Gators in the Everglades and the biggest VW festival on the East Coast

Our next fixed date is the 6th of November, when Frank Turner is playing in St Petersburg near Tampa. This gives us one more night to make our way north and we started off in that direction. I had booked us an airboat tour in the Everglades that we were going to do on the way, before driving across route 41 through the middle of the Everglades themselves.

We got to Coopertown airboat tours where I had booked us a tour for $15 each. We didn’t need to make a reservation so we turned up and parked across the river from the start. The Everglades is a national park, but Victor had very kindly given us his national park access pass for free, which now means we can get in for free rather than paying $6 to park. This was pretty awesome as we were going to buy a pass for $80 later anyway, as in the west there are a lot of places that we would need one. Always happy to save money, especially when I heard that the people who hadn’t used groupon had to spend another $10 each for their tickets.

We didn’t have to wait for long before we were loaded into the airboat with around 15 other people. Our guide gave out cotton wool balls as earplugs and when he started up the engine I could see why. We were seated right at the back next to this V8, propelling us along the waterways.P1010193P1010192

We stopped shortly into the trip and our guide explained to us a bit about the Everglades; how it is actually a very slow flowing river rather than a swamp and is the only water supply for Florida. P1010173 He also talked about the grass that grows throughout the majority of its area. This is saw grass, which will apparently cut your fingers to the bone if you run your hands through it, the clue is in the name I suppose.P1010175

We went a bit further in, spotting several herons on the way. We hadn’t seen much wildlife yet, and I can definitely appreciate what Janet meant when she said the noise scares away a lot of the animals. We stopped a few more times while he pointed out some more of the native plants. One was the machineel tree, which looks a little like an apple tree but is definitely not to be eaten. It is apparently one of the most poisonous trees in the world and if the fruit is eaten its a hallucinogenic, which not only would effect humans but also does the same thing to alligators. Apparently you can tell if they’ve eaten the fruit as they start swimming upside down!

Other interesting plants include these type of willow trees that contain the active ingredient in aspirin and are therefore worth a lot of money. When there was a large fire in the area, it cost the government tens of millions of dollars in damages.P1010185.jpg

I also saw air plants growing for the first time in the wild, and they are massive. While they don’t need water except the humidity from the air, they do take moisture from the trees that they live on. Eventually the tree dries out and dies and the air plants fall in the water. From here they attach themselves to the first tree they come into contact with and climb up it out of the water.P1010184

It wasn’t too long before we spotted out first alligator, she swam right up to the side of the boat, with encouragement from our guide who was feeding her marshmallows. She was close enough to touch, although I didn’t feel the need to.P1010179P1010187

A bit further along we spotted another gator, they were very unconcerned by the frequent noisy boat trips and obviously used to tourists. P1010190It was nice that you could see them so close, but I think going out canoeing would have been even better without the loud engine. Still it was a fun ride and our guide was very informative, so it was definitely worth the money.

When we got back we got to hold Snappy, a baby gator too.

We then walked into the small zoo section they had at the back where someone was doing a talk about snakes.

P1010199P1010206Feeling like we could leave now as we had seen an alligator we started heading west. Looking into the water all down the side of the road it was possible to see more gators, and also the unfortunate ones who had tried to unsuccessfully cross the road.

On Ian’s recommendation, we stopped to have a look at Clyde Butcher’s gallery which is on the route. He has some beautiful black and white photos of the everglades. One day I would quite like to hang one on my wall at home, but I’ll have to find a spare $5,000 or so first.

It wasn’t too long before we were out of the Everglades and heading north up the west coast of Florida. We were hoping to stay outside Victor’s house in Tampa tomorrow night after the gig, but in the meantime we needed a point to camp out midway. Still not particularly easy to find free camping even using all of the new apps we had been shown, but there was one potential spot by Lover’s Key state park, just below Fort Myers. As it was en route we thought we would give it go.

This means driving along the coast road which takes you across more barrier islands much like the Outer Banks on the east coast. Lots of little islands, strung together with small bridges guard the coastline, and it’s a pretty scenic drive. We pull up at the recommended spot which is a small parking area right by the water. Although the road is right next to us, it’s higher as it’s about to go over a bridge which means that it very loud. We decide that this looks like a pretty good spot, and set up camp.

The howling Amiee of the morning was long gone and she enjoyed running around the van and eating anything and everything.

It was another very warm night, but there was a nice cool breeze coming from the water. We moved the van so that it could blow through the pop top, and realised that as we were again by water there was a lot of bugs. I had already pre-empted this and put on long sleeved clothes despite being too hot, as it was better outside that in the van. I as not impressed to see the roof of the pop top covered in those nasty little noseeum buggers again, and I was not prepared to have another night of being eaten alive. We took down our door mosquito nets which are finer and stuck them over the pop top windows in an effort to keep the nasty little things out. Happily, this seemed pretty effective and I didn’t wake up like this again.

The morning had us within a few hours of Tampa, and we decided to go straight there to give us plenty of time before the gig. Lee phoned Victor and got his address and we headed off. A few hours later outside Victors house Lee phoned him again as his outside tap wasn’t working, he told us where the isolation valves were and then also gave us the combination to the key safe on the door, saying we could use the showers.

This was proper luxury, we had a house to ourselves, air conditioning, showers, a washing machine, a freezer and a proper loo! Amiee was doing her usual crazed circuits of the rooms while we got ourselves sorted out. We still can’t believe how kind and trusting people can be, thank you Victor!

Heading into St Petersburg for the gig we took the toll road across the bridge. Normally we don’t do tolls, and some tolls we couldn’t even if we wanted to as they do not accept money at the booths. This one had a cash option though, and for $1.50 it would turn an hours drive into half. It was also quite a cool bridge to drive over as it’s pretty high, the downside of this is it was incredibly windy.

The venue parking was free, and our day was just getting better and better. We headed to a pub for some sandwiches before the gig, and bumped into two ex pats at the bar. After a few months of hearing nothing but an American accents, it’s strange to hear an English one again. We had a bit of chat before we headed back to the venue, they looked a bit surprised that we were going in already but Lee researched and apparently he had a massive setlist so it would probably start early.

Bang on 7pm the warm up act was on. Shortly after Frank Turner played his new album called No Mans Land which is a fairly short storytelling album. It features interesting women through history all over the world and was something that was interesting regardless of whether you are a previous fan of the music or not. He then came back on stage with the Sleeping Souls and performed a load of his previous music. It was a good evening, and I enjoyed it despite not knowing much of the music. Lee is the true fan here.

We debated staying outside in the van for a while as we were parked right by the tour bus, but needy parents that we are we wanted to get back and check Amiee wasn’t destroying Victors house.

Our next plan from Tampa was to go to Bugjam, which the biggest VW festival on the East Coast. This is just north of Tampa, and was on the 8th of November, giving us a day in between. We made the most of having a house for the day which including me dying my hair and then washing it out in some water that had a very high sulfur content and smelled like rotten eggs. Apparently it’s not faulty, just a thing about water sourced from wells in Florida. It was slightly odd to feel nice and clean but wander around in the faint aroma of rotting eggs, but I’m never going to complain about a nice warm shower.

We also had movie night in our camping chairs, using one of his painted white walls to watch Commando. Everything was washed and we were cool and bug free. As much as I love travelling in Ruby and I’m not overly bothered about the small space, it is nice to have the luxury of spreading out now and again. We also cooked ourselves up a load of food for the weekend ahead.

Heading out in the morning we saw a tortoise on the main road.

Aimee was sulking about being shut in the van again.

We had a bit of time to kill before the festival as the gates didn’t open till 5pm. I had sent a load of amazon deliveries to a locker in north Tampa and we also wanted to wash the van and stock up on beer. All of the boring stuff sorted, we drove on towards Bug Jam. We arrived an hour early, but they were already letting people in. We parked up opposite the entrance and walked over to collect our tickets.

We had entered Ruby in the show, as we thought we might as well. Maybe having an English bus would be enough of a novelty to swing the judges! After collecting our tickets, we drove in and were parked in the middle of the road looking a bit lost before someone directed us to the primitive campground. We parked up, surrounded by other VW vans and set up camp. Within 10 minutes of arriving someone managed to get themselves stuck on the track next to us as it was very sandy there. Lee went and pushed them out and we made a mental note to avoid that bit of road, our bus being heavier than most. The main day for the show is Sunday, but it is also open on Saturday for trade stands and campers.

Not long after we spotted Victor had arrived and we went with Amiee and sat in his bus for a bit and had some beers. He had parked in a different place, up on a hill, while we were down in the sandy area by the off roading track. We had a few beers outside and then moved inside when it started raining heavily. We stayed for a bit, and then once it started getting late we headed back down to our bus. At this point it had been raining a while and we both got pretty soaked walking back in the pouring rain in our flips flops. I was glad we’d left the heating on in the bus!

All the rain had stopped by the morning and it was turning into a glorious sunny day. The time we spent washing Ruby the day before was utterly futile as she was now completely covered in sand. It was getting pretty busy in the show, and Lee decided we should move our bus up to the space next to Victor. We had planned to sell some greeting cards we had made and see if we could make a bit of cash, and we didn’t want to miss out on the customers! The only thing was when I ordered what were called cards from Walmart, it turned they were just photo prints with envelopes. This meant I had bought a load of card and was going to stick them on a make proper cards, so we got a little glueing, cutting and sticking production line going in the van before we moved up to the show field.

We set up our table with our cards and an explanation and left out a cup as an honesty box. Amiee was proving very popular with everyone and we spent a lot of time at the van talking to people who were interested in what we were doing and the van conversion. Eventually we managed to get some time away to go looking for the parts I needed for the gear linkage and we found a shop selling them for $1. This made me very happy and a bit smug that I hadn’t paid for a $20 set in Orlando. We spent a while speaking to the owners of the stall and ended up with complimentary t-shirts in exchange for a mention on our blog. So here we are – thanks for helping us out!

Back at the van, the daughter of the toilet attendant had become a permanent fixture. She took up residence with us for most of the afternoon, without so much a by your leave from her mother. She petted and fed and prodded Amiee and clambered all over our van chatting incessantly. This had the outcome of being not only being an effective contraceptive for me and Lee, but tiring Amiee out completely. I had never seen her sleep for so long, and we ended kicking Sabrina out to give her some rest.

We met so many lovely people that day, I was pretty tired myself. A lot of people donated to our greeting cards and we had about $70 at the end of the day. We had an invite to go and have some drinks with some people we had met earlier in the primitive campsite so after cooking some food we headed down to see them. James was in his blue Westy with Lynne and they cracked open a bottle of champagne while we listened to the music that the guy next to them was blasting through his pa system. I was glad we had similar tastes and didn’t object to listing to some old school rock while we chatted to our new friends. They invited us to come and visit them on Anna Maria island after Bug Jam, which was very kind of them and sounded like a beautiful place but was in totally the wrong direction. They also gave us a little espresso maker, which was very nice of them!

After a while, there was a parade of vans around the car park and several vans along with mainly buggies, went out to try out the off roading course.

By this point Lynne had gone to bed, and we invited James back to ours to warm up and have a beer. It was pretty chilly outside now. He stayed for a beer before heading back and we ended drinking with Victor and a load of his friends who were mainly from Puerto Rico. We met Stephanie and Eric who have the Sunflower Bus, which we promised to go check out in the morning. The night came to a slightly abrupt end when, Victor who had had a few too many ended up being sick and taken to hospital.

We woke up to find that Victor was ok though, and back in his bus that morning, which was good news. Today was the main show day and the judging of the vans. There was a lot of them, and I didn’t envy the judges trying to rate all these different cars. Once they had looked at ours (which I must say they did very briefly), we went to see Eric and Stephanie at their bus. Eric showed us some of the extras he had added like a homemade ladder and shower, which was pretty cool. After seeing his shower and Victors, I’m definitely tempted to make one for ours. The show was pretty busy, helped by the gorgeous weather.

We went and looked around the rest of the show which had some truly beautiful cars before heading back to check on Amy. Arriving back at the van we found Sabrina inside it, not being particularly impressed with a parent who lets their child wander around other peoples property and pets when they’re not even their we still let her stay a little while. James and Lynne stopped by to reassure us that the offer of coming to the island was still there and not just a drunk sentiment, and we said that we would love to come and see them. We swapped contact details and said we would drive down Monday after the show had finished.

Sabrina and her mum came over and I wasn’t particularly happy when she dragged Amiee out from under the van and instructed her daughter to play with her. I finally had enough when she stood there and quietly watched as her kid tried to wrestle Aimee into her rucksack, very much against her will. Not really wanting our kitten treated like a toy, we went and brought Amiee back to the sunflower bus as Stephanie was missing her and we thought she would probably want to escape from the child!

It was now time for the awards ceremony, and after so much positive feedback from people all weekend I was cautiously optimistic that we might win a prize. Despite the fact that I didn’t really think the judges even looked at ours properly, they did have a lot to get round after all. The awards came and went, the presenter was very bad at presenting them, constantly making mistakes and being prompted by the person sitting next to him. It got to our class, and while Victor got 3rd place, we didn’t get anything. I was a little bit disappointed, as I do think our van was very different to a lot of vans there, but at the end of the day, Ruby is a practical bus not a show bus.

On the upside we had made some more money on our cards, just $100 in total. We also got to meet on of the van alert driveway hosts who had missed us in Miami. Rodolpho was a lovely guy and was very apologetic that he hadn’t taken our call, again he thought it was a scam! Still, in the end it all works out because we got to meet Ian.

As the festival was winding down we met Fred. Fred was very enthusiastic about everything, including the our bus. And although we didn’t get an actual award, we did get a Fred seal of approval.

The majority of people now left, and a couple of people from the buses across the field came over to see if we were staying the night and invite us over. A little later we joined them, and as so many people are, they were very hospitable. We got fed and watered (beered) for the night, and swapped stories with some interesting people which was lovely. The only thing that I didn’t like, was learning that after all weekend of thinking there was no showers, there was some and I just didn’t realise. Still, at least we could grab a quick wash in the morning before we left.

The campsite had really cleared out in the morning.

We had got some new stickers for Ruby too. A great weekend all round.


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