The driveway leading to Edward Babcock's house is more than three miles long. That gives you some idea of the size of his ranch outside Fort Myers in southwest Florida. It was 154,000 acres (62,321 hectares) when Babcock, a Pittsburgh lumber baron, bought it in 1914 when southern Florida was mostly swamp and dense forests. And while around him, the sunshine state grew by millions of people, thousands of hotels, endless condos, luxury homes, amusement parks and marinas, Babcock kept his massive ranch looking much as it did 100 years ago.
He eventually donated 60,000 acres (24,281 hectares) to the state as a wildlife management area. Fifteen years ago, Babcock's heirs opened up the remaining 94,000 acres (38,040 hectares) to the public, and Babcock Ranch became one of the most popular eco-tourism stops in Florida. The entire ranch was sold a couple months ago to a real estate development firm, but it's not as bad as it sounds.
The developer then sold 74,000 acres (29,947 hectares) to the state for $350 million US to maintain in perpetuity as a wilderness preserve. So, you will still be able to roam through the swamps, forests and pastures of the ranch in a unique swamp bus looking at alligators, panthers, black bears, deer, exotic birds and real-life cowboys. On the other 18,000 acres (7,284 hectares), developer, Syd Kitson, plans to create a sustainable, green-thinking community of 19,600 homes.
While riding through the Cypress swamp areas of Babcock Ranch, you will be able to rub the soft underbelly of an alligator and understand why their skin is held in such high regard by designers of high-end shoes and luggage. That gator appears right on the rugged, open-air bus with you. Thankfully, it's only a baby (with sharp teeth), and is held firmly in the grip of guide, Mike Winters.
Other alligators, some nearly four metres long and with much bigger teeth, come within a metre of the bus passengers, but thankfully, they aren't welcome onboard. They remain in the shallow swamp waters through which the bus rumbles.
And although the elusive Florida panthers that prowl around the ranch at night are rarely seen, you'll get to look one or two of them right in their deep black eyes. Two panthers live on the ranch in a large penned-in area. Others roam freely in the woods.
Other species on the ranch also flourish, including cracker cattle, the oldest breed known in America. They look like Texas Longhorns, but they are smaller and their horns are not as wide, which is important. With wider horns, they would never have been able to survive their feral lives in the Florida swamps, for the horns would tangle in the dense foliage, according to guide and swamp bus diver Winters.
Real-life cowboys wrangle the cattle on this huge ranch. And they look like cowboys straight from the late show. They live on the ranch, some in bunkhouses, ride horses everywhere and exhibit holsters on their hips, but Winters says the holsters are for their cell phones. Exposed guns are illegal in this county.
Part of the ranch is called Telegraph Swamp. There's a mud road through the swamp with telegraph poles along the route. Winters said the telegraph lines carried the message in 1898 that the U.S. battleship Maine had been blown up in Havana Harbour to spark the Spanish American War.
The state's purchase of 74,000 acres (29,947 hectares) completes a publicly owned wildlife corridor of 400,000 acres (161,874 hectares) connecting Lake Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico.
The swamp bus tour takes 90 minutes and costs $18 for adults and $11 for children three to 11 years old. On the tours, you might see bald eagles, black bear, bison, wild turkey, wild pigs, burrowing owls, sandhill cranes, quail, fox squirrels, rattlesnakes and the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. After the tour, you can visit the Babcock Ranch Museum, which depicts the natural and cultural history of southern Florida. The museum is in a small trapper's shack and it might look familiar. It played a significant role in the Warner Brothers movie, Just Cause, with Sean Connery and Laurence Fishburne filmed on the ranch in 1995. Winters said Connery is terrified of snakes and refused to enter a water-filled ditch for a scene until all the water was replaced with tap water. Guards with shotguns had to stand just out of camera view to blast anything that moved in the grass. So much for agent 007!
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.