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The Pantanal / a Caiman tried to steal my Piranha [Jan. 13th, 2017|07:51 am]
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Wednesday 4th January 2017

The Pantanal is the largest wetlands in the world, covering approximately 195,000 square kilometres (larger than England and Wales combined). It used to be an inland sea, and now is a huge flood plain. Over 80% of this plain floods every year, starting in the summer in the northern Pantanal, and continuing to rise in the southern Pantanal into the winter months of May and June. The water can get up to three metres deep, changing the fields and woods into a giant lake.
This makes it a wildlife haven. When the rivers flood, the fish swim amongst the grass and trees, and their predators have a hard job of hunting for them. The skies and trees teem with birds, over 650 different recorded species, whilst Caiman haunt the waterways, sharing them with Capybara (giant swimming cousins of guinea pigs) and Giant Otters. Jaguars stalk the shores, and howler monkeys swing through the trees.

Pousada Santa Clara is in the southern Pantanal, and the waters have barely started to rise here, it will be several months before they reach their peak. The complex is made up of small buildings housing a mixture of private rooms and small dorms, along with a dining hall, breakfast room, games room, sofas and a TV. Outside there are several sets of hammocks and a small pool. My package, a four day / three night tour, was R$900 (approx £225) for a bed in a dorm, food and activities. For a single private room, it would be R$1250 (approx £310). As I ended up having the dorm to myself, I got a private room by default.

The Pousada is attached to a working cattle ranch and farm. Sheep, pigs, goats and geese wander freely through the grounds, where-as the cows are chased back to the fields. There's also bird feeding tables, bringing frequent feathered visitors, along with the hutch where the two tame Macaws live, flying freely around the grounds.

After an early breakfast, our guide, Tony, led our group of 5 people on a walk around the local area, visiting the fields, woods and swamp. He regaled the group with tales in Portuguese, stopping to translate key bits into English for me, the only non-Portuguese speaker. One tale involved how another tour group had been lost in the bush overnight, 5 years ago, and Tony had to cut short his holiday to come back and find them. They'd survived the night, and were merely hungry and thirsty.

The highlight of the walk was spotting a Black Howler monkey in a tree. These are the largest South American monkeys, and the loudest monkeys in the world, making a distinctive low rumbling howl which can be heard for miles. It's common to hear it in the early hours of the morning.

The tour finished by walking through a shallow pond. My boots might have been waterproof, but sadly my socks weren't. Others were more sensible, going through bare-foot.

It was only 10am when the tour finished, and our next activity, horse-riding, wasn't scheduled until 3pm. I wondered why there was such a huge amount of down-time, but soon got the answer when I went off on an individual photo-shoot, as I sweltered in the increasing heat.

After lunch I did some laundry, then chilled in the hammocks until I was sent scurrying for my room by the rain.

It was still raining hard as 3pm approached, so I donned my waterproof jacket, put my camera in a waterproof bag, and headed to the stables. The rain eased off just as I arrived. Our group had two new members, and the rancher gave us all blue helmets to wear before showing us to our steeds. Mine was a chestnut gelding with an attitude problem. Before I'd even got on he was showing his displeasure at being ridden, bucking as he was led to me, and remained stubborn and uncooperative throughout the ride (remind you of anyone?) He ignored my instructions, only moving when the rest of the group moved, and choosing his own pace.

We rode for two hours around the fields, at an easy pace, occasionally increasing to a canter, and sometimes stopping for Tony to show us something. We were given wild pears to eat as we rode past one bush.

One of the farm's pigs decided to join us for the walk, trotting alongside us most of the way, stopping off at ponds for a dip and a roll in the mud before catching up with us again. My grumpy horse took exception to the pig, trying to bite it a couple of times, he also tried to kick some of the other horses, which was a bit disconcerting whilst I was on him. He spent a lot of the ride grazing on passing foliage, perhaps our ride had interrupted his dinner plans.

I eventually managed to get him to reluctantly go where I wanted, although this would invariably only last a minute or so before he reasserted his authority. Perhaps he really is an equine version of me.

After the ride, I figured out how to remove the saddle and bridle, no doubt to his relief, and left him to graze.

We had a two hour gap before the next activity, an evening safari drive. We clambered about the seated pick-up truck and headed down the drive. Before we'd even left the farm, we'd seen two Jabiru storks (Tuiuiu), the symbol of the Pantanal, and two bush deer.

We drove onto the main mud road, heading North, as dusk fell, and soon came across two Toucan with their distinctive oversized beaks, perched in a roadside tree. They proved difficult to photograph in the failing light. Shortly afterwards we drove past an Armadillo sauntering down the road, it disappeared before our cameras could be brought to bare.

As night fell, Tony used a bright torch to illuminate the bushes and ponds, trying to find more wildlife. He lit up a couple of Caiman swimming in the river below the bridge, and spotted a fast disappearing fox.

We were back in the Pousada by 9pm, for another filling dinner, and another early night.

Thursday 5th January

I woke up early, so I could try to get some dawn photos. With the sun rising before 6am, it meant an alarm call of 5:30am. The sunrise was a disappointment, hidden behind the clouds, and the mosquitoes enjoyed their breakfast before I went to get mine.

At 7:30am we set off for our next activity, piranha fishing. We jumped on a tractor-trailer, heading to the river. We spotted black vultures and Jabiru storks en route, and at one point we stopped to look at tracks left by a Jaguar and her cub recently.

Tony swung the tractor off the path and drove through a swamp, causing the trailer to get stuck in the mud. He decoupled the tractor and drove off whilst thinking of how to get us out. I joked that we were being left there as Jaguar bait. When Tony returned, we got off the trailer into the mud, and he tried to tow it out backwards, using a thin twine, before trying to pull it out once more, whilst everyone pitched in to push. It all felt a bit dramatic, given the sudden detour, until I spotted that the normal path was even swampier.

We reached the riverbank, and Tony gave us our rod and a few pieces of raw beef. As we fished, I spotted several Caiman swimming in the river, and coming over for a look. I eventually got a bite, pulling in a small piranha, but it was big enough to eat, so went into the bucket. I then went further down the bank for another go. After a few tries, the rod felt heavy and I pulled in the largest piranha I've seen, nearly a foot long. As it came ashore, A Caiman tried to steal my piranha. It had been watching from the river, and began to come ashore right where the piranha was hanging at the end of my long rod. Luckily I was a few feet away, and able to swing the piranha out of its reach. I received a round of applause as I showed off my catch, and got a video of its sharp teeth to show my godsons, before going back to snap some photos of the Caiman.

We returned in the tractor, taking a slightly different route through the swampy bit. As we approached the Pousada, we spotted a flock of vultures eating a dead cow, so I went back there to take a few photos before lunch. In addition to the usual fare of rice, beans, meat, vegetables and pasta, there was fried piranha. It's a meaty fish, and tasted more like chicken than fish.

The next activity was a boat safari, meaning a return to the river by tractor-trailer. We again avoided being bogged down en-route, and headed up river. The wildlife spotting was incredible, we saw Capybaras close by on the shore, one swam right past the boat, as well as kingfishers, herons and tiger herons, a black collared hawk and many as yet unidentified birds. There were even two black howler monkeys in a tree. We also saw lots of caiman swimming, alarmingly within touching distance. The star of the show had to be the Giant Otter that Tony spotted towards the end of the trip, blending in with the river bank. This was one of my must-see animals, I had seen them at the Chestnut Centre Otter and Owl sanctuary in the Peak district last year, so it was fantastic to see one in the wild.

We got back in the early evening, and spotted some blue Macaws in a nearby tree. They flew off, but I was told that they roost in another tree down the path. I headed that way, enjoying the sunset and getting a couple of photos of a woodpecker before finding them making a raucous noise high in a tree.

I spent the evening discussing cameras with an Australian professional photographer, her job involves photographing cycle races, and wildlife photography remains a hobby. She had a nice bit of kit, a Nikon with telephoto lens, but it didn't have the range of my 50x zoom bridge camera.

Friday 6th January

I woke in time for another dawn shoot, and this time was rewarded with a beautiful dawn. I found a suitable pond to get some reflective shots, then as the light improved I went looking for some birds. I spotted Macaws flying around, and got nice and close to a Common Black Hawk.

After breakfast we headed out on the last activity of the trip, another car safari. There was limited wildlife to spot on the one hour drive, we saw a grey fox in the distance, who immediately darted off the road, and a couple of Toucan. We also passed several Caiman, but these seemed so passé after yesterday's close calls.

After an hour the truck stopped, and Rodrigo, the other guide, announced we were going on a walking tour. I looked at him in disbelief, I was wearing flip flops. I noticed the rest of the group had all put on hiking boots, so was a little irritated I hadn't been informed about the walk.

We walked through the woods, trying to avoid being bitten by ants. We soon spotting a giant anteater snuffling away at ants nests, followed shortly by a bush deer resting under a tree. After a lull Rodrigo rushed us towards a tree, as he had spotted two Black Howler Monkeys. I finally managed to get a decent photo of one.

As the walk continued, we saw a lizard, a green iguana, and a rare bird. It was whilst I was trying to photo it that I was finally bitten by a large ant. It worked as a painful deterrent, I stayed away from its nest after that.

We returned to the truck for the hour drive back, and were treated to watching a family of Giant Otters playing on the river bank near the bridge. I got some great photos, and even shot a video of two of them playing. It was only when I reviewed the photos that I spotted a Caiman right next to them in the water, one of them had tried to scare it off.

We returned to the Pousada for lunch, then it was time to head back to Buraco das Piranhas, the way-point. Helga, Louisa and two French girls were also transferring out, they were catching the minibus back to Campo Grande, where-as I was heading for Corumba and the Bolivian border.

When we got to the way-point, the driver pointed to the other side of the main road, and informed me that my bus would go from there, it was the Andorinha company. I hurried towards the road, only to see an Andorinha bus go sailing past. There was no sign of a bus stop.

I asked at the information point in the shop, and was told, in Portuguese, that the bus goes at 3, maybe 4, from across the road. It was 2:40pm, so I began to worry that the 3pm bus had been early, and I wasn't sure if there was another bus today. I began thinking that I might have to spend the night in the bus shelter on the far side of the road. I could also see a Caiman in the pond behind me.

A sergeant from the army checkpoint beckoned me across to him, I tried to explain in halted Portuguese that I was waiting for the bus to Corumba, he waved me back across the road.

By 3.30pm it was baking hot, and I was desperate for some shade. I crossed the road to where a few people were waiting under a tree, and was told to go back and leave my bag standing where the bus could see it. I was also reassured that the bus would come by 4pm, but I didn't believe it until I saw it.

The bus eventually turned up at 3.50pm, and I was in luck, there were two seats left. It was a semi-camo, with deep reclining seats and air-conditioning. I was finally able to relax and enjoy the 90 minute journey to Corumba.

[User Picture]From: girl_on_a_stick
2017-01-16 01:04 am (UTC)
No ocelot? Usually the night drive there is quite good for them. Also usually have good luck with giant anteaters on the horse ride.

I've been to this place a number of times and although I never found jaguars myself and my clients did see maned wolves and tapir.
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