We flew to Cuiaba to meet up with Joel Suiza, our fixer for our 4 day / 3 night trip into the wilds of the Pantanal. The Pantanal, to the south of the Amazon, is supposed to be better for animal spotting than the Amazon due to the wide open spaces of wetland and the good links between conservation and the local ranch owners.
We departed Cuiaba early the next morning with our guide and a lovely Canadian couple, Alison and John. On the way into the park as the road abruptly changed from tarmac to dirt and I quickly realised that the middle seat in the back of the 4×4 was badly designed and that the Pantanal was going to be hot – somewhere between a pizza oven and the centre of the sun. Our choice of a January visit may not have been a good one.
The first 2 nights were to be spent at the Pousada Rio Clarinho and after lunch we geared up in long sleeves and trousers and took to the local lake by rowing boat. The scenery is stunning, lush green fields, inky black lakes, and herds of cows and horses share space with capybara, caymen and huge Tuiuiú birds. Paddling round the lake we saw kingfishers, herons, caymen, and endless other birds but blimey it was hot – our guide kept mainly to the shadows but with the thermometer in the high 30s the temptation to jump into the lake despite the piranhas was strong but luckily resisted. At the end of the day we climbed a rickety lookout tower for sunset and watched the flocks of birds – parrots, parakeets and toucans among them – nesting for the night.
The second day was a 4.45 alarm as we returned to the watchtower to see the sun rise. This was a real pleasure / pain situation as the beauty of the sunrise was counteracted by every insect in the local area deciding we would be a great breakfast. We managed about 10 minutes at the top before retreating to the relative safety of the forest floor. After breakfast we headed out again, this time for a walk around the forest and river edges. It rapidly got incredibly hot and humid and the sweat pouring off Wayne’s back became a mecca for mozzies with a whole swarm munching at his skin through his shirt (very successfully as we would later find out). In the afternoon the weather finally broke… and boy did it break! A massive thunderstorm led to six inches of rain falling in a 2 hour period, taking out small trees and creating even more lakes in the wetlands and flooding the pousada’s dining area. Once it cleared we went out for a drive to see some more wildlife and survey the aftermath.
The morning of day 3 was the activity we had been looking forward to most – piranha fishing. We took the canoe out again (once we had emptied the rainwater from the day before out of it) and moored in a nice shady spot. Our guide then gave us a bamboo rod and line and then the special bait for the piranhas – cubes of raw meat (what else?) The trick was to drop the line into the water, wait until it went taut and then swish it rapidly sideways to hook the piranha. Sure enough he soon had one dangling on the end of his hook and then he carefully (very carefully!) gripped the piranha around the gills before unhooking it and throwing it in a bucket where it spent the next 10 minutes trying to escape and bite us. Then it was our turn. We did quite well at the start at where catching them pretty quickly but after an hour or so they had got a little wiser and where actually eating the meat of the hooks without us really noticing – more feeding than fishing. We managed to catch 25 of them before we ran out of bait and none of us lost a finger – result!
In the afternoon we drove 10 km to Pouso Alegre, our home for the last night. This Pousada is based in 10000 hectares of land and is home to a couple of hyacinth Macaws (like the ones in the film “Rio”). We went for an afternoon walk around the fields where we saw more bird life and a few monkeys and then a night drive where we saw owls, caimans and families of capybara.
Day 4 involved another sunrise start but this one was much more pleasant and a lot less buggy and then after breakfast we saddled up on our horses and went for a leisurely 3 hour ride before returning for lunch where our efforts from yesterday had been made into a tasty piranha soup.
We headed back to Cuiaba after lunch a little tired and saddle sore and realising that the most vicious thing in the Pantanal isn’t the Jaguar, it’s the mosquitoes!