The Pantanal is such an important area of our globe that experts from every aspect of our ecology have written about its peculiar flora and fauna, studied its vertebrates and invertebrates, researched and lectured on a particular animal such as the Giant Anteater and produced documentaries on its human and animal inhabitants. So what follows are my own simple amateur scribbles, reflecting a few days in this magical place.
In PC 18 (and if you didn’t receive this, please ask!) I explained why we had decided we would go to the Pantanal, the world’s biggest wetland. The 100,000sq miles are like a giant saucer where water collects in the rainy season. It is so flat that the gradient on its 800 kilometres north to south run is a mere one cm per kilometre – ie 80 metres difference!
Looking North towards Rio Negro and Barranco Alto
And here we are! After many hours of travelling, firstly in a jet from Rio via Sāo Paulo to Campo Grande with the Brazilian airline Azul, then in a 4×4 Jeep, and finally in a Cessna Skylane (PT-1HF); we have arrived at the Fazenda Barranco Alto …….. at that time of the day, ‘Bug Heaven’. Everything we touch seems to have a live creature on it, around it, in it. We wonder whether we have done the right thing in coming, but the bugs eventually vanish into the night, except for the permanent resident of our comfortable double bedroom, an enormous spider!
Fazenda Barranco Alto is essentially a large cattle station owned by Lucas Leuzinger, a charismatic rancher and biologist. He leaves the ecotourism side of the business to Hugo Guedes and Carolina Denzin, and they take an active part in ensuring we guests get what we want. We sit down to dinner and meet the other ten tourists, an eclectic mix of people; one large family group of parents, adult children and their partners and two other couples, one American from California who have arrived around the same time as us and with whom we would be paired for our visit. They turn out to be charming and good company.
The rhythm of the life on the fazenda is determined by the weather. Whilst the normal grazing Nelore cattle are raised for meat, there are a number of milk-producing cows that get rounded up on horseback at 0300 for milking. The objective of most tourists who come to the Pantanal is to see animals and birds they would not normally see, and most of these shelter from the heat of the midday sun. So on our first morning we set the alarm for 0500, for breakfast at 0530. By 0615 we’re heading off upstream on the Rio Negro, in a small steel-hulled boat with the American couple and Fernando, who was our boat driver and knowledgeable guide. We look for, and have pointed out, the wide variety of birds that make the Pantanal so famous. We see many species, from small Black Skimmers to large Tuiuiui (Jabiru) storks standing some 2m tall. On the warm, slowly flowing river, the water the colour of milky rust, anything that happens is observed by the ever watchful eye of Jacaré or Black Caimans, a 1.5m reptile.
A Jacaré or Caiman!
It is estimated that there are some 10 million in the Pantanal and, although they look ferocious, they are shy of humans. After about two and a half hours, having overdosed on birds, we make our way back to the fazenda before the sun gets too hot.
At about 1530, with a cooler sun and storms threatening on the horizon, the whole group climb aboard some 4x4s and head off with their respective guide to explore a part of farm. Our guide Lydia hails from Köln in Germany and is doing a doctorate on the habits of the Giant Anteater. The farm has about 25,000 acres, and Lydia has identified some 30, about one per thousand acres. Her knowledge of their habitat and of their habits pays off, and we find one of these large mammals, busily searching for termites on the corner of a wood. On another afternoon we spot a mother with a baby Anteater on its back.
We had arrived on a blisteringly hot afternoon but on our second day find the temperature has dropped and storms threaten. We are scheduled to ride horses across parts of the farm during the morning. Thunder and lightning are spooking the horses, so we wait for 45 minutes whilst a rain shower passes. It clears enough for us to go, so we get up into the saddle – only do have a torrential downpour which completely soaks us all, and cancels further riding. The Pantanal has the highest recorded lightning strikes in Brazil so this is sensible …….. and then the power goes off, and with only a 120v generator, it’s a rather disappointing morning.
There will often be an occasion during the sort of adventure that we are on, when you ‘see the light’, a moment when you sense how small one is in comparison to the natural world. After the rain of the morning, we have been on our second dusk excursion, looking for those animals for whom darkness is essential for their survival. As night descends, we have a fleeting glimpse of a Tapir, a strange looking animal to be sure, and a Burrowing Owl and we’re making our way back to the farm along the rutted tracks. The night sky is full of stars, their brightness heightened by the lack of light pollution; such is the remoteness of the Pantanal. Fireflies begin their busy evening and, as Lydia stops to open a gate in a cattle fence, we all become aware of what is around us! We turn off the jeep lights and sit, mesmerised, fascinated, not wanting to speak for fear of breaking the spell that the minute fireflies have induced …….. for everywhere we look, in amongst the grasses, in the small bushes and in the tall trees, there are fireflies, glowing incandescent, thousands of them. Above, with no visible divide, the stars map out the heavens and the constellations. Magic! Absolutely magic!
We weren’t lucky enough to see any Jaguar, Puma, otters or indeed anacondas – the yellow anaconda being one of the largest snakes in the world, about 6m long and 60cms in diameter – but we did see an Armadillo, wild boar and small herds of the largest rodent in the world, the Capybara, a very cute animal rather like a sheep in size.
“If it’s clear of rain in the morning, are you up for a canoe trip?” asks Hugo. “Sure!” “OK! We’ll leave at 0500 for a 45 minute drive, get the canoes onto the river and stop for breakfast after 15 minutes or so.” So on Sunday morning we leave with Carol as our guide and make our way to the River Negro, some 10kms upstream of the fazenda. The sun is just cresting the trees as we slip the canoes into the water, and paddle off. It’s a cool morning and there’s mist on the river, although by contrast the water is warm bath temperature! We drift, we paddle, we stop on a sandbank for a breakfast of coffee, sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs, we paddle some more, we see Ringed Kingfishers, a few Roseate Spoonbills, Coicoi herons and Hyacinth Macaws, all our activities under the watchful eyes of a Caiman or three.
Blue Hyacinth Macaw
Three hours later we round the last bend in the river before the landing area and our trip is at an end. And our visit to the Pantanal is at an end too; after lunch we climb aboard the Cessna and lift off the grass strip, at the start of our long journey home.
Wow! What an amazing place! Time stood still a little during our stay and, although we were mere observers of the normal lives of various animals and birds that inhabit the Pantanal, it is enough to remind us we share this planet with some amazing creatures who all have a right to be here too.
Richard Yates – firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. In PC 19 I scribbled about coincidences. On the first night in The Pantanal we sit down for dinner. Next to me is Simon, a British guy who lives in Paris. In conversation I find out that he worked for …….. Brighton & Hove City Council in their offices at the bottom of Grand Avenue in Hove – about 300m from where we live and thousands of miles from where we meet!