Last Tuesday a load of us from sunny Buttonwood Bay went on a safari.
We flew 8,273 miles to south western Kenya and were taken by jeep out into the vast Serengeti National Park where we saw lions and giraffe and.............
Oh ok we drove about 20 miles south of Sebring to Buck Island Ranch to go on the Indian Prairie Safari !! Not quite the same I know, but you can only do what you can only do.
This 10,300 acre cattle ranch is home to the MacArthur Agro-ecology Research Centre and they have daily tours on a swamp buggy that take visitors out around the ranch where you have the opportunity to see everything from armadillos to river otters, from bald eagles to indigo snakes, from wild hogs to alligators and 161 species of birds.
I say you have the opportunity to see these critters but in reality, you're very lucky if you manage to see a few cows and a wild turkey. We did a little better than that and had a great day out.
The morning dawned with a heavy fog but we knew it would soon burn off and so it did. By the time the 15 of us got to the ranch at 8:45am and joined up with 2 others that were not from Buttonwood, the sky was blue, the sun was blazing away and the temperature was well on it's way into the mid 80's.
The swamp buggy was a pretty basic vehicle as you can see from this photo.
The eco warrior biologist, whose name I forgot seconds after hearing it, gave a little informational speech, asked for a volunteer to jump down and open the 4 gates we'd be passing through and then led us all aboard ol' swampy.
Actually it was called 'Ursus' but as that means 'bear' in Latin, I think ol' swampy is much more appropriate. There were no bears.
As I'd volunteered to be the gatekeeper, I sat at the back which also helped me to take photos without being in the way.
And so here is a photo of a very rare critter indeed - me - taken by Clair.
At this point we had just left the boarding area close to the main road and so this gravel track was only a prelude to the rather more jungle like terrain we would soon be coming to.
You can also see the gap in the vehicle's superstructure through which I'd be leaping like a graceful gazelle any time we came to a closed gate. There were steps down to the ground but hey, I'm not at that stage quite yet as I'd like to think I've a few more gazelle years still left in me.
The safari, if you can really call it that - and I am, was due to last between 2.5 and 3 hours and we'd been warned to dress as if it WAS a safari and bring plenty of water. Eldy was the one brave, or foolish, one to go hatless (and hairless, although to be fair, he was hairless long before the tour !!) while at the back, I was looking more homeless than hairless.
We soon left the relative comfort of the gravel and went onto a path I'd call more farm like than safari like. Early days yet.
Our eco warrior guide really needed some sort of PA system as most of her words were carried off by the wind.
She'd sometimes turn around to speak and we risked ending up IN the ditch rather than passing alongside it.
It all added to the excitement.
Up front you can see a platform area next to her driving position and on the occasions when she'd stop to give us a proper lecture, she'd stand on the box and pour forth. We were a captive audience and ohh'd and ahhh'd in all the right places.
Suddenly we saw a striped tailed animal crossing the field to the right and were informed it was a raccoon. Hurrah, we were off and running.
Then we came upon a couple of these birds which I believe were Sandhill Cranes.
They weren't easy to see against the prairie background and even less easy to photograph.
Nearly all the photos I took of mammals and birds were taken while we were bouncing along on ol' swampy so I had little option but to use the 'speed' setting on the camera.
It wasn't a day for experimentation with manual settings as often the shout of 'Deer !!' or 'Semipalmated Sandpiper !!' would go up and you'd have to be fast to spot it, never mind lay a lens on it.
And YOU try shouting out Semipalmated Sandpiper. By the time you've said it, the damn thing has flown off. Cries of 'where, where' would go up and I'd be spinning like a Tasmanian Devil trying to follow all the pointing fingers, mostly pointing in different directions mind you.
We had a short lull in the excitement and had to make do with looking at herds of cattle as they grazed on the prairie. We were still having a gay old time but it was no Brokeback Mountain. The landscape was totally flat and boring although a few of the cattle were doing their best to entertain us with a fight that seemed rather staged for our benefit.
You can never tell what is real in Florida and I suspect a few animatronic cows had been introduced into the herd to liven things up. I think I saw our eco warrior pulling a few levers as we passed them by but she may just have been changing gear.
Being a farm boy, I'd seen cows before. Even living in Leeds, I'd seen cows before.
It's pretty hard NOT to have seen cows before but these were the first cows I'd ever seen grazing with palm trees in the background.
They deserved a photograph for that fact alone.
And here it is. Every time a farm vehicle would pass them by, they'd think it was feeding time and so when we came along and briefly paused by the fence, they really thought their luck was in and came galloping up to meet us. It was a real life stampede and we huddled close atop ol' swampy in fear for our lives. A stampede ?
Well it will be every time I tell the story.
Now here is a photo of a bird.
Sorry but that's about all I can tell you about it. I know more about the post it's sitting on. There IS a bird on top, honest.
It could be the lesser spotted chameleon quail of central Florida but it could also be a Bald Eagle.
Probably neither. I know nothing about birds.
We then came to a gate and I was thrust into the spotlight. Would I be up to it ? Would be safari grind to a halt while a replacement gatekeeper was found ?
I leapt through the gap and landed like a prima ballerina on the unyielding ground. I did almost fall at the next hurdle though as the fence chain was of a type I wasn't used to dealing with and it's fastening was a little tricky.
Thankfully nobody spotted my virgin fumblings (ahhhhh that takes me back !!) and I was able to swing back the gate to a generous round of applause from the buggy occupants.
In my dreams. It was more like a generous round of "what kept you ?" and "did you stop for lunch ?" than any sort of applause.
Once again thanks to Clair, we have indisputable digital proof of this event and you can even see the concerned looks from the buggyteers at the rear in case I'd be carried off by a low flying owl or a steroid popping armadillo.
Well they can be quite fierce I've heard.
For me, the opening and closing of the gate was a welcome break from constantly wanting to photograph the plethera of wildlife and awesome scenery that you can clearly see in this photograph.
What do you mean you can't see any ?
We came upon the living quarters of the biologists and other 'ologists' who call the ranch both work and home. There was a large water filled area in front of the dwellings and someone said there was a gator on the far bank. All eyes were trained on the location and much discussion took place as to the difference between an alligator and a dead tree branch. My 200mm lens was as useless as the Hubble Telescope at that distance but one of our party did have excellent binoculars and handed them around........so we all could see the gator, for it was so, sunning itself for our delectation.
With our spirits soaring, we moved on and entered an area of shade produced by densely packed trees.
Our eco driver abandoned the recognised path and took us into the woods on some sort of personal mission to show us the burrowings of some sort of gopher tortoise hybrid - but I may have misunderstood what she said as I was trying to avoid having my eyes gouged out by overhanging branches which were auditioning as extras in a Wes Craven movie.
We saw neither gopher nor tortoise (nor burrowing for that matter) and soon we abandoned the search and were back on the beaten track.
Suddenly there was rapid movement on the left side of the buggy and Deb shouted "wild hog, wild hog".
As I'd been sneaking a quick biscuit unnoticed at the back, I looked around somewhat embarrassed at this surprise personal assault.
But it was the real deal, a real wild hog.
It ran alongside us in the high grasses for a few seconds and just as everyone was able to see it, it burst across the path in front of the buggy and headed off into the trees on the right.
From a photographic point of view, I faced several problems. First of all I'd never seen a wild hog and 'wasted' precious moments just looking at it open mouthed. Then, by the time I remembered that I needed to get a photo of it, everyone in front of me (which WAS everyone) was standing up to get a better view themselves. I pushed little old men and ladies aside like a true paparazzi and managed to get this one photo before the hog disappeared.
It's a wild hog. Honest. Not a bald eagle. I know you're sceptical.
On the way back to our parked vehicles, we passed the forested area again and I managed a few decent shots of the soaring birds even though the buggy was doing it's best to toss me overboard every time I stood up.
And then it was all over. We descended from ol' buggy, thanked our eco biologist, picked up a few leaflets about the ranch and made our way to our vehicles.
At a cost of $15 each, it was a certainly value for money. I'm not sure I learned much about the region but hey, I'd seen a raccoon, a gator (only just), a wild hog, an otter, a couple of deer, loads of cows and many of the 161 varieties of birds.
Add to all that the scorching weather and the very agreeable company and yes, it was a very good tour.
Maybe not quite a safari in African terms but for central Florida, it wasn't bad at all.