Crossing the border from southern Mississippi into Louisiana feels more like Queensland to Indonesia, or California to Mexico. The change is dramatic. There’s water everywhere, for a start, and gumbo reigns supreme, and people here even speak differently — the French patois of the true Cajuns has infected the cadences of the rest of the state in easily discernible ways.
Although we crossed our first bayous before we left Mississippi, as soon as we hit Louisiana we started scouring them for our first glimpse of alligators. Many a log was declared to be the first sighting, but in truth, we didn’t spot any until the ones on our plate at the divine Cochon in New Orleans.
We entered New Orleans through the Garden District, a lengthy strip of posh suburbs featuring the largest collection of antebellum mansions in the US, but these are Old South — those that were once 90210-style nouveau riche have settled comfortably into establishment charm. Mardi Gras beads festoon the trees of St Charles Avenue, lending a festive air to the mid-summer wilting humidity. A quick catfish po’boy stop rounded out a very hospitable welcome.
The French Quarter itself is all charming facade and rotten core, or if not rotten, at least pretty shallow from our admittedly cursory stroll in the afternoon downpour. You can smell the Quarter before you enter it, but the will o’ wisp filigreed balconies enchant you onward until you spy the scantily (and tastelessly) clad prostitutes writhing in the doorways of bars competing for custom with ear-splitting music more likely to drive punters away than draw them in. I hadn’t anticipated this opportunity to teach the children about prostitution, but there you go.
Cochon is over in the Arts & Warehouse District, which is clearly where the well-heeled and hipster locals drink and dine — one can hardly imagine them facing the hordes of tourists in the garish lights of the Quarter. At Cochon, along with our first taste of ‘gator, we also feasted on crawfish and green tomato casserole, soft-shell crab, chicken and andouille gumbo, shaved hog’s head with pickled baby beetroot and turnips, roast shoulder of cochon and cracklins, and rabbit and dumplings. We bookended our Cochon feast with a Mint Julep and two kinds of moonshine — Virginia Lightning and Catdaddy — all in the interest of local culture of course. The food was delicious from start to finish, and we were deeply gratified to see 11 years of palate training pay off as the kids gobbled up not only the ‘gator, but also the hog’s head and everything else on offer with relish.
Before heading out of town the next day, we opted to drive over to the Lower Ninth Ward, the worst Hurricane Katrina-affected neighbourhood, and a working class one at that. Katrina is now six years past, but its effects are still evident throughout the eastern arm of this impossible city of levees and low-lying ‘burbs. The most shocking thing about the Ninth Ward is the emptiness.
Apparently less than a quarter of the devastated homes have been rebuilt (and a miniscule number survived the storm and deep floods), leaving a landscape of empty lots, including the large fenced-off field that must be where the local school was. From my reading, I gather the abandoned homes still standing are a result of insurance claims yet to be met, a damning stat against reliance on private enterprise of a scale matched only by the failure of America’s private health insurance system.
It’s impossible not to ponder the profound losses of the Ninth Ward as one drives along the semi-deserted streets, though the new homes built by Brad Pitts’ ‘Make it Right’ project and Harry Connick Jr’s ‘Musicians’ Village’ are this district’s Mardi Gras beads in an otherwise hopeless landscape. And what a contrast to the affluent Garden District – but contrasts are just punctuation in our meandering sentence through the Deep South.
Our first live sightings of Louisiana’s famous ancient reptiles came when we spent a morning on Annie Miller’s Son’s Swamp and Marsh Tours. We’d spent the night at a small, local RV Park, which was really more of a trailer park full of long-term residents, hosted by a sweet older couple with that distinctive accent that makes ‘oyshters’ of ‘oysters’. Linda told us about a museum in Houma that “the kids would just love”, with buttons they could press to light up the different areas of a model oil derrick to show where the workers live and work. “You just press the button and they, they light up,” she repeated with enthusiasm. When we said we were from Australia, she drew a total blank, and suggested it must have been a long drive.
And then we were on the bayou. Not just passing by the bayous, but actually ‘on the bayou’. And it is magnificent. Totally otherworldly for those of us from temperate climates, with an abundance of life so thick you fear breathing some of it in. Bugs the size of mammals singing a chorus the volume of freeways, but far more pleasant. When Atticus tried to pick up an enormous grasshopper, it hung onto its stick in a farcical game of tug-of-war before he had it, then complained at its strong grasp on his hand. A sandfly landed on Stuart and its grip was so strong he felt it pulling his skin before it bit. I could have simply shellacked the dragonfly that landed on my arm as a bracelet.
Like the insects, many of the birds are large — the Great Blue Heron and Great Egret being two of the most graceful examples. Our guide, the eponymous ‘Annie’s Son’ Jimmy, drew our attention to these and many others, including their small cousins, the last of the season’s swallows, who he said would fly the nest any time now, leaving him to watch until fall for their return.
And then there’s the flora — American water lilies, milkweed and water hyacinth making water into land for the egrets, and swamp cypresses with their ‘knees’ poking knobbily around them like a crowd of old men in a murky bath. Add to these the willows, cottonwoods, red maples and oaks, drape them with the abundant Spanish moss (which is actually a bromeliad, and therefore a relative of pineapple, which I find bewildering beyond what I can Google) and the shades and textures of greens put even the Appalachians to shame.
Finally there were alligators. As we boarded the large tinny, Jimmy warned us it was a bad year for the big ones due to heavy rains that have kept the Mississippi swollen and deep and high temperatures that lead the big ‘gators to shelter down below. Our first glimpse of the one Jimmy calls Loulou was exciting even if she was only about four feet long.
Jimmy’s mother Annie started these tours in the mid 1980s when she was 65 years old, and continued them until she was 88. It was she who taught the local alligators that there were bits of chicken as a reward for any brave enough to approach the boat — a lesson they eventually learnt well enough that they’ll always approach the Millers’ boat but not others.
Jimmy calls out, “Heeeere, Loulou! C’mon baby!” until she shyly approaches, takes the proffered meat and slinks off to the depths again. This routine is played out in the territory of another half dozen ‘gators over the course of the tour. Our favourite was the bolder Rip and his sidekick Candyman deep in the Mandalay Wildlife Refuge.
Sated in so many ways, we clambered out of Jimmy’s boat for a lunch of traditional Cajun dishes including crawfish étouffée and shrimp Acadiana at a little restaurant trading more on longevity than quality of ingredients. The execs of offshore construction companies and local highway workers, however, seemed perfectly satisfied with their frozen fish, instant rice, and flimsy white buns, and in terms of another adventure, so were we.
This story concludes in yet another of America’s wonderful state parks — Lake Fausse Pointe — where we’ve taken shelter from cities and concrete RV parks. What sweet relief to roll in amongst the thundering katydids and discover alligators in the canal just off our own little dock, while their similarly armoured land-faring mates, the myopic armadillos, nose dopily past the RockVan. In fact, the only wildlife we haven’t really taken to are the swarms of swamp-loving mosquitos, but I reckon their irritating little bites are worth it for the rest. Son of a gun, we’re havin’ big fun on the bayou! (apologies to Hank Williams)