By BRUCE DENNILL
Figuring out the highway system in Orlando, Florida becomes, for an out-of-towner, a necessary short-term hobby. In many (sensible) countries, a major road goes to, or through, a destination, and at that point there is a off-ramp to take to get onto another road that goes to or close to where you’re headed. Then, for the return journey, you simply return to that spot and join the arterial via an on-ramp that takes you back to where you’re started.
Simple is for sissies, though, apparently. In and around Orlando, while there are on- and off-ramps, they are reached by entirely separate routes that take travellers’ intuition, scold it, and tell it to go and sit in the corner.
Visits to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and the Epcot Theme Park (in the same general area; and yet going there and coming back had entailed seeing parts of the city we had not intended to) had taught us not to trust the large-scale maps we’d downloaded online while on the wifi at the house we were staying in (the local sim card we had purchased was not working; as soon as we left the house, we had to try to make a puzzle out of separate screengrabs).
For a day outing to Wekiwa Springs, on the opposite side of the city from our place in Kissimmee, we download about twice as much information as we’ll need, noting directions for each small segment of the trip as though we were managing the deployment of an army rather than a short road trip with four people in a single car.
There is the brief threat of confusion as we discover that there is a suburb called Wekiwa Springs before you get to Wekiwa Springs State Park, in which Wekiwa Springs is situated – and the local signage doesn’t discriminate particularly clearly between the three – but we manage okay and are soon through the park gate and surrounded by the lushness of the woodland area that opens out into the clearing around the springs themselves.
This is not an isolated, secret spot that only insiders know about. There are families on picnic blankets, groups of college kids tossing tiny novelty footballs around in the water, heavily tattooed gents noting your arrival from behind mirrored shades and a handful of uniformed staff doing useful things like picking up the few items of litter dropped by visitors and answering questions about areas of the park to avoid if you don’t like alligators.
But there is plenty of space for everyone in the cove-shaped swimming area (about half an acre), which has a concrete border that makes it look almost like the resort pool at a particularly luxurious hotel, and if you time your arrival right, a space will clear up on one of the benches around the edge, under the shade of the forest canopy.
The large number of swimmers in the water means pausing for too long on the steps going into the springs – the irregular surface of the bottom of the swimming area, dotted with rocks, makes diving or jumping in unwise – marks you as a naïve greenhorn. So, tummy sucked in so far it’s touching your spine, you grimace your way into the 22°C water (it doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s about the same as swimming in Hout Bay, where the locals don wetsuits).
As per the cliché, once you’re in it’s fine, and you can acclimatise to the novelty of swimming in a spring where a bridge and a weir separate you from a greater river system that contains wildlife that may or not be able to read the signs saying that we are prohibited from swimming in their area. It’s refreshing and it’s picturesque. But where’s it all coming from.
A leisurely exploration reveals that the spring itself, protected by a thick shelf of rocks, is in the corner of the swimming area closest to the entrance. The spot where the kids are clumped thickest, many of them wearing masks and snorkels. This is because the natural phenomenon of the water gushing out of the depths below the rocks – a powerful, consistent jet that apparently delivers 163 million litres of water every day – provides a pleasing challenge to adventurous swimmers. How far down into the abyss can they get before the upward force of the water and their limited oxygen (scuba gear is not allowed) compels them to surface?
It’s an attractive proposition and you may feel you don’t want to leave before you’ve had a look yourself. The water is clear and it’d be fascinating to catch a glimpse of where this immense flood is emanating from. The thing is, everyone hovering on the edge of the hole has the same idea, and not all of them are convinced that a prudent “one at a time” rule is necessarily the most efficient way to run things. This means the likelihood of a friendly heel in your ear or connecting your head with someone’s rear on the way up is fairly high, so make sure you’re in a frame of mind to run that gauntlet – there are no lifeguards.
Dry off with a walk on one of the trails that spider out from the spring, crossing swampy wetland areas on well-maintained boardwalks and wandering down side roads through the trees. This is a beautiful place, and it will be revisited if we can find our way back there…