By BRENDAN FARRINGTON
ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla.
I was slowly crossing a swinging log bridge when I paused, sensing the alligator 12 feet below was staring at me.
The water around the 8-foot gator’s enormous body began rippling rapidly.
A second later, Big Al let out a deep bellow, as if to say, “If you fall, you’re my lunch.”
I was grateful to be strapped in a harness.
The bridge was part of a 49-station obstacle course that includes 10 zip lines at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. It takes visitors over crocodiles, lemurs, giant tortoises, vultures and, of course, lots of alligators.
“It’s just a totally different perspective. You can go to any zoo in the world and look at them through the glass, but you can’t go anywhere and look at them over the top of the enclosures like you can here,” said Scott Brown, who designed and now manages the Crocodile Crossing at the zoo.
The alligator farm is fascinating enough on foot.
At 120 years old, it’s one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions and it is the only zoo in the world that displays all 23 crocodilian species, including the nearly extinct Philippine crocodile.
From above, it’s even more amazing. I paused on a rope bridge to watch enormous African vultures rip apart a carcass, zipped over a lagoon with dozens of alligators, watched lemurs scrambling around their cage below me and saw the surprised faces of the guests on the ground as I flew over their heads.
And it’s a good workout. I’ve zip-lined through the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts and found this to be a bigger challenge. The zip lines in the mountains might be longer and faster, but the obstacles at the St. Augustine zoo make you work harder.
I had to climb rope ladders, traverse a high wire and struggle to maintain balance on bridges that use swinging ladders, swinging logs and boards that are placed so far apart they sometimes require a leap instead of a step. Even with temperatures in the low 70s I worked up a good sweat.
Plus, you don’t find alligators and crocodiles in the mountains of the Northeast.
“It’s just almost impossible to match what they have in other parts of the country, but what we lack in distance and speed we make up for in the scenery,” Brown said. “You have to go through the obstacles to get to the zip line. The zip line is your reward for your hard work of the obstacles. There’s a reason they call it a challenge course. It is challenging.”
The longest zip-line on the course is 300 feet, or the length of a football field. There are some very fast lines, requiring some quick breaking. There’s also the occasional palm frond that harmlessly whacks your butt.
I didn’t stare at the alligators and crocodiles while zipping, choosing to instead focus on the landing platform ahead of me. But I did pause often on the platforms and obstacles to look at the creatures below.
The zoo spaces out the guests to ensure they aren’t rushed through the course, which takes about 90 minutes to complete.
“The most amazing, awesome thing I’ve done ever,” said Ava Martin, 53, who lives just north of St. Augustine. She and her 21-year-old son Corey were taking the course for the second time.
“Being over a big alligator is freaky!” Corey Martin said. “You’re not rushed to do it. While you’re doing it, you can just stop, if you like, and see everything.”
That includes behind-the-scene views that other guests won’t get.
“You’ll see things that the public doesn’t get to see,” said Brown. “Whether it’s other animal enclosures, animals getting moved, animals getting a vet visit, maybe getting blood drawn. And it’s always exciting for the public to see a large alligator or even a small alligator getting caught, getting taped up and getting moved. You’re always going to see something that nobody else is looking at.”
The course is a do-it-yourself adventure. Guests are given instructions at the beginning on how to clip and unclip themselves to safety lines. A guide then follows on the ground and makes sure they’re following safety rules, while at the same time providing facts about the animals they’re seeing.
“I saw the whole park. It was amazing,” said Jackson Lawson, 12, of Hahira, Ga., who was celebrating his birthday at the alligator farm. “I stopped on a zip line just to hang there for a second to look at mostly the alligators because we were just so close to them above them. It was really pretty. It was cool.”