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Hunting for alligator by half-drowning a cat


Finally done with High School and with a year to kill before University, I decided to take the opportunity to travel the world with a couple of friends. Though the whole experience was, by a wide margin, the highlight of my life so far, few memories stand out as vividly to me as my adventures in Florida.

After spending a heavy night in Tampa and the following morning crammed into a tour bus, we had decided to relax with an airboat ride through the Everglades. We expected exhilaration, wildlife and incredible scenery. We did not expect to witness a leather-clad local punching an alligator in the face.

The trip started ordinarily enough. We spotted the swamp tour company we’d booked with, paid our fee and were then introduced to our guide. Things stopped being ordinary at about that point. Sammy was every single Australian stereotype I can think of, crammed into a single human being. The leather vest, the hunting knife, the shaggy sun-bleached hair – if it weren’t for his strong Louisiana accent, I would have been genuinely concerned that I’d somehow hit my head and was now hallucinating an image of Crocodile Dundee.

He was a nice guy, though – brought us aboard the airboat, handed us a beer each and offered me a cocked eyebrow of polite puzzlement when I pointed to his belt and crowed “That’s not a knife!” I still can’t believe someone who could have filled in for Paul Hogan on-set has apparently never seen the film.

Sammy also introduced us to the ship’s cat, Bandit – nonchalant, even for a cat, the creature strolled happily around the airboat’s slippery perimeter as we glided through the bayou. Sammy nosed the vehicle casually between beds of vegetation, pointing out notable flora and fauna as we went. As you might expect, my friends and I had eyes only for the infamous Florida gators – but the critters must have been shy, because we didn’t see a single one.

A couple of hours passed. We chatted with the locals, who seemed to be as fascinated by our culture as we were with theirs, and Bandit took alternating shifts on everyone’s laps. The absence of world-renowned reptiles was a pity, but we were still enjoying ourselves immensely. After the wild atmosphere of the Tampa night-life (which, even retrospectively, I have to admit made my College days look like a weekend at Grandma’s) it seemed all the more amazing that such a beautiful, natural and secluded place could exist even on the same continent, let alone within a few hours’ drive.

Sammy continued to talk, as I suppose all guides should; as he interspersed his facts and figures about the Everglades’ history with a sprinkling of local flavour, we hung on his every word. Not just us foreigners, either – the young couple from Tallahassee were equally blown away by the whole experience. Did you know that over six million Florida citizens rely on the Everglades alone for their drinking water? Neither did we.

As the afternoon drew to a close, it looked like we would be out of luck on the gator front. After countless no-shows and more than one hey-wait-was-that-oh-never-mind, Sammy announced that we’d come to the end of the tour route, and turned the airboat around, heading for the jetty. Just as we were making plans to meet our new Tallahassee friends at a bar later that evening, a new sound reached us – a bizarre mixture of hissing, scrabbling and finally, a splash. We looked around, startled, and Sammy cried out in alarm.

Bandit was in the water.

And then, at the worst possible moment, came the slow movement through the water that we’d all – up until now – been so eager to see. I caught the vague outline of a scaly head and the merest hint of a thick, threshing tail, and then it was gone, sliding beneath the surface. It might have been darkly humourous, had we not been too busy leaping to our feet and bellowing with inarticulate concern for the frantically paddling cat.

The presence of three or four ripples on the surface of the water indicated that the alligator was well aware of the cat’s presence, and was in all probability contemplating a furry appetiser. I was charging around the airboat, looking for a pole or a net, the young lady from Tallahassee was sobbing into her fiancé’s shoulder, and my friends were staring in abject horror as the ripples closed in.

Bandit was perhaps four metres away from the creature when it surfaced again, this time raising its head slightly higher, jaws starting to open. Sammy, who had until then been desperately urging the cat to swim closer to the boat, stood up and snatched something from the floor of the vessel.

The sound of the empty beer bottle colliding with the side of the gator’s armour-plated head was music to our ears. It was distracted, but not deterred, however; instead the creature opened its jaws wide and hissed furiously at Sammy, who was leaning out over the airboat’s skirt. Just as it looked like we were about to lose both our guide and our mascot, Sammy lashed out a fist, cursing. Whether by luck or judgment, it struck the alligator’s scaly snout. The direct hit to its left nostril seemed to persuade the gator that no matter how delicious the cat might be, it wasn’t worth taking a beating. Churning up a miniature tidal wave as it went, it turned tail and swam away into the depths.

Quick as a flash, Sammy had plunged his arm into the swamp and withdrawn Bandit’s trembling body. After exchanging a shaky grin with my fellow passengers, I sat down and watched with renewed respect for our guide as he gently toweled off his exhausted pet. I stroked Bandit on the way back as Sammy drove (pausing briefly to fish out his empty beer bottle) and by the time the airboat bumped against the jetty, he had managed a sound that was almost a purr.

We thanked everyone for a memorable afternoon – I’d never spoken truer words in all my life – exchanged numbers with our new friends, and headed for the nearest bar. Over cold beers and hot burgers, we reflected on Sammy’s attitude to the swamp that had almost taken his best friend from him. Despite its dangers, and the unforgiving dog-eat-dog (well, gator-eat-cat) nature of the place, Sammy bore it no ill will. He had carefully retrieved his bottle, after all, preserving the area’s natural beauty, and once the alligator had lost interest in Bandit, he had had no desire to harm it further.

I have a lot of respect for people like Sammy. My only regret is that I never told him so. So if anyone out there happens to run into Crocodile Dundee in the Florida Everglades, do me a favour and buy him a beer.

And a life-jacket for the cat.

Dan Hart is an amateur travel enthusiast, with over ten years’ writing experience. After recently cracking open his old travel journals, he is keen to share more memorable moments from his journeys worldwide. For more information on Florida life, visit http://www.sunandsandproperty.com.

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