Camels and hippos and rhinos, oh my!
From the Holiday 2017 issue
As Meryl Streep said, in her epic film “Out of Africa,” “I had a ranch in Aff-rica,” But who’d think we’d find an African ranch in Florida? No less one where I could ride a camel and feed a giraffe?
This 47-acre working farm and wildlife preserve near Tampa was deep in an area called the Green Swamp. Well, the name gave me the yips, but you know how I love an adventure.
So we drove to the swamp, crossing Withlacoochee Creek, wondering what the creek would have looked like without lachoochie. And were there other kinds of choochies in the water? Banjo music appeared to emanate from a front porch straight out of “Hoarder TV.”
“Watch where you’re driving!” I yelled, as tree moss hung so far over the road we could be driving through a car wash.
It turned out that the Giraffe Ranch sign was so unobtrusive we drove right past it and had to turn around at George & Gladys’s BBQ stand. They advertised Alligator Bites. Lunch or warning? We’ll never know.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch (Oh, how I’ve longed to use that phrase literally!) we joined a small group of visitors listening to naturalists talk about the farm, wetlands, roosting sandhill cranes, and endangered species breeding programs.
The ranch owners had been zoo CEOs, studied endangered species breeding and been on more than 30 African safaris. They invited us onto a 20-passenger touring jeep where we roamed the range for close encounters with ostriches, zebras, warthogs (ugly but sweet), two pygmy hippopotamus (hippopotamuses? hippopotami?) and a prehistoric-looking rhino.
We learned that the guinea pig patch kept growing thanks to the miracle of compound interest.
Pointing out their house, it was clear they actually had a home on the range where the deer and the antelope play.
To be specific, bongo antelope. This species, designated as an odd-toed ungulate, raced across the property (would that be ungulating?), giving our Jeep chase. While it wasn’t a migration on the Serengeti, it was pretty darn impressive. The bongos showcased their spiral horns, which, if one dropped off, as they tend to do, could easily open your pinot grigio.
Then, a half a dozen giraffes (even-toed ungulates) walked up to our Jeep, bending down, waaay down, to accept the offered cabbage leaves from our hands. Does giraffe language have a term for “pain in the neck” and were we tourists described that way? I hoped they had a masseuse back at the barn.
I could only stare at these tallest-of-all yet graceful creatures, licking their big floppy lips, giving us sweet smiles and batting their long beautiful eyelashes. Glorious!
We stopped by the lake to see the baby hippo, which encouraged me to get my hand out of the bag of cheese doodles I was munching.
But the thrill of my day was the camel caravan.
We walked over to the camelot (Could. Not. Resist)), asking the eternal question: “One hump or two?”
My spouse rode a dromedary (two humps) while I was assigned the one-hump model. Both kinds use their humps to store up to 80 pounds of fat for fuel when nourishment is scarce. I was tempted to offer them the cheese doodles, as the fat is better off in a camel’s hump than this writer’s rump. Just sayin’.
So there I was, standing on a boardwalk, with a camel parked alongside. They had to give me a footstool, so I could step up, balance on my right leg and throw my left leg over Omar. I will see the physical therapist Tuesday.
I sat, precariously, on a saddle cinched around the belly of the beast. A large grab bar behind the camel’s hump provided minimum security as I held on, white-knuckled, as we lumbered off. In the last century, before cigarette ads were banned, I might have walked a mile for a Camel but now I was unsure if I could survive a mile on a camel.
And Omar had me swaying so far from side to side I craved Dramamine.
I thought his fur would be coarse and scratchy, but it was actually nice and soft. Occasionally he turned his head to look at me, his huge eyes inquiring “You OK?”
“Ummm, not sure,” I said. “Thanks for asking.”
Meanwhile, Gus, the dromedary behind me, kept trying to pass on the right, whispering sweet nothings in my ear.
The 15-minute excursion, past our giraffe friends, past the rhino getting a sponge bath, around the monkey habitat, wasn’t exactly an African safari, but it was exhilarating and a really, really cool adventure.
And being roughly $19,800 dollars cheaper than a National Geo safari, I think we got our money’s worth.
At caravan’s end, Omar patiently waited for me to dismount (“ow, ow, ow”), I thanked him for the lift and gave him a peck on his fuzzy cheek.
As Katy Perry might have sung, I kissed a camel and I liked it.