Banks of the old bayou

Sara Wheeler discovers the legacy of Louisiana's Cajun settlers over bowls of crawfish etouffee in the state's southern swamplands.

THE scent of Tupelo honey drifted past the flaking colonnade. Across the cane fields, mist rose from Bayou Teche, the 200-kilometre-long waterway that meanders through southern Louisiana, veiling a weathered black sugar house.

My companion, a born Cajun, looked out from the porch of the decaying planter's mansion at a Mississippi kite describing a series of loops in the stifled tropical air. ''Welcome to America's greatest backwater,'' he said.

I had driven 240 kilometres from New Orleans to the swamps of south-west Louisiana in order to find out what ''Cajun'' means in modern America, beyond a coating of chilli seasoning. My companion, Marcel, had offered to show me around the old sugar plantations of New Iberia and Lafayette.

Marcel left home for the Big Easy 20 years earlier and made a good living as a software engineer. Now he was furious about the monster oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that had erupted over the Gulf Coast last year. Everyone in New Orleans was. A radio station was advertising a crawfish cookoff with a stall where one could smash a plastic BP logo with a mallet. So far, largely because of tidal patterns, the oil was leaving the Cajun bayous unmolested. So far.

Highway 182 crept west across the lowlands and their farm-supply outlets, piercing unbroken hectares of cane. Gun racks rattled on the back of the passing pick-ups. While Marcel visited a sick uncle, I continued west to the tiny sugar settlement of Erath (pronounced ''ay rat''), where a sign outside a two-room museum gave the phone number of the town hall. I rang the number.

It was 32 degrees as I waited for someone to arrive, with humidity at 99 per cent. The old-fashioned languor of the deep south lay over the deserted street like a blanket.

Shortly, a Pontiac drew up and out stepped Inez, an 86-year-old civic volunteer. The museum was full of wooden sugar boilers, carved clogs and damp-stained family photos depicting wholesome farming families with dozens of tow-haired infants. But Inez wasn't interested in any of that. She wanted to drive me to her home and give me a jar of the warm fig jam she had made that morning.

St Martinville lies on one of the hurricane evacuation routes that cross-hatch Louisiana. As I ate Inez's jam from the pot with my fingers and sitting in the shade of a southern live oak, I noted the names on St Martinville mailboxes were French. At the end of Main Street, stragglers hurried to catch 5.30pm Mass at St Martin de Tours, for 2½ centuries the mother church of all Cajuns, including atheists.

French-speaking Cajuns came to Louisiana as pioneers, backwoodsmen and exiles twice over. Their forebears, poor Poitou farmers, had migrated to what is now maritime Canada in 1604. The French back home wanted fur and cod and the settlement flourished. They had named it Acadia. But when the British acquired the region in 1713, they rechristened it Nova Scotia.

Acadians refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown and in 1755, after years of harassment, George II ordered his colonial administrators to throw them out.

At least half the Acadian population died during what they still call ''le grand derangement'' (the great exile), from smallpox, typhus or starvation. But from 1764, 3000 Acadians made their home in the hot and sparsely populated prairies and wetlands of south-west Louisiana. The clan had adapted once; now they would adapt again.

A new Acadia rose from the jungle and the name of its hard-working people evolved from Acadian to Cadian and Cajun. They knew how to plant, fish and hunt and the land, though inhospitable, was fertile. In time, by dint of hard work and endurance, Cajuns became the first group of European colonists to acquire and retain a distinctive North American identity.

For a period in the early decades of the 20th century, ''Cajun'' was a term of abuse. It meant white trash.

But eventually the Zeitgeist changed, as it always does, and ethnic revival stoked international interest in things Cajun. Local businesses rushed to incorporate the word Cajun into their names, the rest of the US tuned in to swamp pop and the state legislature in Baton Rouge officially designated 22 parishes Acadiana.

For more than two centuries, Cajuns have walked a tightrope between assimilation and independence. Nobody speaks French any more but a lilting accent of old Poitou lingers. The community, numbering several hundred thousand, remains relatively homogeneous and rooted in the region. (Marcel was the only one of his extended family who had left.) In the American psyche, Cajuns have come to represent a brand of noble endurance; they were the bits that didn't melt in the melting pot. Their survival in a mysterious region where alligators rear from primordial swamps evokes a tribal capacity to win through, an increasingly attractive model in our gruesomely individualistic age.

Marcel, still Cajun in his heart, liked to boast about the food. At his family home, his mother ladled out crawfish etouffee, a hot gumbo of bony crawfish tails and unctuous white gravy. It was hard to get away from crawfish. The legend goes that when the Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia, the local lobsters followed them. During the swim down the coast of North America, the crustaceans got thinner and thinner, ending up as the crawfish endemic in the swamps and bayous.

There's not much to a crawfish, which is perhaps why spice, as everyone knows, is the determining factor in Cajun food. Marcel had plenty of complaints about the bland meals he had been served on a recent trip to Paris.

In fact, Cajun cuisine is a blend of French (a ubiquitous brown roux came via Nova Scotia), west African (okra arrived with slaves from what is now Mali) and Spanish (the region was once a Spanish colony), with native Americans contributing spicy file powder ground from dried sassafras leaves. If truth be told, you can eat better in the restaurants of New Orleans' Garden District.

But I loved the Cajun lunch counters strung out along the country roads. Waitresses called me baby and the food came in paper bags rather than on plates. Boudin blanc - like black pudding but without the blood - had to be squeezed directly into the mouth from its pig-gut stocking.

Not quite southern and not quite western, the Cajun region remains its own place; a place apart. It is an underbelly, south even of the Bible Belt, which by common consent starts above Interstate 10. Left to itself and isolated, the indigenous ecosystem has flourished more or less unmolested, like the Cajuns.

From a shadowed glade on the bayous I watched snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills skimming the shimmering surface of a still pool while a tiny tricoloured heron fed under a sweet gum. Nothing else moved. The landscape was infused with the particular blue light of the bayous and it could not have been mistaken for any other place in North America. And of course there are 'gators. I never saw one but I did see Gator Autos, outside Lafayette.

Sugar has always fuelled the local economy and still does. Small-scale Cajun farmers own their land but big companies own the refineries and fund a powerful lobby in both Washington and Baton Rouge.

Marcel had tried to evoke the amalgam of the US and 17th-century France that has made such an indelible impression on this enigmatic corner of rural Louisiana. Although the music and food are cause for celebration, true Cajun culture is not really about that. It is about the weight of history and something indefinably other that has survived the centuries, along with folk memories of a good roux and a clannish determination to keep going, whatever the next hurricane or government might bring.

We drove back to New Orleans, ramping up the aircon. Just before we left the rural roads to join an interstate, Marcel pointed at a sign raised high on the bank of a drainage canal. ''Look at that!'' he said, as if he had found what he was looking for. ''See the K - as in Kool-Aid?'' I looked towards the bayou, across a patch of swamp toothed with cypress stumps. In the foreground, the sign advertised Kajun Donuts.

Trip notes

Getting there

United Airlines flies from Sydney to Los Angeles, partnering with Continental Airlines for connections to New Orleans, priced from $2263. 13 17 77,

Getting around

Hire a car with airconditioning. To visit some of Louisiana's 600 plantation houses, drive via the River Road to Baton Rouge, which follows the Mississippi and is dotted with houses open to the public.

Staying there

New Orleans: Terrell House, a 19th-century property in the Lower Garden District with a courtyard and period furnishings, has double rooms from $US150 a night. +1 866 261 9687,

New Iberia: The three-room Estorge-Norton House, built in 1906, has rooms from $90 a night, including breakfast. +1 337 365 7603,

Lafayette: The antiques-filled La Maison de Belle has rooms from $100 a night. You can also stay in the property's cottage, where John Kennedy Toole wrote the great novel of 1960s New Orleans, A Confederacy of Dunces. +1 337 235 2520.

When to go

Definitely not in the American summer; the humidity makes travel uncomfortable. April to late May and October are best.

Further information;

- Sun-Herald