Off Road Arches

After our off-road “training” with our Belgian friends in Idaho, we were more confident to take the car off road ourselves. And we had heard many stories from 4×4 enthusiasts that Moab, Utah is the best place for it.

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So after following the tourist trails through Arches National Park, we turned onto a gravel road. The sign said “4×4 vehicles, high clearance recommended” and that it was best to take the road from north to south.

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After a couple of minutes of driving on gravel road, we saw two cars coming down from the hills; a Dodge and a Toyota. The guy in the Toyota stopped, and told us “It’s pretty gnarly up there.” But then he looked at our car and said, “you have pretty high clearance – you should be fine.”

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Michal’s reaction was, ‘hey if your car can do it, we’ll have no problem’ – after all, our car was built for this.

If only he knew what was coming up…

Half way through the eighteen-mile track, we saw that a storm was approaching from the west. We knew that if it started raining heavily, the road would become even more dangerous and impassable, and that we would likely get stuck for the night. But, thankfully, we were only hit by a light spot of rain and the heavy clouds moved north and east.

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After hours, literally, of adrenaline producing hills, with the tyres clinging on for life to the steep rock and soft sand, we made it to a beautiful spot a mile away from the main road.

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As the sun was setting, we decided to stop for a magic hour dinner, and as I was cooking Michal went hunting for the perfect last photo of the Moab’s arches.

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Yellowstone – but instead of Yogi we met Lucy

Driving across Northwest America has been another feast for the eyes and for the soul.

Leaving the west, making our way east, led us through Cascade National Park with the bluest lakes I have ever seen and some of the most jaw-dropping mountains of our drive.

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Thick, dense pine forests coat the landscapes, and we spent a day exploring Glacier National Park before heading to the world’s most active volcanic region; Yellowstone.

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We’re not usually early morning people, but we entered Yellowstone at 6am in time for the sunrise, and the mystical scenes that greeted us easily repaid the hours of sleep that we had given up.

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It was magical; the mysterious mist rising over early grazing herds, the lakes, rivers and mountains, the colours, the smells.

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We hiked one of the parks highest peaks; Avalanche Peak, and it almost lived up to its name! Once we summited, we made our way across a ridge to the next peak, with Louise being literally knocked over by the wind several times. And as our path downwards turned into a scree slope, the only way down was to slide through rocks and pebbles, creating mini-avalanches and hoping we wouldn’t bring any bigger piles down on top of us.

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It was an exhilarating, somewhat nerve-racking but beautiful hike… and we still had a day ahead of us to explore the Teton Mountains, a stunning mountain range that we had heard so much about.

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But when we woke up, the heavens opened, and our plans for a beautiful hike in the Teton Mountains were spoiled. So we decided to just drive south.

Ten minutes later, as we entered Jackson, Wyoming, we were shocked to see a beautiful red Defender sitting outside a Dairy Queen. It wasn’t just any Defender; it was kitted out with a roof tent, roof boxes, two spare tyres, and those tell-tale stickers with a website and logo that told us “this car is on a serious journey”.

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So we went inside, and met Sam and Hanne – a couple from Belgium who are into their 11th month of travelling.

When we told them that we had a Defender parked outside next to theirs, they of course jumped up and went out to take a look!

We started comparing our different interiors and exteriors; Michal and I were a little envious of their fridge and custom built units at the back. They had travelled around Africa for the first ten months of their trip, and had had a lot more time to build their house on wheels. The end result was beautifully organised and convenient; we learned a lot from them!

After a couple of hours of hearing each others’ stories, since we had no plans for that day thanks to the rain, we opted to join Sam, Hanne and “Lucy” their Defender on the road.

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After an afternoon of driving and filling up on groceries, we found a perfect, secluded spot in the Idaho wilderness and set up camp for the evening.

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The rain clouds had cleared out and the sky that night was absolutely stunning!

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After a European breakfast, Sam and Hanne found some 4×4 trails through Crater of the Moon national park, and so after a morning of exploring caves and volcanic craters, we took our vehicles off road to put them through their paces.

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They wanted to give us a little taste of what it might be like driving through Africa…

And within the first ten minutes, we heard a smash… We had lost a window!

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We’re not sure if it was the intense vibrations, or the pressure from the car frame, or a stone flying up and hitting the window.

But it was gone!

With Sam and Hanne’s help, we patched it up using a plastic crate lid, and have now joined the league of travellers whose cars are somewhat held together by duct tape.

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The rest of the 50-mile trail passed without any drama. But Sam and Hanne said that the roads and the landscape looked so similar to that of Namibia that they expected to see a giraffe or elephant at any moment!

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We were planning to go our separate ways when we reached the lake, but there was a campsite just a mile away and so we spent our evening fishing (again, zero fish for us…), cooking and planning our next journey together somewhere in the world.

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The next morning, we were both planning to get on the road early, but again we had so much to share and discuss and dream about that we didn’t get away until almost 3pm.

What a joy to meet such like-minded travellers by absolute chance! But we don’t believe in coincidences, and are very sure that we’ll get to travel somewhere together again in the future; maybe we’ll get ourselves a matching roof tent by then…

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Sam and Hanne have been through Africa, N. America, and you can follow the rest of their epic journey through Central and South America and into South East Asis on their website www.tweejaaropreis.be – which means “Two Years On Vacation” – and if your Flemish isn’t up to scratch, google translate will help you out!

On a trip like this, it is imperative to be prepared and make good plans. But, sometimes, it is just wonderful when plans get changed or rain throws a curveball… something amazing might just happen…

Californication

My perception of California has been, up until now, pretty one sided. California in my mind was Hollywood, Santa Monica Beach, Napa Valley and the Golden-Gate Bridge; in other words; beautiful cities and beautiful people.

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But, after being in the state for a few days, it became clear that The Golden State is one of the USA’s most diverse.

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Within 24 hours, we were at the lowest point in the country, Death Valley (-282 ft), and trekking up through the 48 States’ highest point, Mount Whitney (14,505 ft). They are less than 50 miles away from each other.

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Death Valley – it is easy to see how it earned its name. Just getting up and down the hills to arrive into the valley, our car almost overheated several times; we had to stop every few minutes on the intense climbs at extreme heats just to cool it off!

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Once we were back on the flat, driving along with the windows down, the heat and wind combination was like someone blowing a hair-dryer into our faces. Chapped lips, dry eyes… we were drinking at least a litre of water per hour…

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In our water-guzzling, sun-screen lathering state, I am always amazed at the resourcefulness of animals and plants that have adapted to survive in these incredibly harsh climates. But, in one of the most hostile environments on the planet, the landscapes are parched and bare, and the few creatures that do manage to survive here are quiet and still beneath the scorching sun.

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The next morning, we woke in the foothills of Mount Whitney, in the southern Sierra-Nevada, where waterfalls gush from rocky crags, dense, lush vegetation fills every inch of fertile ground, bears, big cats, deer and myriads of birds all live and thrive. What an amazing contrast!

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It became clear pretty quickly that we were not prepared to summit the mountain, and so we took a fantastic hike up to one of the mountain’s many lakes.

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Following the mountains north, we found ourselves in the Sequoia Forest with the most majestic trees I have ever seen. It is interesting that scientists are still only just figuring out the life cycle and optimal living conditions for these trees: they actually never die naturally! They are sometimes toppled in storms, but most often forest fires weaken and eventually eat away at the trunks until they die.

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So in an attempt to protect them, the park stopped all fires; both natural and man-made. But soon, they saw a decline in the number of young trees. Eventually, they realised that small forest fires are the only way the seedpods will dry and be opened, releasing their seeds… So the fires are back… but under the careful watch of Ranger Rick ☺

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Yosemite National Park is breathtaking – literally, when you hike up the hill for hours :). We did one of the most challenging hikes we have attempted – the famous Half Dome.

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Scaling an, at times, 80 degree wall after four hours of steep ascent, was one of the most exhilarating, exhausting moments on our trip so far.

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And the views from the top were just beautiful!

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But as we headed back West, down from the Sierra Nevada range, the effects of the drought that we had been hearing about became devastatingly clear. Empty cattle barns, fields parched gold, dried up lakes…

The only green fields that seemed to be worth the investment were, quite ironically, vineyards.

Now in its fourth year, this catastrophic drought is forcing farmers to either pay water usage fines or leave their fields unplanted. State agriculturalists are getting desperate, and even considering doing a mass move of California crops to Arkansas…

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But one very clear way that we see California’s environment truly benefitting its residents is the countless wind farms across the state. Driving through turbine forests along the highway was quite something!

And, one more thing about California… the traffic… As we drove north, headed up into Portland, it took us five hours to get out of San Francisco onto the freeway… but the Golden Gate Bridge was worth it… just about!

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Now that we only have seven states left to visit, we are starting to be able to pick our favourites. And, with its absolutely incredible diversity, beauty and amazing national parks, California is definitely high on the list.

Wild West

Louise’s 2nd July Concert to kick off the 4th July weekend seemed a little ironic – a Brit wishing Texans Happy Independence Day?

But, music is a universal language and the concert connected superbly with the audience. And since we had given ourselves one week to get to Los Angeles from Austin, as soon as the gig was over, we packed up the car and headed into the night.

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West. Wild West, truly!

We had seen some pretty remote parts of the states; the Badlands in the Dakotas, tiny little towns in Minnesota, never-ending fields of farmland in Missouri and Kansas.

But the vast expanses of desert in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California were something even more incredible.

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The Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas and New Mexico border were our introduction to the rugged, wild terrain that continues across the south of the USA. Rich rocks filled with quartz, mountains lions, cacti and forest, snakes and deer – the mountains held a diversity of life thanks to their abundant water supply.

But as we headed further into the desert, the numbers of species fell and soon we were alone with lizards, birds, and bugs. There is nothing like the quiet, the darkness, the heat, the expanse of the desert.

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In towering sand dunes or vast canyons, with the unforgiving sun and no sign of water, it is easy to see how lost and helpless we are under the forces of nature.

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As we approached one of the world’s most stunning features, the great crack in its crust formed by a formidable earthquake, Grand Canyon, we wanted to have a different experience than we had had before – something more than taking that same photo that everyone has.

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So we started hiking down into the canyon. As soon as you start to descend, you start to understand the sheer size of the place. We walked for hours, and had not even got close to the bottom. One can not easily conquer these wild places.

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One of the most fascinating features of the Wild West is the number of abandoned, or almost-abandoned towns that are scattered across the landscape. We came across several mining towns that had fallen into ruin, with their run-down buildings, scrap cars in yards, and mine shafts – some still with undetonated explosives!

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It is amazing to let your imagination create the stories of those who lived here; why they came, how life was, what finally forced them to leave. And for those who have stayed, how do they possibly survive when there is no-one for miles and nothing to build a life around?

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Amazingly, the post office and the railroads are the veins that keep the life blood flowing; connecting and crisscrossing and keeping these tiny towns alive. In the most remote of towns, high in the mountains or deep in the desert, post boxes line the roads and are a welcome sign of life.

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Perhaps the creepiest place that we came across was while we were off-roading in the Mojave desert. We had turned onto tiny dirt tracks, when we crested a hill and found an old trailer; the windows were gone, and it was covered in plastic sheeting.

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Bullet casings and shotgun shells were strewn everywhere, and our minds immediately jumped to Walter White and Breaking Bad! It was a great hideout… shielded from view and protected from the rear by mountains. So either someone there had a score to settle with the coyotes, or the King of the Hill had something else going on…

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But that night, we found a perfect camp of our own. In the middle of nowhere, peaceful, with the brightest stars we have ever seen. It is easy to see why our ancestors worshiped the moon and the stars; these bright oracles bring light in the midst of darkness, and their beauty is astounding!

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As night fell, the howl of coyotes greeted our ears. We made sure the door was firmly locked that night!

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While the days are hot and bright, the nights are usually dark and cool and peaceful. But when storms come, the lightning is awe-inspiring. Driving towards Las Vegas, the air was thick with the smell of electric charge – it looked like “Sin City” was under attack with fierce vengeance! With lightning all around us, in every direction, piercing through the night sky with great cracks of light, once again we felt the force of nature – knowing we were at its mercy and have no power to stop it.

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It is an amazing feeling to be overwhelmed by the beauty and majesty and wildness of our world. It can be uncomfortable, daunting, truly scary. But it is always an enriching, humbling and inspiring experience.

Half Way There

Half way through our journey. Half way through the year.

The half way point is an interesting place to be – you look back just as much as you look forward. It’s the beginning of the end, but right in the middle.

We are almost exactly in the middle of our trip. We have been on the road for nine weeks, and have just over nine weeks until we say goodbye to the Land Rover for a little while. We’ve been to the most Eastern, Southern and Northern points of the continental USA, and still have the Wild Wild West ahead of us.

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And we are almost exactly in the middle of the USA! Although we only have 13 states left to visit, those 13 make up almost half of the country and we will probably double the 11,000 miles that we have put on the odometer.

So, at the half way point we look back at the truly beautiful times: the parks, the people, the concerts and the open roads. And the challenges: the heat, the cold, the bugs, the lack-of-hot-showers!

And we look forward to even more to come: meeting amazing people with their stories, breath-taking views and being inspired creatively.

This is our first long overland expedition, and even though we’re driving through a “first world” country, it’s definitely a learning curve. We’re using this as preparation for future trips in more remote places in the world.

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From Austin, we’re on our way into the desert, mountains and then, if we make it out the other side, back to the ocean!

If you’re enjoying being part of our journey, please click “Follow” on the right of the post, to subscribe to our blog, and connect with us on Facebook and Instagram. We’ll try to keep it fun!

The North and the Badlands

Our first stop after Nashville was the Windy City – we stayed with friends from Poland who are also travellers; much more than us. They had just came back from a month long tour, including a visit to a country that we literally hadn’t even heard of! They live in a wonderful apartment in a leafy, quiet suburb close to downtown Chicago, and so we enjoyed a few days feeling “at home” – sleeping in, big breakfasts, exercising, doing laundry and hanging out with their enormus cat.

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From there, we were supposed to go to straight up to Minnesota, but instead of taking the direct route, we decided to go around Lake Michigan. Unfortunately for almost the whole day there was heavy fog, so we didn’t really see the lake… But as we were leaving, the fog lifted and we caught a glimpse of the enormous expanse of lake, stretching for miles beyond our horizon.

By the time we reached Minnesota, we were on our 26th state, having almost “completed” the East… but we left ourselves Ohio and West Virginia to visit on our way back to New York.

We stayed with wonderful friends on the edge of the beautiful Green Lake in Minnesota; the first night, we had a true American evening with burgers, a bonfire and s’mores by the lake.

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And the next day, they took us out on the lake to learn to waterski… We thought we were pretty good until we saw the 11 year old kids skiing barefoot on the water next to us! But Louise playing a gig at the town local pub was the perfect way to finish the day.

We had been East, we had been South, and now we were heading to the 48 States’ northernmost point, the Lake of The Woods in Minnesota. As we made our way north through lakes and farmers fields, the towns’ populations got smaller and smaller… one had only 261 residents!

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Unable to take the car into Canada to cross back into the true Northern tip of Minnesota, the southern shore of the Lake of the Woods was as far as we could take our Land Rover. In winter, we would have been able to drive all the way over the frozen lake, but the water was clear and warm and blue beneath the sunny sky, and so we enjoyed our meal at the end of the road.

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The next stop was the Badlands National Park, so from Minnesota we drove to North Dakota, spent a night beneath the stars, and kept on South. The Dakotas are states of two halves: East of the Missouri River is just flat grassland, perfect crop and cattle country (as well as full of oil rigs). But over the river, the hills start to rise and fall and the deep green, rugged and rocky terrain reminded us of Scottish Highlands.

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Mt Rushmore

After saluting the nation’s presidents with a throng of tourists at Mount Rushmore, we took the scenic route to the Badlands. Through beautiful mountains, and much quieter roads, we got to the park late at night – staying at the less popular “primitive” campground on the Park’s West permieter. So far away from cities and civilisation, we were absolutely mesmerised by the sheer number of stars that lit up the night sky as we fell asleep.

We set our alarm clocks for 5am, hoping to see the famous Badland scenery at dawn, but we realised that the hundreds of miles of driving made us a lot more tired than we thought… and we finally made it out of our sleeping bags at 7am.

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After we had our breakfast of oats, (or as Michal calls it, horse-food…), we made the short drive to the park through the national grasslands, and were amazed to come upon three Bison in the middle of the prairie.

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Louise, full of wonder, and thinking they were gentle creatures, slowly walked towards the mother, father and baby bison, hoping to see a little more than just their outlines and take a close up shot…  It was only later that she read in the park guide that you should never approach Bison as they are prone to charge and can run up to 30mph! That was probably the closest encounter that she’ll have with Bison…

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The Badlands, in true American style, is almost a “drive through” National Park! You can drive in one end and through the loop, just stopping at the viewing points, but we wanted to get a little closer to these legendary hills. So we packed our backpack and tried to conquer some of the peaks.

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With its shifting, silty, muddy and ever changing hills, the rich coloured bands of the Badlands are breathtaking, but it is not easy to hike even on a clear, dry day.

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We saw mountain goats perching steadily across the peaks, but we weren’t at all as surefooted. Even in just our short hike, we started to understand why even the Lakota tribe called the place “Mako Sika” – literally land bad. Desolate, with no civilisation for as far as the eye can see, the Badlands literally drop out of nowhere from beautiful green plains, and continue with their chalky, unforgiving rock faces for miles on end.

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But there is something exhilarating about feeling overwhelmed by Mother Nature – knowing that as much as we try, man will never be her master. And despite the fact that a friend told us that one day is enough to see the Badlands, we think that it would be a truly enriching experience to fill up a couple of backpacks and spend a couple of days getting lost among the Beautiful Lands… after all, they’re not so Bad..

Attack of the Bugs

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It all started on Miami Beach… an afternoon jog and a sunny walk down one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Our peaceful stroll was rudely interrupted by the discovery of what I at first thought was just a little leaf stuck on my hip. It turned out, I had been bitten by a tick, and it was now firmly attached and enjoying itself!

A little bit freaked out, I went to ask advice from the life guard who was on duty at the beach. He said we had to be careful as we removed it, (his wise advice was: “google it”!) but that we shouldn’t worry too much about it. Relieved, we started chatting about our journey and mentioned that we were heading down to Everglades National Park to camp out. This time, his wise advice was “Watch out for the mosquitos. They’re big, and they hurt!”

Having lived in tropical Philippines, we thought we had plenty of experience with mosquitos, and so we weren’t too worried about the bugs in the park. We headed back to the car, carefully removed the pesky tick, and headed south.

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The road was peaceful and we drove towards a stunning sunset, ready to set up camp for two nights. As we got out of the car at dusk, our peace was shattered as literally thousands of flies, mosquitos, gnats, moths, and goodness knows what else jumped on us! It was like a biblical plague. It was relentless. The noise, the bites; on our faces, legs, arms, feet… So we covered up as much as we could, put on bug spray, and determined to cook our dinner and get to bed, hoping that in the morning it would all be better. We sealed the doors and windows of our Defender, spent 20 minutes killing all the bugs that had snuck in as we got inside, and then settled down for a very sticky, humid night’s sleep!

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I woke up with the itchiest feet I have ever had. The small gap between where our shoes had ended and our trouser legs had begun had provided ample space for some opportunistic mosquitos, and we had literally hundreds of bites in that small gap. I looked like I had some sort of skin condition, there were so many bites.

The morning provided some relief from the swarms, but not much… we were constantly swatting, moving, (occasionally cursing!) and trying to stay one step ahead of our constant companions. But determined to enjoy the beauty of the park, we resolved that we would move to the campsite nearer to the ocean, and try again that night.

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It was worse… as well as the usual suspects, we were also greeted by swarms of even smaller flying bugs, that didn’t seem put off by any amount of bug spray, and were too small to kill even though they were big enough to bite! The best part of the day was when it was very hot, and so we were able to take a walk around the park and did see some beautiful wildlife. But the heat, the bugs and the humidity had taken their toll… we were ready to leave early the next morning.

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We were a little apprehensive about heading even further South… our plan was to make it to the Southernmost point of the 48 states – Key West. We had planned to spend five days there, but if it was going to be more of the same, we knew it would be unbearable!

But thankfully, as we pulled into the parking lot of a waterfront restaurant, we stepped outside and all that we felt was a warm sea breeze and the late afternoon sunshine. Peace at last!