Bouncing along in an open-air safari truck across the sand in Currituck County, N.C., Terry Rowell, a guide for Back Country Safari Tours, demonstrates his skill at both storytelling and driving.
As his passengers search for wild horses, he shares a mixture of Currituck’s history and its current juicy local news. Over the course of the meandering afternoon safari, he also rescues a rat snake, fishes a perfectly intact whelk shell from the incoming tide, and calls a naturalist colleague to get the scoop on where the stallions and their mares might be hanging out that day.
The beach and unpaved sand tracks in this part of the county are the treasure of the Corolla area, the northernmost part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
“Currituck means ‘Land of the Wild Geese,’” explained Rowell, noting it’s a word derived from the Algonquian Indian word “carotank.”
Indeed, hunting geese and ducks for profit and sport was an important part of the area’s history. But today, in a nature preserve, visitors pass the hauntingly beautiful trunks of the cedar trees that stood here 850 years ago.
As the oceans and sand dunes migrate and resettle, nothing ever stays the same here, except for a spirit of wildness that will leave you vowing to return.
Travel your way
Back Country Safaris lets you see Corolla the way you want — go four-wheeling, kayak, hike, or even take a Segway tour.
Rowell is the kind of naturalist who is not only full of information but full of affection for this community — and for its horses, which are constantly in the throes of their own dramatic competition for mates and survival in harsh conditions.
“That stallion there is not exactly relaxed,” explained Rowell as we happened upon the male horse and four mares. “See how he’s marking his territory and staying close to his mares? That means another stallion might be nearby.”
We never saw the other stallion — there are only 83 horses left to roam the 16,000 acres from the beach to the dunes and sand trails where houses, horses, and four-wheel drive vehicles co-exist.
A land of characters
Corolla’s local people know the land the best, and there’s a story behind many quirky personalities. In the tiny community of Carova — accessible only via unpaved beach — the only real driveway is paved with aluminum cans. “When the owner is ready to repave, he just puts cans down and drives over ‘em,” explained Rowell.
Down the road (or, better put, down the sand), we see the Dennis Anderson house. Anderson is the owner of the Grave Digger monster truck and his crew helped design vehicles for Back Country Safari Tours. His house is surprisingly modest except for the color: a swagged-out bright green that exactly matches Grave Digger, the truck that Anderson pieced together from old parts back in 1982.
Also in Corolla is Steamers, a restaurant where the chefs are personable, talented people who offer what they call a “takeout gourmet.” Steamer pots to go, they can be enjoyed at a beach house, on the dock, at a picnic table, or in the back of a monster truck. Or, sit down inside, where you can eat steamed shrimp and grab a cold beverage from the fridge.
While most accommodations are vacation home rentals in this area, the Inn at Corolla Light provides updated rooms on Currituck Sound with spectacular sunset views to enjoy.
Up and over
Either first or last on your visit — or how about both? — climb the 220 steps to the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, which offers a panoramic view of Currituck Sound, the Atlantic Ocean, and this portion of the Outer Banks.
The light has a 20-second flash cycle — on for three seconds, off for 17 seconds — and operates from dusk to dawn.
In the evening, as you settle in with a gourmet pot from Steamers, you can count the flashes, fall into the rhythm of Corolla, and stay another day.
Currituck Co. Tourism: visitcurrituck.com