‘Watch out! The Pantanal has the world’s worst mosquitoes!’ With this warning ringing in my ears, here we are with our Avon skin-so-soft spray (the best according to experts), craghoppers mosquito-proof trousers and shirts and even face nets to fit under hats. The African in me who has never bought any safari gear is appalled.
Arriving in Cuiaba from São Paulo, we meet up with the group assembled by the Indian travel company Jehan Numa, and led by their photographic tutor/guide Erwin.
It’s three hours plus to our first lodge Southwild, depending on stops. The road runs through slag heaps from gold-mining which has been important here – and mercury, the by-product, is a major polluter of the environment.
As soon as we enter the Pantanal wetland, with its 120 bridges between the gates and our final destination Port Jofre in two days time, we are overwhelmed by the birdlife. The hyacinth-covered pools and swamps on either side of the road are liberally dotted with snail-eating hawks, egrets, herons, storks, jacanas, rails and several types of kingfisher, and more besides,
all co-habiting with the sleek caimans which glide silently through the water eyes hovering on the surface or sun themselves on the banks, while the trees and surrounding scrub reverberate with the shrill squawks of parrots and parakeets. The most magnificent of these are the hyacinth macaws.
We love Southwild, with its terracotta walls, resident capybaras, which sit on the river banks like Darby and Joan watching the world go by, nesting Jabiru storks and cold plunge pool. Not forgetting the great caipirinhas.
We enjoy early evening and morning boat rides with our guide Tom and the driver throwing fish for the kingfishers and black collared hawks, in order to watch them retrieve, and the tranquility of this small river. We even see our first giant river otters and a swimming tapir! Very rare. We are lucky enough to see another one later that night having a swampy meal and a mother and baby (Tom has never seen that) on our last night of the trip so FIVE in all.
But the highlight is the ocelot. After an abortive first night in the hide we are rewarded on the second by a long sighting of this shy and reclusive cat. Admittedly they feed it which is cheating, so later on the trip we are thrilled to see one in the wild hunting successfully.
Next stop is Jaguar Retreat 35 kms by boat from Porto Jofre. This is aptly named and we are to spend 4 nights here seeking out these magnificent cats. The rooms are tiny – barely large enough for a fully-grown Jaguar, let alone a swinging one – but the staff are friendly and food and caipirinhas plentiful.
It is here that I bite unsuspectingly into an olive hidden in the salad and Dan hears my tooth crack. Right down the middle and hundreds of miles from anywhere. I hope I can make it back to London…
We have daily lectures from an English naturalist who gives us details of the research programmes on the endangered species we are seeing on our trip. She tells us that despite the Brazilian government’s banning of the fur trade in 1967 poaching is still rife, hacienda owners kill several thousand jaguars a year to protect their cows, all 4 m of them in the Pantanal – and no one know the exact number of these cats, thought to range between 15-200,000 globally. In addition the decimation of Brazil’s rainforest and the accompanying pollution is hitting all species hard.
Erwin’s target is 10 individual jaguars and we are lucky enough to bag 13. Jaguar in Indian language means ‘he who kills with one leap’. There are several named individuals who frequent the river banks, seeking caiman suppers. All are recognised by their distinctive facial markings and we are lucky enough to see several hunting.
We set off in the dawn when the mist swirls over the water and its chilly enough to layer up.
The beauty of our surroundings with its abundant birdlife, thousands of caimans, swimming capybaras – and even swimming jags – is rudely shattered once a jaguar is spotted. The driver revs the engine and we swoosh around the bends in the river like an F1 driver navigating the chicanes. You know when you’ve arrived as up to 20 boats full of people, some wearing camouflage and most wielding the most expensive equipment, converge and jostle for position. Did I mention it is 43 C in the boats and there’s a lot of hanging about?
There appears to be an unwritten code that the first boat on the scene gets a peaceful half hour before calling it in. We have the sublime luck to find twins Kim and Tor early one morning. They had been abandoned at less than one year, unusually young to fend for themselves, but in so doing and surviving have built up a unique bond. Now about to reach sexual maturity they will no doubt split to find a mate. For now they are tender, grooming, nuzzling, swimming and hunting, though rather noisily splashing about in the shallows
We are lucky to see a couple of pairs of mating jags. The mating takes place over 3 days up to 100 times day and always ends with the male snarling and the female pushing him away. She must get very fed up especially as the male has a barbed penis and the act takes only a few seconds. She will mate with several different males so the fatherhood of cubs is not known.
Another most unusual sighting is of Marley, a big male with an injured paw, retrieving a dead cayman from the fast-flowing river by first swimming out to reach it and then evicting two vultures.
And finally we find several groups of river otters. Our researcher is trying to identify the family groups. They all have unique chest markings but these are difficult to see as they are never still, endlessly cavorting elegantly in search of supper.
After four nights on the river and hundreds of kms covered we depart for a night at Pousada Portal Paraiso, a charming family-run fazenda where we hope to see a giant ant-eater. But not before we have come across the critically endangered skimmers doing their thing in the early light.
Amazingly we had spotted the lesser anteater by the side of the road on our journey in. On our return in our open-sided truck (see us wrapped up against the dust) we are brought to a halt by six rancheros herding 1100 cattle to new pastures.
A long and hot walk in the bush has limited success. Yes we see him but only his back as he scurries past on his termite mission. It’s good enough for me! Not so for the keen photographers.
The fazenda has three semi-wild non-resident blue macaws who have been released into the area. It’s easier to be fed than to fend for themselves! Here we enjoy the best food on the whole trip, all cooked by mama, although the electrics are a bit flakey with our shower smoking threateningly! Nevertheless we love it there and could have stayed longer.
Final stop is the Pousa Alegre lodge renowned for its wildlife. Of all the places we stay this is the most disappointing: they have over-expanded so there are simply too many people and not enough trails; you’re always bumping into other vehicles – and the queues at meal times for mediocre grub is irritating.
But the viewings are good – the tapirs and hunting ocelot seen here – and the birds stupendous. Here we see coati, several crab-eating foxes, peccaries and agouti as well as a potoo (a cross between an owl and a nightjar ) and a pair of giant horned owls. And lovable toucans.
Soon it’s all over and back to Cuiaba where I have a dental appointment. The nurse looks like Frieda Kahlo without the eyebrows – a beautiful face underneath a turban and the widest white frayed flares I’ve seen since loons in the 70s, with beautifully painted toes peeping out from sequinned shoes. Imagine my shock when this beauty queen turns out to be the ‘best’ dentist I requested. Nevertheless despite her lack of English, with the help of a translator, she manages to fix my poor tooth temporarily although she holds out little hope for it.
We have had a wonderful time; all are amazed by the diversity and number of species. And, finally, we have busted the mosquito myth. They were not half as bad as we feared. As for the feared chiggers, only time will tell if we are infected by these parasites. We have all been careful to tuck our medicated socks into our medicated trousers. The face nets are still in their cases and my arms and legs mostly unblemished.
Next stop Recife and Olinda.
Thanks Ross for the animal and bird pics. iPhone is pretty good but not as good as the Cannon club. And thanks to our trip mates for the camaraderie.
Here is a link to Ross’s blog