Haunting jewel of the South
Fog drifts across the leaf-strewn swamp / Picture: Peter Lynch

Fargo in south-eastern Georgia is a small backwater town of a few hundred people perched on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. There's a garage/shop, a six-room motel, a couple of cafes, a school and a railway track but no station.

Arriving in Fargo during early evening, having followed the Suwannee River up to its source, the only discernible lights were the Suwannee River Cafe and the garage. The motel opposite was in darkness and rapidly fading into the surrounding forest. The garage was a haven of light attracting people like moths to a lamp.

The lady at the garage checkout assumed that I was either simple or foreign and spoke "veeery slooowly". When she realised we were looking for somewhere to stay, with classic country folk hospitality, she rang Kevin, the owner of the Gator motel, and he arrived in his pick-up a few minutes later.

Check-in was simplicity itself. "Which room do you want? Just leave 25 bucks on the table when you leave." And he's gone.

Over at the Suwannee River Cafe the walls bore deer heads, pictures of Jesus, religious sentiments and signs saying - "we shoot salesmen" and "no spitting, no gouging an' no kilin" (sic). The food counter menu is blank but a sign announces "we do food two ways - take it or leave it".

As it's the only cafe open in town, which will close in 10 minutes, we're happy to "take it" with no questions asked.

TV reception at the Gator is reminiscent of the 50s. No matter how much you jiggle the aerial the black and white snowstorm just won't abate. At regular intervals through the night long trains trundle slowly through the middle of town, waking up visitors but for residents it's a lullaby.

Native Creek Indians called the Okefenokee "the land of the trembling earth" because many of the swamp islands float like rafts. Native Americans lived here for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before Scots and Irish settlers came in the mid-1800s.

There's not much information about the original inhabitants, just dozens of ancient Indian burial mounds. Their story is a sorry tale; those who didn't die in battle, from starvation or disease were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in 1836 on the infamous Trail of Tears.

The environment didn't fare much better. Within 20 years of the arrival of the railway in 1880, the native longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) surrounding the Okefenokee had been reduced to a forest of stumps. Next the giant swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees were felled as railway tracks pushed further into the swamp. Old black- and-white pictures make it look like a war zone of pillage and destruction. As the last stands of profitable cypress were felled about 1926 the major logging companies pulled out.

It was in 1918 that local man J. F. Wilson made the first attempt at preservation by founding the Okefenokee Society but this pioneering society died with its founder in 1921. The Georgia Society of Naturalists took up Wilson's crusade in 1929 and eventually persuaded the federal government to purchase 16,000 hectares of desecrated forest in 1935.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiatives in the Depression era of the late 1930s made the first major contribution to the restoration and preservation of the Okefenokee. President Franklin D. Roosevelt bought 118,564ha from a lumber company in 1937 and created the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge. WPA projects started the process of restoration and replanting so that today, again, there are tall cypress trees, although they are still only juveniles.

The regulations of the new Wildlife Refuge made it difficult for residents to make a living and by 1958 most of the descendents of the original European settlers had gone the same way as the Indians. Moonshine from illegal stills was big business and thrived during prohibition and even now Rangers say they continue to find the occasional illegal still.

Today the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has grown to 160,255ha and for a natural-history enthusiast, the Okefenokee has long been the epitome of the strange and mysterious, if not the downright dangerous.

It straddles the Georgia-Florida border and the famous Suwannee River drains its waters south-west into the Gulf of Mexico. The swampy landscape is dotted with floating islands that disconcertingly quake underfoot and the shallow "blackwater" is stained with tannin making it the colour of tea.

Three entrances lead into the swamp; I used the Stephen C. Foster entrance, which has RV and camping sites along with a shop and nine cottages for rent. There's a small museum, a nature trail and a wooden walkway but to see the real swamp you have to take to the water. Canoe rental is available and you can camp overnight in the swamp but, having seen alligators everywhere, I settled for a ranger-guided trip by flat- bottomed powerboat.

Meandering channels are the pathways through the swamp. Huge cypress trees loom out of the sometimes misty landscape, growing straight out of the dark water, dripping with Spanish moss and looking truly primeval.

It's a spectacular nature reserve with more than 400 species of vertebrate animal, including black bear, alligators, otter, mink, beaver, sandhill cranes and woodpeckers and among the longleaf pine and cypress are carnivorous pitcher plants and sundews.

The young boy next to me in the boat counted 48 alligators on our short trip and they really do look spooky close up. When the engine turned off, the sudden silence is almost oppressive and it's impossible not to think of Jurassic Park especially with pairs of yellow reptilian eyes staring back at you from the water.

It's hard to imagine that people actually lived in such a forbidding place. It's also terrible to think of the environmental destruction and human misery that the history of the Okefenokee.

It's a haunting place but it's great to see its primeval beauty restored and marvel at how nature can restore itself when given a helping hand. Today, the Okefenokee is one of Georgia's jewels and is fast becoming a popular tourist attraction.

When the engine turned off, the sudden silence is almost oppressive and it's impossible not to think of Jurassic Park.

The West Australian

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