In late January, earlier this year, I arrived in Louisiana. Of course, I had plans to visit new Orleans, but first I was stopping off in the much smaller city of Lafayette. I’d decided a few weeks prior to leaving Australia that I wanted to check out the swamps of Louisiana. Wherever I travel, I like to see the natural world as well as getting a feel for the local culture, and in the ‘heart of Cajun country’ I had the opportunity to do a little of both.
My guide for this tour – whom I stumbled on by chance online – was Marcus de la Houssaye, of de la Houssaye’s Swamp Tours. Of all the Cajun characters I met whilst in Louisiana, Marcus was really the ‘classic’. I’d called him up a few weeks before I left for the US, and explained I wasn’t really interested in the typical tourist approach to visiting the swamps. “Sure thing”, he said, “we can work something out”. We agreed that I would simply rock up on a given date, and we would figure it out from there. “You won’t be disappointed”, he told me. Of course, I had no idea what was going on, but I don’t mind that so much when I travel.
Marcus was, as CCR would say, ‘born on the bayou’. His website notes: “Born on the banks of the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, I grew up hunting and fishing the swamps and marshlands of South Central Louisiana with my father. I have lived on a houseboat in the Atchafalaya Basin for ten years, conducting tours and guiding fishing trips through a variety of swamps and marshland areas. I was a commercial fisherman when I became a tour guide. I continue to drive the swamps today, the same way I did as a commercial fisherman in pursuit of crawfish.”
I got into Lafayette, and ‘settled in’ to my accommodations at the Blue Moon Saloon & Guesthouse, at Marcus’ recommendation. It turned out that I had stumbled in on quite a party the night arrived, so I did very little settling at all. Bright and early Marcus picked me up as arranged, with a boat in tow and a pickup full of dogs. We headed off to Lake Martin, an outlying swamp of the Atchafalaya Basin. There we readied the boat and the dogs (Beauty and Lil’ Bob came with us), and launched into the lake. The cypress trees that make up most of the swamp vegetation quickly became denser as we moved past fishermen and duck hunters, and into the swamp proper. I’ve always felt a bit of an affinity with wetland areas, whether here at home, through Southeast Asia, or in North Queensland, and this was no exception. There was an eerie calmness to this swamp, punctuated only by the occasional splash, rustle, or slither, as something moved from our path.
Louisiana is known for its seafood restaurants, but Marcus was quick to point out the abundance of the wild larder also. From the prized crawfish that are
found in wetlands all over Louisiana, to the alligators and turtles that I would try a few days later. Turtle, alligator, and crawfish (and a few other species I tried) turned out to be delicious, and the Southern Louisiana style of cooking was certainly my cup of tea; that may be something for a future post. We stopped so Marcus could harvest some local fungi growing on the base of a cypress tree. They were some sort of shelf mushroom, although I don’t know the specific variety. These were later dropped off to friends of Marcus’ who were very grateful indeed. The swamps of Louisiana are laden with wildfoods, and even the occasional orange tree or satsuma that have flourished where settlers no longer do.
We pushed on, following an old logging road until it terminated, moving deeper into the swamp. The surface here was carpeted with waterplants, and we were entering a rookery for Great Egrets, Black Crowned Night Herons, White Ibises, and many more species. I took the opportunity to break in my (then) new camera, and just to enjoy the surroundings. Southern Louisiana is home to a wide range of fascinating bird species, and wildlife in general. Marcus has a lot of great photos on his My Wild Louisiana blog, but my favourite has to be this photo of an alligator eating a snake.
After a few hours on the swamp, we headed back to dry land and packed up the boat. I’d certainly learned a lot from Marcus’ expert commentary along the way, but my day was only just beginning. We ended up travelling further afield, and I got to see a lot more of the wild Louisiana on foot and from the passenger seat of Marcus’ truck, was introduced to the forty-odd dogs he breeds and trains for sale as hunting and tracking dogs, ate at a few of his favourite cafe/delis, and ended up back at the Blue Moon to have more than a few cold brews. For anyone down that part of the world, I highly recommend you look Marcus de la Houssaye up and take part in one of his famous swamp tours. If you need a recommendation for a place to stay, I couldn’t say enough good things about the Blue Moon. I met enough great characters in Lafayette in two days, that what was supposed to be a one or two night stay somehow turned into six very memorable weeks.
Update 10/12/2011: Something I would have liked to do, either in Louisiana or Florida or elsewhere, is hunt an alligator with a spear. If anyone knows somewhere this can be done without forking out piles of money, please let me know!