Escape to Ilha Grande

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The skies have finally opened properly and rain is thundering down on São Paulo, flooding its streets, soaking its inhabitants, who are all trying to get away from it, travelling to spend Christmas with family. It takes a good 50 minutes to travel the 8kms that lie between my home and the bus station. Once there, I have enough time to collect my ticket and make my way to the bay from which the bus will depart. It leaves right on time, heading out in the continuing torrential rain and joining the slow exodus on the highway. It takes a long time to get to the first stop at São Jose dos Campos, but after that the travel eases and the bus runs through the night, occasionally stopping for the driver to have a break and letting out an increasingly sleepy looking group of passengers.
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I wake just before we arrive at Angra dos Reis and after collecting my bag I find a taxi to take me to the cais from where the boats depart. There is still time for a coffee at the paderia suggested by the taxi driver and while the coffee is awful, the brioche is fantastic. Soon I’m on the first boat, a speedy vessel that deposits me on Ilha Grande in 30 minutes. The island is hidden in cloud, only slightly lighter in texture than on the mainland. Looks like the first day will be a rainy day. I arrive ridiculous early, but the room is ready about an hour after my arrival and I enjoy a bit of a rest in a hammock first before going for a stroll through the village of Abraão, towards the Black beach and back via the aqueduct. It rains steadily, but not too heavy and it is warm enough that I don’t really need the umbrella, except that my camera isn’t too fond of water. Most of the day I spend reading, sleeping and resting; I have underestimated how tiring the trip here has been and how tired I was to begin with.
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The next day it is still overcast, so perfect weather for a walk to Dois Rios, a small village on the other side of the island where previously the prison was located. The prison saw many serious criminals incarcerated, as well as political prisoners during the time that the armed forces were in power in Brazil. Although the prison itself has been demolished, parts of it still exist and have been turned into a small museum. The track meanders up the hill gradually and in the warm and humid conditions I am soon dripping with sweat. Near the top I get a great view over Abraão before heading over the hump and start descending on the other side. There is no one around, except for the howler monkeys who screech far off in the forest. It is an eerie sound, and while slightly threatening, it’s too far off and howler monkeys are not the aggressive kind of monkey anyway. Along the track I see many different birds, big lizards, the black and white tegus, but they are always too fast for my camera, diving back into the brush when they see me coming. Big bright blue butterflies dance around the path.
Once I get to Dois Rios I have a look at the remains of the prison and its little museum, before heading to the beach for a refreshing dip in the waves. After that I have a bit of lunch at the Barzinho (the little bar) before heading up the hill again. On the way up I stop at the Soldier’s Pool, a shaded waterhole and have another dip, this one substantially more refreshing than the beach, the water being nice and cool. From there a shortcut trail leads up the hill, which I follow, through thickets of bamboo, until it rejoins the main path again. The wind has picked up and increases as I ascend to the ridge. Just over the ridge as I start to go down again I notice that a large tree has crashed down and is now blocking the path. A little scramble later I’ve negotiated the obstacle, but more trees are creaking around me and partially collapsing in the wind, so I put the engine into fifth gear to get through this area as fast as possible. A little less than an hour later I am back in the village, where I first report the fallen tree to the police, as no one is able to get through to the other side now. After a good shower and a rest in the hammock, it is time for an early dinner and bed.
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The next day is Xmas morning, which dawns sunny and bright,  and with sore calf muscles I join the festivities at breakfast. Rennie, the manager/owner of Aratinga Inn, has created a fantastic atmosphere over breakfast, rushing about with champagne for her guests and soon the Christmas gifts are being handed out and opened by everyone. After the leisurely breakfast it is time to get my beach things together and make my way down to the quays to get on a boat that will take me and many, many other people to Pouso beach, from where a 20 minutes bush track leads to Lopes Mendes beach, which is truly one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, which is saying something. Soft white sand, a pounding blue surf and an endless expanse of beach. Most people stick to the area where the track leads onto the beach, but I walk on to about mid-way on the beach and spread out my sarong there in the shade of a tree and go for a dip in the waves. Despite being in the shade and with sunscreen lathered on, I still manage to get a bit burned. Why is it that there is always some part of the body that gets missed with the sunscreen, never mind how much attention you pay to the application of it?! After a few hours I retrace my steps to the other beach and wait for the 17h30 boat back to Abraão.
Friday morning dawns sunny again and I decide to walk up to the Cachoeira da Feiticeira (the Witch’s Waterfall), which is bewitchingly refreshing when I finally get there after a long slog uphill in increasingly hot and humid conditions. After visiting the waterfall, I head down to Feiticeira beach, miss the turn off to a quieter beach next to it and end up spending a few hours on a small beach, enjoying cold coconut water and açai for lunch, before catching a taxi boat back to Abraão. Dinner is at Dom Mario’s where I eat a fabulous steak and make a new canine friend, who is patiently sitting by my side in the hope that some part of the steak or of the bacon in the rosti makes its way to him. Unfortunately for him, no such luck!
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Saturday is my last day on Ilha Grande and this morning the heat is so oppressive that the merest movement results in sweat running down. Together with other guests Alex and Adam the decision is made to take a taxi boat to a small beach near Abraão, called Abraãozinho, where we find a good spot in the shade to stay cool. We have a great day, chatting away over a variety of beer, mojitos and caipiroskas while eating fish and chips and doing as little as possible. Eventually it is time to make our way back to the pousada, so I can get ready to get on the boat and depart the island. Initially scheduled to take the night bus again, the large and very international family who have been staying at Aratinga for these days as well will not hear of me waiting so long for the bus and invite me to join them in their transport back to São Paulo, particularly as we discover that we live only a few blocks apart. It is wonderfully generous of them and I’m thrilled to accept the offer. On the way back we stop at Paraty for a great dinner and arrive at 3am in the morning back in a quiet big city, where I even get dropped off in front of my door.

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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Iguaçu Falls – another day in paradise

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Sunday morning heralded another blue sky day. No rest for the wicked as at 8.15am I was due to meet with a guide to take me along a walk on the Brazilian side of the falls. The nice thing about staying at the Hotel das Cataratas is that you are inside the national park, which means you get to wander around early in the morning and at the end of the day when all the tourists are gone. We set out for our walk and only encountered maybe four other people, all hotel guests.

The light on the falls in the morning is beautiful and the path that starts at the hotel meanders down and along the side giving a very panoramic view of the falls. While the Argentinian side gets you up close and personal, the Brazilian side is more visually attractive in my view. And of course that bonus of not having to share it with lots of tourists at the same time…

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The path leads through various viewpoints to a suspended walkway into the Garganta del Diablo and this ended up being one of the things I most enjoyed. Having put on a rain jacket myself and a rain cover for my camera I headed out into the spray right to the edge. Rainbows were everywhere and I even saw an almost perfect circular one – only the tiniest bit was missing, but it was so large that I could not capture it on my camera. They weren’t vague rainbows either, but really strong in their colours. There was only one other person on the furthest platform and we both took the spectacle in quietly. There was something really purifying about this force of nature raining down on you. It’s hard to describe without sounding a bit strange, but it was really a special moment in the day.

After the walk we headed back to the hotel and there I relaxed by the pool, followed by a snack, before heading out for the next adventure, the Poço Preto (Black Well) tour. The only other participant was Adam from Texas who was visiting for a conference. We both opted for doing the first part of the tour by bicycles (you get a choice between walking, cycling or jeep) and headed out in the shady glades with our two guides, Ulisses and Eric, who provided information about the flora and fauna we were encountering. A lot of the fauna were flying ants, which hovered in the sunny patches and had a tendency to fly into your mouth or your eyes, so I kept my sunnies firmly on, even if I didn’t quite need them in the shady woods.

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After an enjoyable ride we reached the river and while we waited for the boat to arrive, we walked to a watch tower from where you had a view of an alligator pool. Didn’t see any though, but lots of cartwheeling birds with a death wish. The boat took us upstream for a while to the Poço Preto area, which is a deep opening in the riverbed, making the water look black. From there we turned the boat around and headed downstream, seeing an alligator sunning himself and taking in the immensity of the forest here. The final part of the trip was a paddle in an inflatable canoe. We decided to share one, but did not impress our guides when we veered off course, but eventually found our way back again to where they wanted us. I swear I was steering straight to where I wanted to go!

Back at the hotel I decided to do the morning walk one more time and see the falls at sunset. This time the paths were still pretty full with day visitors, so it was a different experience, but the colours were stunning, particularly at the Garganta del Diablo area. Then it was time for a light meal in the bar an an early night, before getting up at 3.30am to get my flight back to Sao Paulo.