Alligators, manatees and one last stop in Florida

So after a change of heart, we woke one final time in the goliath double air bed at James and Lynne’s house. It felt better spending one finally night enjoying each other’s company, rather than rushing off straight after dinner.The consequences of that decision now meant that we had a large drive to complete to get to Silver Glen Springs that day, as we had several people recommend visit some of Florida’s springs and we needed to be in Pensacola to following evening for the Five Finger Death Punch concert.As we had pretty much packed our stuff away the night before, all we really had to do was have a quick bite to eat and then say our goodbyes. Unsurprisingly, James and Lynne a few final gifts to give us before we left.

Leaving new friends is always so difficult

Armed with a giant stick, James took Willow to the front garden to collect some avocados and star fruit for us to take on our travels. Lynne also provided us with a lifetime supply of Anna Maria beer koozies.Sadly, it was finally time to say our goodbyes. It also meant that we had to pry Aimee away from Tyler, who had grown quite fond of her whilst watching her in our absence.

Driving away, we both felt a great sadness to be leaving. Once again, we had met truly wonderful people, and although we could have enjoyed their company indefinitely; we would never complete our adventure if we overstayed a visit.

We were soon back on the I-75, heading back north towards Ocala Forest, home to some of Florida’s finest clear water springs.Arriving at Juniper Springs, we were informed by the parking warden that we had missed the final time to hire kayaks. It was only midday, but we figured they had to allow enough time for to row all the way down the river and back.She did point out a few other springs for us to try, and so a little over ten minutes and we arrived at Silver Glen Springs.

A natural clear water spring which fed into Lake George, one of the biggest pools of water in Florida.Fortunately for us, this one was open. And as it turned out, the staff there were very excited by Ruby. So much in fact, that they gave us a load more extra time with the kayaks.Approaching the water, the first thing that strikes you is the sheer magnificence of the water colour. Never in my life had I seen water with such a natural vibrancy.

It’s like a marble
It was like a tropical paradise
Row, row, row your boat

As we were visiting out of season, the spring was deserted. We practically had the whole water to ourselves. Channeling our inner Steve Irwin, we both searched frantically as we paddled, hoping to catch a glimpse of something exotic.

Can you see it?

It didn’t take long for me to see something in the corner of my eye, hidden behind a fallen tree. Paddling back for a better look, no more than ten metres away was an alligator. There was something extremely satisfying finding an alligator in the wild by ourselves, as opposed to the airboat tour we took in Florida. As we edged closer for a better look, we must have spooked the gator, and it drove into the waters around us. A small voice in the back of my mind taunting me with threats of alligator attacks.

How about now?

We carried on paddling around the spring for a couple more hours. Spotting a couple of turtles and another alligator. Being overly competitive, we had been keeping score of who had spotted the most animals.

Deciding that we were fairly content with what we had seen, we started to make our way back to the kayak launch. Willow mentioned that spotting a manatee would top the day.

A couple of minutes after Willow mentioned the manatees, I spotted something beneath the water, concerned that it was a log that we had to avoid.

Well, it turned out it was a manatee. It wasn’t alone either! We counted about six manatees swimming around us in total. The crystal clear waters giving us a spectacular view of these strange sea creatures. I honestly couldn’t believe what we were seeing. The manatees were so close, I could almost reach out and touch them.

Just a guy looking for alligators
You could almost touch them

Eventually, our new friends disappeared, and so we headed back to shore, shocked by how fortunate we were to see so many amazing animals out in the wild. I was obviously happier, as the manatee spot had won me the game, meaning Willow would have to spend an evening tolerating my smugness.

Our fun for the day wasn’t over yet. We still had the small matter of a certain rock concert to get to . The venue for the concert was just under a six hour drive from where we were, which meant we had a fair bit of driving to complete in order to make the concert in time for tomorrow evening. We settled on a campsite at a petrol station near Wakulla. This would allow us to visit another spring in the morning, leaving only a three hour drive to get us to the Pensacola Bay Centre arena.

Willow had drew the short straw to drive that night. I say short straw because as we made our way up to the ‘pan handle’, the skies clouded over and just as it did driving to Florida, the skies opened and so Willow was forced to try and make her way with almost zero visibility.

This time it was my responsibility to wipe the constant condensation from inside of the windscreen. With all our efforts focusing on not dying, neither of us managed to get any footage of the events, which is a shame as it truly was a horrifying drive.

We did eventually arrive at the petrol station, and without incident as well. One reviewer of the site on our camping app mentioned that they were able to park for free as they were a small set up that required little facilities. Popping in the enquire how the camping worked, we were relieved to be informed that we could park in the primitive area for free, saving us $25. Gotta love a freebie!

Even though we had only left that morning, Our visit to James and Lynne’s already felt like a lifetime ago. We had the best time hanging out with them on Anna Maria Island, but it being back on the road felt so liberating. Since visiting Victor in Port St Lucie, we had spent almost every night with other peoples company, and as a result, had spent less time out in the wilderness.

Soaked from popping petrol station, we changed into something a bit cosier and enjoyed a night to ourselves, catching up on the Great British Bake-off final.

You can’t really see the lake we had to park in

When I woke the next morning, it took a only a minute for me to adjust to waking up in the van again. The noise from the nearby road reminding me that we were nomads once more.The torrential downpour from the night before had subsided. However, it seemed to have taken the warm southern air with it. For one of the only times on our trip so far, I felt compelled to grab a pair of trousers and a couple of layers out of my cupboard.

Wakulla Springs was less than an hour away, and so we would have plenty of time to visit the area, before having to move on to Pensacola.With plenty of layers on, we set off on the small walk down to the water, with Aimee testing out her lead again. Ian had told us that in the summer season, you can take a glass bottom boat out onto the water, and in one section of the lake, you can see a mammoth skeleton. As we were there out of season, it didn’t surprise us to find that the boat was not operational. The spring did have a viewing platform where you can stand and see more manatees that lived in the water.

Portable hot water bottle
The water was warmer than the weather
These things are everywhere!

Willow went up to take pictures, whilst I entertain Aimee on her lead, who was now starting to get to grips with how it worked.The spring’s water temperature is a constant 21°c, so on that day, the spring had steam coming of the surface, as the temperature that day had dropped to around 10°c. It felt quite nice to dip your hand in. One guy found it so nice that he was actually having a quick morning swim, you definitely wouldn’t see that in England in November… well maybe if someone had enjoyed one too many sherbets.

Soon it was time to make our way to Pensacola. Our last destination in Florida.Whilst visiting Ian in Miami, he mentioned a friend of his named Colin, who lived in Pensacola but spent a large proportion of his time travelling the country to teach people who to repair and maintain their classic VW vehicles. Ian also mentioned the work Willow had done to our van to Colin, and so it made sense to meet up as we were heading to his neck of the woods.

Unfortunately, at the same time that we were heading to Pensacola for the concert, Colin was heading to Ocala, where we had just been the day before. As we would both be using the same interstate, we planned to meet somewhere along the way for a quick chat over a hot brew.

After about thirty minutes of texting mile markers to each other, we settled on a rest area roughly halfway between us.Arriving there first, we had just enough time to throw the kettle on before Colin’s arrival.

Colin was fairly noticeable,as he pulled into the rest area car park in his immaculate VW bus. Pulling up alongside us, he jumped into Ruby to join us for a quick cup of coffee and a quicker conversation about VWs.

Our vans couldn’t be any more different

Colin had a fantastic aura. He clearly possessed a phenomenal wealth of VW experience and we were both fascinated to hear about all of his experiences travelling the country to work on these special vehicles.

Sadly, we both had places to be, so that would not be possible at that time.When Colin first arrived, he was truly mortified when attempting to open our sliding door. The previous owners had severely butchered it, and although Willow had spent a vast amount of time, energy and money to improve it, it still wasn’t functioning as it was supposed to.Before leaving, Colin proposed to look at our sliding door with us, if we could hang around Pensacola until he returned on Tuesday. With no plans past the concert, we told him we would jump at the chance to fix our monstrous door.

And so Colin continued on his drive towards Ocala. We to continued on our journey towards the concert, buoyed by the hope of a better functioning sliding door.

Not wanting to arrive at the venue too late, Willow put her foot down, and we raced down the I-10 at a cruising speed of around 80mph! What we didn’t realise was that Pensacola was a part of the central time zone,so we in fact gained an hour by the time we pulled up outside the Bay Centre. The good news being that we would have time to enjoy a few beverages before the show.

Ruby blending in
Getting busy outside

It was soon time to head inside. We hadn’t really heard much of the opening act, so we weren’t too disappointed to miss their set queuing to get inside.We were both excited to next act however. Over the last year, super group ‘Bad Wolves’ have made massive main stream success, partly due to their exceptional cover of the 90’s classic ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries. They had recently released their sophomore album, which we had been gleefully listening to over the last week. Bad Wolves did not disappoint, roaring through their short set list, lead emphatically by their lead vocalist Tommy Vext.

Almost show time
What a voice
🎶What’s in your head 🎶

Next up, Canadian heavyweights Three Days Grace. Willow has always been a big Three Days Grace fan, and over the years they had really grown on me. They are much better than the ‘one song wonders’ tag I had given them when I was younger.About five years ago, original singer Adam Gontier left the band, replaced by Matt Walsh, lead singer from the dirty rock band ‘My Darkest Days’.

They have released two albums since, and although they have produced some interesting singles, overall they have struggled to capture the angst and pain from their earlier releases.Fortunately, the majority of their set list was made up of older songs, so overall we weren’t too disappointed by their set.

Canadian rock titans
🎶Because I’d rather feel pain than nothing at all🎶
Two Brits enjoying themselves

A quick bar break later and it was time for the main event. Hidden behind a giant curtain, Five Finger Death Punch burst onto the stage. It has been a good five years since we last saw them play in Birmingham, and it’s safe to say that their stock has continued to rise since that sell out show.

Time for the main event
Here’s Ivan

Ivan Moody, the lead singer, had clearly learnt a lot from his time with Rob Halford, changing his crazy attire between every song.I’m pleased to say that they played a long set list, full of songs that we both know from our many hours of driving in the van.

The set was full of lasers, 5FDP money, a touching moment where Ivan connected to fellow recovering addicts, and then topped off with a guitar solo from an ascending tower.

Redesign for Trafalgar Square
Someone’s budget has gotten bigger

Overall, the insane drive had been rewarded by three bands who put on one hell of a concert.Before leaving, we bought a then fairly tipsy Willow a ‘OneX’ T-shirt, one of her favourite Three Days Grace albums.Back in the van, I had hoped that if we loitered around long enough, we would see some of the band members, and would be able to grab a cheeky photo in from of Ruby.

Time to leave

It became clear fair quickly, that the roadies were packing up and preparing to ship off that night, and with Willow’s faculties succumbing to all of the beer she had drunk, we moved on to try and find a place to sleep.

After initially parking up at a Walmart local, we tried our luck trying to find a spot closer to the beach. Sadly, all of the parking spaces we’re gated and there was a strong police presence out in force, and so we ended up settling in the small Walmart car park we tried at the start.

I woke the next morning, feeling a lot better than Willow did (unsurprisingly!) I was pleasantly surprised when I peaked out of the curtain to see that another VW had parked beside us.I managed to speak to the owner, whilst letting Aimee out on her lead. He was on his way to a photo shoot to have his van photographed. These little beautiful vehicles can pop up in the most random of places!

Best surprise view ever!

With Willow awake and feeling more human, we headed of to find a place to camp for the day. We had a couple of days to kill before Colin got back to the area and we fancied a bit of down time after our busy social life over the past week.After exhausting all of the camping apps, we found a spot that was available for a reasonable fee of $5. It was in a camp site surrounded by military aerial practice bombing sites, so we were required to what a very old dvd about what to do if you stumble upon an unexplored aerial middle whilst walking your cat.

Short DVD about ‘how not to die’

I was really loving the carefree attitude we were experiencing in the south.

“You want cheap camping? We have that. You may cross paths with an unexploded bomb, but it’s fine!”

The camp site was just what we needed after a noisy night in a small Walmart car park . There wasn’t many other campers around us, and although the nearest campers to us had the most annoying children running around screaming, they were far enough away for me not to be overly bothered by them.

It’s nice to be back in the wilderness
Our little van scrubs up alright
Fiiiiirrrrre

We spent the rest of the day relaxing around a fire, me desperate for a military plane to fly over and drop bombs in a near by field… it didn’t happen.

Aimee was enjoying the freedom of the great outdoors again. Occasionally you would see a leaf coloured blur race past you and dart up a tree. Fortunately, she never made it too far up, she did however let know when she wanted help getting back down!

Monkey kitten
She thinks she’s sneaky

The following day, we had another Ian recommendation to check out. This time a free camp site at a park named Blackwater.

Before pitching up at the spot, we decided to do a small walk around a lake. Pulling up to the walj, we realised that it was also a campground with showers. Now at this point, we hadn’t showered since James and Lynne’s which was four days ago, and the baby wipe cleaning was not really cutting it.

We had just about decided that we would pay the $25 to stop and use the facilities, when a guy named Kenny approached us to speak to us about the van. He went on to tell us that he was a camp host at another camp site about fifteen minutes away, that had showers and water facilities. Even better, it was free. He invited us to come and send the night there at a much cheaper rate. Obviously we agreed, and planned to head there after our walk.

Over the last couple of weeks, Aimee had grown massively, and she was now getting used to spending time outdoors. We decided then would be the ideal opportunity to train her further on her lead, taking her rucksack with us if she decided walking wasn’t of interest to her.

Walkies

To our surprise, she loved walking the trail with us on her lead. She followed our ever step, bounding ahead of us at times to explore the hidden secrets of a maintained lake path.

She’s getting the hang of it
Such a cutie

It was a fairly small walk, around four miles in total, and after almost three miles, her enthusiasm for the adventure caught up with her. Willow had to check in with her parents, and so whilst she was on the phone, Aimee decided to chill on my rucksack, rather than her purpose bought cat carriage. After about ten minutes, Willow decided that she needed to get used to her bag, whether she liked it or not. And she did like it, for about fifteen minutes. Then she decided that she needed to be free, to run around like a maniac some more.

Afternoon views
Willow clearly enjoying the walk
Tranquil waters
Ruining my shot

Considering we were walking with Aimee, we completed the walk in fairly good time. The sun was beginning to set and we had limited data to help us track Kenny’s camp ground.

Trying to remember the directions, we drove down some very bumpy, desolate roads, the little beginning to fail us. Eventually, we saw a sign for ‘Wilderness Landing Campground’, and relieved, we drove down the access road to be greeted by Kenny, who directed us over to another camper who had a lovely fire burning.Once parked up, we were introduced to Terry, a guy who was retired and spending his time in his converted camper.We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the warmth of another fire, appreciating spending more time out in the middle of nowhere, underneath a star lit sky.

This would be a fitting end to our time in Florida.