On Safari In Florida: A Multi-Generational Getaway in an Urban Jungle
By Karen Rubin
We found ourselves on a wild, unspoiled river, delicately (and with great skill, I might add) maneuvering around roots, logs, and low branches. Our one thought was to be careful to avoid getting too close to the riverbank and what alligators might be lurking, under the cover of a cypress canopy older than Columbus; the second thought was not to panic and inadvertently tip the canoe so that we would spill into the river where the alligators were likely lurking.
This was our antidote to civilization and the proliferation of houses in an asphalt jungle of six-lane boulevards, gated enclaves and shopping malls, replacing the farms, the fields, forests and wetlands of Florida that had distinguished Palm Beach County as recently as 10 years ago, when we first started making our annual visit to Grandparents.
But on this glorious afternoon, Grandma was in the lead canoe with her 17 year-old grandson, and my 13 year old and I followed after. It was stirringly beautiful.
Our canoeing expedition, through Canoe Outfitters in Jupiter, was only one part of almost a full-week of safari activities. We made expeditions to a nearby outpost of the Everglades, the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge; an exquisite nature preserve crammed with waterfowl and birds, Wadokahatchee Preserve; and capped it all off with a veritable "safari" at Lion Country Safari (which is in the town of Loxahatchee) the country's first drive-through, cageless "zoo". Each place was within 45 minutes of our door, in Boynton Beach-and, when you consider the cost of theme parks, each was at modest cost or even free.
Canoeing on the Loxahatchee
So many of southeast Florida's rivers have been channelized by development, but the Loxahatchee has remained virtually unchanged. In 1985, the Loxahatchee became the first to be designated a nationally "wild and scenic river."
Majestic cypress trees, some 500 years old, give refuge to many endangered species, including osprey, alligator, bald eagle, barred owl, bobcat, otter, manatee, limpkin, pileated woodpecker, and turtles. Loxahatchee, in fact, is the Indian name for "river of turtles" and we, in fact, saw plenty of them… large ones.
We paddle the upper section of the river, called the Cypress Canopy, seemingly far, far from civilization, yet actually very close to the Thruway. The incredible peace and freshness, the quiet are exquisite sensations. On this particular day, we did not see many birds or waterfowl (though we did spot an osprey and heard a bald eagle), and only an alligator or two, but the idea that the alligator could be anywhere kept us on our toes (so to speak). The canoeing was magnificent: the water was slow-moving, but technical because of the serpentine, and need to go around obstacles (trying to keep far away from the shore as possible). It was incredible fun.
This is the most beautiful section of the river. We paddled downstream about an hour, to the Masten Dam (chickening out of floating down some rapids at the first ramp; we carried the canoe over the ramp). For every hour it takes to go downstream, you have to allocate 1 hour 15 minutes for the return back to Riverbend Park. Even the return upriver was not very strenuous, but you felt like you were really canoeing.
Ours was a very mild trip, certainly within the possibility of young children and grandparents (children six and under must wear a life vest, which is provided; if the child weighs less than 30 lbs., you need to bring your own). This trip is available daily, but you have to begin before 3 p.m., and costs $15 for a two-person canoe for the first two hours, $4 for each additional hour (though this price may go up).
A much more ambitious trip, which takes about five or six hours of strenuous paddling (not to mention you may have to pull a canoe over a fallen tree), continues on, beyond the Masten Dam (where there is a restroom), crossing under the Turnpike and I-95 into Jonathan Dickinson State Park, a distance of about eight miles. Along the way, you can see Trapper Nelson's (a historic cabin; interpretive tours are offered by a Park Ranger). Return transportation is provided ($35 for two people in a canoe; $45 for three in a canoe; $25 for a solo canoe).
There are plans to add new canoe trails that will add 2 ½ miles more and eventually connect back onto the Loxahatchee, downstream for a very pleasant loop.
Canoe Outfitters, owned by Eric Bailey and his wife, Sandy, has been in business since 1980. They offer drinks, snacks, one-shot cameras, sandal shoes, shorts, windbreakers, from his shack in Riverbend County Park, all at moderate prices.
Mr. Bailey notes that the river tends not to get bugs, possibly because of bay leaf and the cypress trees.
Canoe Outfitters of Florida, 8900 West Indiantown Road, Jupiter, FL 33478, 561-746-7053, 888-272-1257, www.canoes-kayaks-florida.com (Located within the Palm Beach County's Riverbend Park, SR 706, 1 ½ miles west of Turnpike, exit 116, or I-95 exit 59B.).
The name means "Created Waters," and that is exactly what Wakodahatchee is: a kind of restoration to a natural state of wetlands that have become a haven for an extraordinary variety of birds-and for more and more Palm Beach residents craving the peace and natural beauty.
A project of the Water Authority, every day, over one million gallons is purified through the preserve, either by percolation or evaporation. The idea is to use this water to irrigate golf courses, and take pressure off fresh water supplies.
Wakodahatchee has a half-mile boardwalk that loops through about 50 acres, which you can easily walk in under an hour.
On any given day, you can see some 30 or 40 species, but 150 species have been sighted in the preserve: cormarant, black anhinga, giant blue heron, brown heron, rails (sorro rails and Virginia rail), least bittern, common moorhen (orange nose), coots (white bill), snowy egret (black nose, white body), tricolor heron, wood stork (grey heads and white bodies, they are known as "preacher birds"), ducks (blue wing teal and model duck), occasionally pintails and green wings.
Next year, the water authority is opening a new preserve of about 150 acres (for a total of 200 acres total), across the street, with a mile-long boardwalk and a nature center.
The boardwalk is magnificent and brings you so close to an array of birds, waterfowl. You literally stand over them, and some fly right to the wooden railing. From this perch, you can see nesting; this year, there was the rare sight of a great blue heron nesting in plain view (that is unusual).
There is no admission, and Wadokahatchee is such a pleasant place, even for an hour, that I wander in there about three times during the course of the week. It is especially interesting to see at different times of the day, in different light, and to see the different activities of the birds. At dusk, they flock from all over, and tend to roost in particular trees.
On the second Tuesday of the month, there are tours with local volunteers (sign up by calling 561-641-3429). Wadokahatchee is located on Jog Road, just north of Lake Ida Road.
Loxahatchee Wildlife Nature Refuge
Loxahatchee is my refuge. Each year, I make at least one trip to this vast expanse of Everglades habitat, consisting of sloughs, wet prairies, sawgrass, tree islands.
There are some 30-40 species here, as well, great blue heron, egrets, white ibis, American coots, otter (though I've never seen one); alligators (you are almost assured of seeing a few); raccoon, dragonflies. This year, we spotted an osprey.
There are 10 diked compounds spanning 232 acres, so you walk on a dirt path higher than the water (making it unlikely for alligators to be where you are walking), and in most places, have two sides to look at. There is also a raised viewing platform. Water levels are raised to discourage growth of noxious plants in order to optimize wildlife food sources. For example, it provides a critical habitat for the endangered snail (Everglades) kite, a dark-colored raptor which feeds almost exclusively on one species of snail (the apple snail). This year, we see many of these snail kites.
It is also habitat for other endangered species, such as the wood stork (which we do see), and Florida panther (which we don't see). It provides a wintering habitat for migrating waterfowl, anihinga, limpkins, smooth-billed anis, northern harriers.
There is also a nature center with a boardwalk, and a canoe center. There is a $5 admission per car, which is good for the entire day--so you can come at day break and return in the late afternoon, if you choose, catching the changes in sweeping landscape and the interplay of the birds. No two visits are ever the same. It is perfect serendipity.
Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge is on Rte 441, just south of Boynton Beach Boulevard.
Lion Country Safari
It had been almost 10 years since our last visit to Lion Country Safari, and our children had grown from youngsters to teenagers. I was amazed at how engaged they were in this delightful safari park-which claims to be the first drive-through safari in the country (letting the 17-year old drive and giving the 13-year old have cameras to shoot with, helped). The opportunity to "shoot" (photos) of an extraordinary variety of animals from close range was surely thrilling for me, and the superb narration, enhanced with culturally appropriate music, on the car's cassette or CD, added immeasurably to the appreciation for what we were seeing. They also provide an excellent color guide with photos and descriptions of all the animals, to assist in identification.
We found we had as much time as we wanted to leisurely make our way on the four-mile drive (we could even go back as many times as we wanted to during the day, but we only had time for once through), which is broken up into separate areas.
We took our time, as we came up upon two elephants playing together in a pond, as a third elephant walked up to the water, definitely communicating with them (I imagined the elephant was telling the younger ones it was time to get out of the bath).
The chimpanzee section is very unusual: some 35 chimpanzees live in four separate colonies, or groups, each on its own island. The water surrounding the islands make an effective barrier because chimps cannot swim (they cannot float). There is one unoccupied island each day, to allow the keepers to shift the chimps from island to island for the purpose of cleaning, maintenance; they move the chimps using a bridge system.
Lion Country Safari is a participant in a national ChimpanZoo Observer Program, founded by the Jane Goodall Institute, whereby volunteers make a record of chimpanzee behaviors and create enrichments for these highly intelligent animals. Small communities of chimpanzees are on their own "island," with various toys and jungle-gyms which are changed to keep them intellectually stimulated. We were able to watch as a mother, with a tiny baby clinging to her belly, played on the rope.
So, at the same time, the keepers clean the chimpanzee island, they change the "enrichment" items that promote natural behaviors and keep the chimps mentally and emotionally stimulated; items such as stuffed animals, paper towel tubes stuffed with treats, frozen Jell-O blocks, scattered seeds for foraging, burlap bags containing parts of their diet hidden around the island. They also help promote the natural chimp behavior of nest-building by providing hay and clothing which the chimps combine with weeds from the water to make beautiful and intricate nests.
In the same section as the chimpanzees, is an enormous number of giraffes; you can get so close, you can really appreciate their size and unique physical characteristics.
You drive by as a herd of rhinoceros meander (hippos, as do all the animals, have right of way); zebras casually munch hay; we stop to let an ostrich cross the road in front of the car.
We did actually get to see lions, but on this particular day, at this particular time, they were all sprawled out, hardly moving, under the watchful eye of Safari caretakers nearby in two trucks.
Lion Country Safari is accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, a testament to the quality of their wildlife conservation, animal care, education and recreation efforts (the accreditation process requires re-accreditation and inspection every five years; there are only 196 accredited zoos and aquariums in North America).
There are about 1,000 free-roaming animals of a hundred different species--most which are endangered or threatened--on 500 acres. It provides a natural environment for rare and endangered animals to live and reproduce and Lion Country has had particularly breeding success with the African elephant, white rhinoceros and the giraffe.
Lion Country participates in the American Zoo and Aquarium Association's Species Survival plan for the southern white rhinoceros. The success in breeding white rhinoceros (they are really grey, but the Dutch Afrikaaners referred to them as "weit" meaning wide), which are endangered in the wild, is due to the fact that the males need territorial interactions, and they actually get more space here than in many other natural environments.
Lion Country Safari was America's first cageless zoo and helped revolutionize the industry. Since 1967, it has been a leader in wildlife education and preservation-very much the precursor to the more ambitious animal-oriented theme parks, Busch Gardens-Tampa, Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando and even Great Adventure in New Jersey.
Lion Country Safari was originally developed by a group of South African and British entrepreneurs who wanted to bring the experience of an African game park to families. South Florida's Western Palm Beach County proved an ideal location due to its year-round tropical climate, plentiful land, growing population and tourists.
It is a licensed rehabilitation facility, taking injured wildlife and offering care and/or placement in a more appropriate facility or return to the wild (many of the parrots and macaw come from people who no longer want them as pets). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits Lion Country Safari to house brown pelican and roseate spoonbill species.
You can easily wile away an entire day; after the drive-through safari, you go to the Safari World Amusement Park, where there is a "walk through" area which offers animal talks, feeding sessions, and petting zoo area and a number of animal exhibits, including a pool with massive alligators; a Lory Feeding Exhibit, where you walk into a mesh-enclosed area and the birds come right up to your hand to feed; a pond where you can take a delightful (seven-minute) pontoon boat excursion (we were lucky to see an osprey snatch a fish out of the water); use paddle boats (so much fun), ride a carousel, and play miniature golf all at no extra charge (the admission is all-inclusive); there is also an aviary, a short nature walk, and a picnic area. There is a beautiful cafeteria serving great food at modest prices; we were even surprised at the "under $5 shop."
The best time to arrive is about 10:30 a.m., when the animals are being fed, but it is easy to spend the entire day, especially if you do the drive-through twice, to get a sense of animal behaviors at the end of the day (and you may be lucky to see the lions actually moving, since they sleep 20 hours a day). At the end of the day, you would see the birds such as ibis and anihinga gathering in the trees.
This was a photographer's dream. I brought a 28-200 mm zoom and even though I had to shoot through the rolled up car windows (you are not allowed to roll the window down), the pictures were like I was out shooting from a jeep in Africa.
You can complete the "safari" experience by actually camping out in a cabin or with a tent or RV, in the new KOA campground just adjacent to the safari park. You may well hear the lions roaring at night and other sounds of the animals (and a lot closer than Kenya).
A one-room cabin comfortably sleeps up to four adults (you would need bedding such as sleeping bags or bed linens, cooking and eating utensils and personal items), priced at $45 a day. There are also hook ups for RVs (from $29-$34/night) and tent sites ($26 night).
The modern campground offers a general store, rest rooms, individual hot showers and a coin laundry and a heated swimming pool, ballfield, playground, game room, shuffleboard, basketball, volleyball, horseshoes, and picnic tables. (561-793-9797, 800-562-9115 for reservations, firstname.lastname@example.org).
You can do a combined Family Camping and Safari Adventure: a two night stay is $59.95 (including camping for up to four people; all hook-ups and free tickets to the Lion Country Safari, heated swimming pool and general store; Kamping Kabin Special is $79.95 for a two-night stay (midweek).
Lion Country Safari also offers a summer camp for children 6 to 13. Each day is centered around a specific animal theme; campers learn about the animal of the day, and the education is reinforced through games and crafts. Activities include feeding alligators, observing chimps, starring in a show in the animal theater, preparing animal diets and helping to care for animal babies. The children also get to play mini golf, go swimming, ride the paddleboats. Camp sessions run weekly from June through August; call 561-793-1084, ext. 127, or e-mail email@example.com.
Lion Country Safari is open daily, rain or shine, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and the last car is admitted at 4:30 p.m. You should allow at least four hours to fully enjoy the park. Regular admission is $15.50 per adult; children 3-9 and seniors are $10.50, and children two and under are admitted free.
Lion Country Safari is located at 2003 Lion Country Safari Road (off of Southern Boulevard) in Loxahatchee; 561-793-1084, www.lioncountrysafari.com.