Millions of people all over the planet believe they have an intimate knowledge of Florida, including many who've never even set foot in the Sunshine State. Of course, those people 'know' Florida only from the movies and television shows filmed there. Florida first gained cinematic fame in the 1940s as home to Hollywood's Tarzan movies. Then, in the 70s, Walt Disney pumped billions of dollars into his Orlando theme park. With all this publicity and development, most people think old-time Florida has faded away. But they're wrong. There is another, far older and more authentic Florida. Just 90 minutes' drive inland from the booming coastal cities, away from the interstate expressway, the high-rise hotels and unrelenting strip malls is a wonderfully rural other world. I stumbled on this unknown landscape on a recent road trip. It appeared so suddenly in front of my windscreen that I nearly drove right into it. I'd been motoring past kilometres of lonely pine forests and cattle ranches, when I gradually realised I was arriving at a place absolutely unknown to the 75 million annual visitors who flock to the famous beaches and theme parks. Then, all at once, spread out before me in the shimmering sunlight, was one of the strangest sights imaginable. At 1,940 square kilometres, Lake Okeechobee (a Seminole Indian word meaning 'big water') is the second-largest body of water entirely within the United States, and a favourite landmark for orbiting astronauts. On a long jetty jutting out into the tea-dark waters, a fisherman told me stories of hissing alligators and snapping turtles the size of coffee tables, of 40kg catfish, and of violent storms that can rise with amazing speed, transforming a quiet day of boating into a life-threatening experience. Indeed, twice in the 20s vicious storms caused Okeechobee to overflow its banks, sweeping 3,200 people to their deaths. The US government was so shocked by the disasters an immense dyke was built. It took the Army Corps of Engineers seven years to complete the 12-metre-high, 225km earthen levee that encircles Okeechobee. Taking three days to circle this beguiling inland sea, I discovered a string of sleepy towns where almost everyone I met was a native Floridian: orange growers, cattle ranchers, fishermen. I began my expedition at Okeechobee City, on the lake's northern shore. But I might have been in small-town Texas. Men in cowboy hats drove trucks pulling horse trailers, and signs everywhere announced the forthcoming Speckle Perch Rodeo, held at the town's dusty Cattlemen's Rodeo Arena. But while some pick-ups pulled ponies, others hauled that classic icon of rural Florida - the airboat. Seeing these wacky contraptions up close is impressive yet amusing. Despite their eye-popping prices (up to US$50,000), they are nothing more than over-sized rowing boats with big car engines bolted on the back. A huge (and hugely noisy) wooden aircraft propeller provides the push. The gizmo is driven by a wind-blown guy who sits on a bar stool attached to a lifeguard stand. Despite their zany appearance, the airboats are ideal for skimming Florida's swamps. But Okeechobee is more than just a recreational lake. Aside from providing irrigation for Florida's agriculture industry, it's a major waterway rivalling the Panama Canal in the number of boats served. Like the lake itself, Okeechobee's four gigantic locks are administered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Standing nearly nine metres high, they allow 10,000 boats annually to cross central Florida by entering from the Atlantic coast - crossing the vast lake - through to the Gulf of Mexico. Although the region around the lake is intensely cultivated, wildlife thrives. Proof of this is the regular sight of road kill, everything from possums to porcupines. In gas-station stores, I found canned novelty items marked 'Genuine Florida Road Kill'. Some of the labels read: 'Assorted ingredients combined with secret Southern spices, guaranteed air-dried in Florida sunshine for 24 hours.' My favourite destination was the tidy, cheery town of Clewiston on Okeechobee Lake's sun-splashed southwestern shore, which proudly proclaims itself 'America's Sweetest Town'. They mean that literally, for the town was built by the US Sugar Corporation, which carved Clewiston out of 18,000 hectares of cane fields in the 20s. Visitors can thank the company too for the Clewiston Inn, an elegant plantation-style lodge constructed in the 30s to house visiting dignitaries from distant Miami. US Sugar, which employs a third of Clewiston's 6,500 residents, boasts its own 300km railway. It also hosts Clewiston's annual Sugar Festival, celebrated for its barbecues and its Miss Sugar Beauty Queen contest. Lest folks think the affair is just for company bigwigs, posters announcing the event proclaim: 'We're just ordinary folks, no sugar barons to gawk at! But we throw a good party!' An hour's drive south of Clewiston is the Big Cypress Reservation. Spread across 20,000 hectares of pine forest, it's the largest of Florida's three reservations and home to 400 Seminole Indians. The Seminoles have a long, distinguished history. The army fought three wars against them, but never defeated them. The bulk of the reservation is heavily forested personal tribal land. While I was there, three Florida panthers were spotted prowling near camp grounds, causing some concern. My next stop was the charming hamlet of LaBelle, on the moss-shaded banks of the drowsy Caloosahatchee River. Here I dined on superb fried chicken at a local shrine to southern cooking called Flora and Ella's. Flora's menu promised that the food was so good it was 'guaranteed to make your tongue slap your brains out!' I wasn't certain what that meant, but I waddled out of Flora's both happier and heavier. Next day I bumped into Sheriff Ronnie Lee, who told me I'd just missed LaBelle's celebrated Swamp Cabbage Festival, with its legendary armadillo races and Swamp Cabbage Beauty Queen contest. Sheriff Lee kindly showed me LaBelle's famous swing bridge - one of the few remaining such structures in the South. We arrived just as bridge-tender Janice Risner was stepping out of her tiny cottage to open the bridge for a passing boat. Janice confessed she wasn't a native Floridian: 'I only moved here from Ohio in 1967.' The final stop on my backwoods Florida road trip was a wayside attraction called Gatorama, which claimed to have 3,000 Florida alligators. Conjuring courage to go in, I met Patty Register and her husband Allen. Together they manage what Patty calls 'a relic from Florida's past'. Part alligator-hide farm and part tourist attraction, Gatorama also happens to be home to one of the largest collections of 'gators in the US. But while these modern-day dinosaurs wait to be transformed into handbags, they are shown to thrill children of all ages. A kilometre-long walkway first bisects two large ponds ('gators to the left, crocs to the right) before continuing to smaller pens, where Cuban and Nile crocs scurry to and fro. Along the catwalk wooden signs read 'Free beer tomorrow' and 'Unattended children will be ... eaten'. Further back, past a motley menagerie of cages containing raccoons, monkeys and lizards, there are more pens with baby 'gators no bigger than a child's tennis shoe. Off in the distance a peacock screeches like a madman, while a two-metre African ostrich prances inside his fence. Allen takes me to see Goliath, a four-metre, 680kg, massively bad-tempered crocodile. Goliath must be kept in his own pool because he doesn't play well with others. Above me, in stately old shade trees, an assembly of vultures sits patiently hoping someone will fall in with Goliath, allowing them to snatch up leftovers. Though Gatorama's main revenue comes from hides, 'gator meat is also sold in frozen, vacuum- packed packets. The meat is 97 per cent fat-free, with fewer calories than chicken. I sampled a lunch of fried gator ribs cooked with special spices by Patty - they were delectable. Working with giant bad-tempered reptiles is hard work. I ask Allen - who lost a fingertip to a croc last year - about the dangers. He says that in the last half-century there have been only 10 fatalities in Florida involving alligators or crocs. He then looks at me and says: 'In this work, you don't have to be fast. You just have to be faster than the slowest guy you're with!' Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( www.cathaypacific . com) flies from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. United Airlines ( www.united.com ) flies to Chicago. Frequent connections to Miami and Orlando are available from both cities.