympic sized swimming pools. 123,000 homes lost power, over 1,000 homes were flooded and more than 1200 high water rescues were made. Tragically 8 people lost their lives that day, scarily they were all found in their cars. It took us 14 hours and 5 States to get to Orlando and as the sun rose around 5am the following morning we’d almost forgotten about the floods in Texas. It was hot in Florida, reaching 30 degrees and although we’d left a very warm autumn in New Zealand, the humid temperatures put us immediately in holiday mode and we were excited to begin our adventure. This was our second trip through America in a Road Bear RV and we are already planning our third. When looking at a map it’s easy to forget how big America is but the distance between places is made easy by the fantastic roading systems. Driving a portable home in simple in this part of the world and we didn’t have to worry too much about getting to a certain destination in a set time as we had the flexibility to stop when we needed to. We’d already driven the fastest route from Houston to Orlando, so without repeating the same drive we decided to hug the coast on our way to Louisiana and then come back further inland. Our first stop of note was Chassakowitzka River Campground in Homasassa. We'd seen pictures on the internet and were drawn to the place due its crystal clear springs and wildlife that you could explore from a hired canoe. The water was crystal clear as promised and as we paddled along we saw all sorts of wildlife and stopped and fished for a while catching lots of very small bass. We were also fortunate enough to get up close and personal with two manatee that reside in the area. As we were paddling up one of the tributaries we spotted a water snake. In naïve Kiwi fashion we decided to get a little closer and have a good look but at the same time another kayaker turned around. We asked why and she replied, “I’m a local, I can come another day, I don’t need to risk it,” and with that she paddled off. We were a little bewildered by her comments and due to the nervous requests of our 13 year old we decided to follow suit and turn around. When we got back to the dock we told one of the locals we’d seen a snake and asked if they were dangerous. He asked what colour it was and we told him it was black. “Oh that’ll be the water Moccasin, yeah, that’ll kill ya!” Enough said. From Chassahowitzka we headed north along the gulf coast towards New Orleans, with limited time we spent a lot of the first few days driving. The coast is beautiful, however we were drawn to the wild expanses of swamplands draped with Spanish moss and the sights that were different from what we could find back home in New Zealand. New Orleans definitely fit the bill. Situated on the banks of the Mississippi River it has been nicknamed “the Big Easy” for its non-stop nightlife, vibrant music and spicy food. It was founded in 1718 by the French and eventually was handed over to the Spanish in 1763. The French quarter is the oldest neighbourhood of New Orleans and has been designated as a National Historic Landmark. Most of it
was destroyed in fires in the late 1700’s and was rebuilt by the Spanish and this is how it stands today. It’s a bustling tourist destination which attracts the bohemian musicians as well as those seeking all-night parties. New Orleans is also full of haunted houses and vampire tales. Many of the ghosts reported in some of the old mansions can be traced back many years and sightings of slaves, old employees of hotels and guests from the past are fairly common. One of the main tourist attractions is to take a haunted house or a vampire tour around the city at night. Vampire stories stretch back to the early 1700’s to a man by the name of Jacques Saint Germain who fits the description of a French man “Comte” who was described as “the man who knows everything but never dies” due to his ever youthful appearance. Germain was weathly and would throw lavish parties but was never seen eating. One night after a party he grabbed a lady and tried to bite her neck. She managed to escape and reported the incident to the police. When they went to investigate Germain had vanished and when they searched his apartment they found tablecloths with large splotches of blood and no evidence of food in the house, only wine. When trying the wine they discovered it was mixed with human blood. As a principal port New Orleans also played a major role in the Atlantic slave trade despite the fact that it had one of the largest and most prosperous communities of free persons of colour in the nation. However this did not stop the introduction of the Jim Crow laws in 1890, which forced the racial segregation in Southern United States and disenfranchised even the free persons of colour. Despite the hardships, or maybe because of them, this area became known for its jazz and blues and although we’d come to see Van Morrison perform at the Jazz Festival it was the music of the Southern States that made it so memorable. It is impossible to visit this part of America and not be touched by both the atrocities of the slave trade and the struggles of the civil rights movement. Our path back to Orlando took us up through Mississippi to the town of Natchez. The town is full of beautiful antebellum homes, many open to visitors. One we explored was complete with large slave quarters, its walls lined with memorabilia including letters from owners and slaves alike, it made for some scary reading. During the early 1800’s Natchez had the most active illegal slave trading maker in the state of Mississippi. Natchez is also the starting point of the Natchez Trace, a Native American trail that followed a path established by migrating animals and was used as a way home for the boatmen who sold their wares in Natchez or New Orleans. The Trace is now a National Park which extends over 700km from Natchez to Nashville Tennessee. We followed the trace for a few hours, stopping at historic landmarks along the way. There are plenty of places to hike safely years away from the dangers of the highwaymen who used to terrorize travellers along the road. One of the things we learnt early on in our travels was not to assume that water meant swimming. With the temperatures reaching the mid 30’s we were keen to find somewhere we cool down, so we chose campsites that bordered a river or lake. However as we drove in we were stunned with the signs greeting us on arrival. “Beware of Alligators.” We were still not super sure where they meant and drove down to the boat ramp alongside the campground. The signs were still there, “no swimming, alligators”. We checked the camp map only to find that 50 meters to our right was a swimming beach, so off we went to explore. I am not sure if they are really super intelligent alligators in the area but the beach offered no natural or manmade defense against the said alligators. We met a couple of local girls who were walking in the water and asked them if they’d ever seen an alligator there. “Oh yeah”, they replied, “but not here, on the other side of the lake.” I asked them “what’s to stop them swimming over here?” They shrugged and replied, “nothing I guess.” Needless to say we stayed dry and hot instead. Our journey took us through the middle of Mississippi and Alabama to the Civil Rights Institute in Albany. If you want to experience the Civil Rights movement then this is the place to go. Through years of slavery, violent racism and segregation, African Americans sought to assert their own basic human dignity to be afforded an equal place in American society. The institute brilliantly captures the stories of ordinary people who became effective in the change that was to come. A very moving experience made even more relevant due to the fact that much of this happened within our lifetime. The Selma to Montgomery march, which was made into a movie last year simply called “Selma” happened in 1965, the year I was born.
Unusually for us, our journey had been very historically based and we were keen to get back to the swampland that we were so fascinated with so we headed to the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia. A shallow wetland, the Okefenokee Swamp straddles Georgia and Florida and is considered one of the seven natural wonders of Georgia. We visited the swamp from the western access, taking us through the town of Fargo and Williamsburg into Stephen C Foster State Park. Situated on the banks of the Suwannee River, the State park offers canoes and punts for hire to explore the swamp by boat. On arrival we were mesmerized by a small alligator sunning itself on sides of the canal that led out of the dock into the swamp itself. We took numerous pictures, this was our first really close up view of a “wild” gater so we were fascinated. The following day we hired a punt with a small outboard and following a “map” headed into the Okefenokee swamp. This was without a doubt the highlight of the whole trip. The small alligator we were fascinated with the previous day paled into insignificance once we were in the swamp itself. No matter where you looked there were alligators of all sizes, either swimming on sunning themselves in the vegetation along the edges of the swamp. Once again with our Kiwi, “she’ll be right” attitude, we approached the gaters with a little less caution than I would advise and upon our approach most slipped quietly into the river. If we got too close, which we did on numerous occasions, the gater would flip its tail angrily in the water and contort its body making a huge splash and scaring the lives out of us. It was one of the most fascinating things to watch. At one point on the swamp we could see five large alligators crossing the river in front of us and I wondered what would happen to us should we happen to fall in. The guides suggested walking carefully to the river bank to await rescue, for some reason I can’t imagine that would ever go to plan. We spent the day on the Okefenokee swamp and saw over 100 alligators swimming in the wild. This was no zoo, this was simply the animals in their own habitat, quite scary when you think about it. I have to say with all this wildlife about it’s a wonder we were able to sleep at night, but this really is one of the many benefits of travelling in an RV. We didn’t have to worry about snakes slithering into our tents or being eaten by alligators as we slept. Our trip to America was almost over and as we made our way back to Orlando for our last night we considered staying at the Disney Resort campground, however, decided against it and stayed closer to the airport as it was our last night. We had not seen another drop of rain since leaving Houston 14 days earlier and ended our trip in beautiful weather. It was not until we returned to New Zealand that we discovered the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz Festival had been cancelled due to intense flooding. We were also devastated to learn of the death of the two year old boy at the Disney Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. The fact that we had been so close and also the fact that not growing up in an area where the wildlife can actually kill you I think we are somewhat blasé to the risks. We saw plenty of signs that said, “beware of alligators” but it was almost beyond our comprehension to even begin to understand that actual risk was real and a matter of life and death. Upon return I found the statistics interesting. Of the number of unprovoked alligator attacks in Florida in the last 50 years, 373 people were bitten by alligators, 257 required medical care, 23 people died, of which 8 of them were 16 and under. The most number of attacks was in 1997 when 13 people sought medical care. Despite the close encounters and the fatality upon our return, the likelihood of a resident being seriously injured in a gator attack is 1 in 2.4 million. I did wonder what the ratio was for a visitor! The trip this year was not what I had expected. We’d come all this way and driven all those miles just to see Van Morrison in concert, however that turned out to be such an small part our overall experience. I have become a great fan of RVing over the past few years and there’s a saying that goes something like this. “It’s not the destination that makes something memorable, it’s the journey” and in a RV the journey’s just that much more enjoyable. Huge thanks to Road Bear RV (www.roadbearrv.com) and Island Holidays (www.islandholidays.co.nz) for helping to make this such an amazing experience.
TOP TO BOTTOM: Driving our Road Bear RV along the southern coast of Florida New Orleans French Quarter Beware of Alligators - New Orleans Jazz Festival Civil Rights Institute in Albany, Alabama