Adventures in the Pantanal

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I could also title this “The Hunter and the Hunted”, although who is who in this case is a big question!

It’s been a long time between outdoor drinks, but last week I managed to tick off a big bucket item from my list: a trip to the Pantanal in Brazil to see jaguars and an amazing diversity of wildlife. It has been everything I could have wished for. The first three days were on the Cuiaba River near Porto Jofre, followed by two days at Pouso Alegre, a fazenda along the Transpantaneira Highway (grand name for a dirt track).

After an early start on Sunday morning and a flight without delays, I am picked up punctually at 8am from Cuiaba airport by Ailton Lara, the owner of Pantanal Nature (highly recommended outfit), and introduced to my fellow travellers, our guide and our driver. We set off straightaway towards Porto Jofre. Along the Transpantaneira Highway is where the animal feast starts already with sightings of cayman including young, tuiuiu (jabiru stork), deer, hyacinth macaw, owl, caracara, it simply doesn’t stop. We have lunch on the way and then continue on to Porto Jofre, where we arrive at around 4pm.

From there we continue by boat to our hotel boat. It’s wonderful to get onto the river, with the wind in my hair in a small fast boat. There has been a jaguar sighting nearby our hotel boat and so we go to seek out this sighting first. Soon we see a group of similar boats all bobbing round the same place, where a jaguar is asleep on the river bank. Our first sighting and within 30 minutes of arriving in Porto Jofre. Magic. The jaguar enjoys his sleep but eventually wakes up, surveys the circus that surrounds him for a while and goes back to sleep, but not before giving me a great photo opp where he looks straight into my camera (see opening photo).

The accommodation on the boat is simple, but adequate and we are in prime jaguar country. We arrive in time for a few beers before dinner, then eat and go to bed early. The next morning we head out to where there has been another sighting of a jaguar. If I thought yesterday was a circus, this morning is even crazier. There are at least 12-14 boats closing in on the jaguar, with some taking some very aggressive tactics to get close, even to the extent where I think it’s unsafe. It’s still a wild animal we’re looking at and if it gets really annoyed, it might jump into one of the boats. Our boat driver hangs back, but still tries to get us a good position for photographs. The jaguar eventually starts moving upriver, through the tall grass, affording us a glimpse every now and then and some wonderful photo opportunities.

Fortunately the small group I’m with share similar views in that it’s great to see the animal and take photos, but that they also need to live their lives, so we leave the cat in peace and cruise off to find other animals and birds to observe. We see capybaras, herons, tuiuius, osprey, kingfishers and more. Eventually we get a third jaguar sighting and this one is in plain sight and can be tracked along the river. It too, looks a bit harried at all those boats out there and eventually disappears in the scrub. We disappear too, as it’s been heating up steadily and it is time to return to the hotel boat for lunch and a siesta.

At 3pm we are off again and this time we go up a different river, in search of giant otter. We are extremely fortunate and find a nest. Hard to miss once you learn the smell that emanates from the otters. It’s completely overpowering. There are several otters that come out and play along the water side, checking us out and baring their teeth at us. They are so agile and it is really difficult to predict where they are going to emerge again and they submerge within seconds of taking a breath.

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The second day calls for a very early start and we look for jaguar, but instead find more giant otter. A whole family is on the move and crosses the river to the other bank, where one of them catches a fish and eats it. They are mercurial animals and pose a real challenge for my photographic skills, but they are a delight to observe.

We return for breakfast and then head out again, but all we find is lots of heat and very few animals, other than birds and even they make themselves scarce. So we head back to the boat for lunch and siesta and then get underway again at 3pm. We cruise along the river arms, herons standing sentinel on the side, left, right, left, right and finally, a fourth sighting of a jaguar. The usual circus is waiting for us when we get there. The jaguar is very near the river and at a limited distance to us, so it’s easy to take photographs of the big cat walking along the river and I fire my camera off like a machine gun. The cat itself is not in good condition; he’s probably been in a fight and hasn’t had a meal in a while. His belly folds are flopping around and he looks desperate for something to hunt. I later find out he is blind in one eye. Eventually he runs out of ground and splashes into the river to swim along the riverbank.

After a while we leave and find a pair of capybaras that are being rid of parasites by a cow bird on a little river beach. And just before returning to the boat, we find another family of giant otter, swimming rapidly towards their nest, somewhat caught out in the semi dark. I just observe, not bothering with the camera given the light is getting poor, but enjoying the scene that is unfolding. After a while we leave them to it and return to the boat for dinner.

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Third day is Wednesday and I wake up early to catch the sunrise, then have breakfast and shortly after 7am we are on the move again. We first find a capybara submerged in water hyacinth, eating its way through it and being used by two small birds who pick at the insects it disturbs, occasionally hopping over its back. Then more birds and eventually we hear of another jaguar sighting, our fifth and final one. It is the same cat from yesterday, the semi-blind one and as usual there are a lot of boats waiting there. It gets close the river edge, swims a little and eventually returns in its tracks. We leave in pursuit of other things, but eventually find ourselves finding the same jaguar again at the other side of the island in the river and somehow manage to get ourselves in prime position for observing a hunt. A capybara is sitting by the water edge and the jaguar has got wind of it and immediately drops into hunting position, stalking its prey slowly. It holds position for a long time and for once there is complete silence from all the other boats, as we watch the hunt quietly, mesmerised, wishing the hungry jaguar to find its lunch. And then the most remarkable thing happens – while the jaguar is still suspended in action, waiting for the right moment, the capybara dives into the river and hides underwater, as a group of six swimming capybaras float into sight on the river and pass the jaguar, picking up one of their own in need and surrounding it in formation. It truly looks as if it was a SEAL team coming in to the rescue and the jaguar’s facial expression is priceless and heartbreaking at the same time, as he sees his lunch float away on the river. Eventually he goes and checks out where the capybara was, as if to confirm to himself that he wasn’t imagining things, that it was really there. And then he moves on, again, to continue his search for food.

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We leave him, but many boats continue to pursue him and it really has me questioning whether it is ethical what were are doing. I do think we stress these animals too much and in the three days I have seen the same people relentlessly pursue the jaguars, without stopping. How many pictures do you really need of a jaguar? Even in the sightings we’ve had, I’m sure I’ve taken close to 1,000 pictures of the jaguars and what will I really use out of that? 10? What more can be gained out of endlessly pursuing the jaguar? I don’t have answers, but this trip has raised some questions for me; questions worth thinking about.

We now journey back on the Transpantaneira and go to Pouso Alegre, a fazenda (farm) along the road, with amazing bird and wildlife. As soon as we arrive a heavy rainstorm arrives and we sit on the verandah, sipping a beer and accepting that a night safari is not in the cards tonight. The next morning we go for a walk in the area surrounding the fazenda, seeing howler monkeys, great potoo, lots of macaw and other creatures. Breakfast follows and fortified we go on a horse riding tour. Not quite “been through the desert”, but definitely “on a horse with no name”!

In the afternoon we head out for an area where normally the animals come to drink. We stay quiet in the oppressive heat, but no animals turn up, other than a couple of bored looking hawks and one Tayra, a cat-type animal, which is a very rare sighting. But for the rest, nada. A bit disappointed we continue on with a night safari, but don’t see the giant anteater we had so hoped for.

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Shortly after 5am in the morning there is a knock on the door and the fazed guide tells me there is a giant anteater just outside my room. I jump into trousers, boots, grab a shirt and camera and hurtle out of the door. And sure enough: there it is in all its wonderful oddity. And turns out to be as difficult to photograph as the giant otter, probably because of the low light so early in the morning. I should have known that where a giant anteater goes, so do ants, but by the time I have an army cruising up my pants it is too late. Fortunately my room is close, so I can rip off all clothes and kill the 20-plus ants that fall out of my pants and have caused me agony. I hear they have seen people who rip all their clothes off right there in the field and run around howling. Doesn’t surprise me one little bit; I wanted to howl too!

The anteater tops off a great six days and then it is time to go back to the big concrete metropolis, which continues to be home for now. Sadly no major outdoor trips planned for the near future, but I’m planning on some big bucket lists items in 2015: Arctic and Antarctic!

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