hous­ton we have a prob­lem

Adventure - - Adventure//xxl Travel>> - Words by Lynne Dick­in­son - Im­ages by Lynne, Steve and Teva DIck­in­son

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

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