A Home Where the Alligators Foam: The Audubon Swamp Garden

December 29, 2012 —
The only thing that Charleston’s Audubon Swamp Garden was missing on our visit was Kermit on the banjo and Dom DeLuise in a boat. Otherwise, it fulfilled quite a few of my expectations. Actually, with the African-American burial ground secreted within its depths, exceeded them.

The Audubon Swamp Garden is about 60 acres of (admittedly tame) swamp and is part of the Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, one of the many plantations-turned-attractions in that area of South Carolina. This particular plantation dates back to 1676 and is still owned by the Drayton family who originally built it.

But we weren’t really there to see the plantation. We wanted to play in the swamp. Unfortunately, to do the swamp thing, we had to pay the entrance fee to the plantation and then a second entrance fee to get swampy. But entrance fees inside of entrance fees was the only downside.

Not that the plantation isn’t cool. We just wanted to see spooky trees in scummy water. We did stick around the plantation proper long enough to watch its miniature horses chomping placidly in the fields, and then to hit up the petting zoo, where enough free-roaming deer, peacocks, sheep, and other creatures accosted us to make us feel like the Disney-est of princesses. There were also cages full of less-friendly animals like bobcats, hawks, and foxes, as well as a small reptile house. But then we were off for greener waters.

The swamp entrance was marked by a large wooden sign bearing the carved image of an alligator getting double-teamed by a pair of white wading birds. It was a promise I really needed the swamp to keep. Not getting to see any alligators in this swamp was just something I did not want to have to admit to you guys.

The entrance to the swamp was barred by a large wooden door with a keypad and flanked by a metal sculpture of swamp critters playing musical instruments. The frog played the fiddle instead of the banjo. Artistic license, I guess.

We entered the key code given to us when we paid admission at the plantation, and the door opened onto a boardwalk that elevated our shoe leather above the thick green surface of the swamp. Below us, the water was viscous and disgusting with algae, duckweed, and decaying detritus, while out of it grew the Spanish-moss-haired cypress and tupelo trees that create that soggy charm of southern swampland.

Incidentally, I did learn while wandering the plantation that Spanish moss is neither Spanish nor a moss, nor is the sickly-looking gray plant at all unhealthy for the trees it adorns. Also, that it’s related to the pineapple. I just fall more in love with that stuff every day.

The swamp was lonesome due to the fact that we were there in late November and about an hour before dusk/closing time. We were warned not to stay there after nightfall. Bad things happen after nightfall, they said. Things rise from the muck after nightfall. Eat your body if you’re lucky. Your soul, if you’re not. Here’s your change, they said. Have a nice day, they said. Restrooms are to the right, they said.

After following the boardwalk for a while, our eyes strain-sore from fruitlessly scouring the surface of the swamp for alligator eye-bumps, the path eventually deposited us onto a dirt trail.

Which led right to an African-American burial ground.

There wasn’t any information at the site and nothing really online that I could find about it. Obviously, there’s a lot I can assume, this being a plantation and all. The grave stones were scattered around a slight, but shaded clearing. I remember some two dozen of them, each bearing dates that spanned the turn of the 20th century, with some death dates as recent as the 1950s. I assume there were more hidden in the undergrowth and that the older graves weren’t marked.

From there we followed the trail around a large pond, and it was then we saw our first alligator. It was a juvenile, probably four or five feet long, and it was right off the bank, not ten feet away from us. Did I mention the pond wasn’t fenced?

The gator was mostly submerged and surrounded by branches and leaves, and it was just luck that we spotted him. That first pic in this article is me trying to get a shot of him. And that shot is further down.

As exhilarating as it was to find it (more like discovering the species than just spotting a small one in a stocked swamp), we eventually saw another three or four more of the reptiles on our trek around the pond, including one giant beastie sunning himself on one of the wooden ramps jutting from the center of the pond.

Again, no fences, but these guys must’ve been well taken care by the management since none of the wildlife seemed to be going out of its way to avoid the apex predator. And that wildlife, at least as far as we saw, was mostly egrets and herons alternately walking weirdly around the pond and then gliding elegantly across it. Some ducks. And another wooden ramp absolutely boiling with turtles. Now that I list them out, we were probably the tastiest things there.

After looping around the pond, the trail joined back with the boardwalk for a total distance of a mile and a quarter.

All in all, it’s a beautiful preserve, but obviously not the complete swamp experience that at some point I need to do. You know the one, riding around on a fanboat at night surrounded by beady eye-shine while some dude in a sleeveless T-shirt and missing fingers on one hand coaches me on how to avoid the giant pythons that have recently invaded North American swamps while I misinterpret swamp gas as way more interesting things.

And then Dom convinces me to go to Hollywood.

I still have trouble seeing him in this picture. Don't know how we saw him in real life.