The most famous ecological area you´ve never heard of...
When our friend Maurice (who has been to Brazil often) heard we were going to South America, his first and foremost reaction was ´Don´t miss the Pantanal´!!! And we were, like, - ´Duh... what´s that?´. It´s actually how most people would probably react, but which I now think is very strange. It is such a huge and unique geographic-ecological area, it seems like everyone should at least have heard of it, just like any school kid will have at least have a passing awareness of the Gobi Desert, the Great Lakes, or the Serengeti.
If the Amazon is considered South America´s ´lungs´, then the Pantanal is the continent´s kidneys. It´s the largest freshwater wetland in the world, covering up to 195,000 square kilometres (75,000 sq mi) over three countries. It´s more than 10x the size of the Everglades! During the rainy season, the lakes that cover the vast savannah basin of the Pantanal get fuller and fuller until they start overflowing and connecting (like water spilling over from one section of an ice cube tray to another, is how our Pantanal guide Stephan described it), until the whole area is up to 80% submerged. Depending on the topography of individual places, the water rises between 6 and 18 feet!
For months, this massive, nutrient-rich body of water is an incredible cross-breeding ground for all kinds of aquatic life. Then as the dry season sets in, the water is slowly released through the Paraguay River and its tributaries (with all the water animals desperately scrambling to make their way to and disperse into the more permanent water sources), until it once again becomes a fertile plain, dotted here and there with lakes. This annual ebb and flow nurtures one of the most diverse varieties of flora and fauna on earth, and during the dry season, the rivers and lakes that remain (some of them can completely disappear if the dry season is particularly severe) become magnets for countless Pantanal mammals and birds that converge on them for the increasingly scarce drinking water. Because of this, there are very few places where you can see so much wildlife in such a short time as the Pantanal in the dry season - the most exciting of which are its high numbers of jaguars and pumas. ´It´s probably the closest you can get to the Garden of Eden´, said Maurice.
So very early on in our planning, we´d scheduled mid-September to visit the Pantanal - right before the wet season started in October. My medical hiccups delayed us a bit, but on 3 October - right after seeing Iguazu - we jumped on a night bus that took us to Campo Grande, one of the few cities where you can organize a stay at one of the various pousadas inside the Pantanal. These are generally family-owned operations. Although parts of it are environmentally protected, the Pantanal has long been - and still primarily remains - an important, rural cattle-raising area, where´guacho´ families have lived for generations in relative isolation, travelling for days into get to the next town when they needed supplies or to deliver cattle for sale. Tourism only started relatively recently, and although some new-built lodge operations for visitors have sprung up, most accomodations seem to be adapted ranches. We picked Embiara Lodge, owned by a Dutch man (who grew up in Brazil) and his American wife, and run by them - together with one of their sons who was born in Brazil - and a small staff of locals. The common language was a big draw, as was the fact that it was very small (the high-profile lodges can accomodate up to a hundred people!) and located deeper in the Pantanal than many others. We really wanted a tranquil, natural, but comfortable experience with a lot of options for getting out into nature - and we certainly got it at Embiara! In the whole time we were there - whether trekking, boating, fishing or driving through the wilderness - we only saw a couple other people besides our hosts, their staff, and four fellow guests: two guys cleaning fish beside a bridge where we put in our canoes (and they were being eagerly surrounded and watched by hungry caymen)!
The only ´outsiders´ we saw for five whole days!
DAY 1 - Pick-up early a.m. by our friendly driver Jorge in a 4W-drive, and the equally nice Ramona who was riding out to help with cooking at the lodge. Both only spoke Portuguese, but but we did our best with smiles, a bit of Spanish, and a lot of sign language. After a couple hours we arrived at the last city where the asphalt ended.
We stopped at a grocery store to to pick up a bunch of pre-ordered supplies, and from there it was on to dirt roads that got increasingly wilder and rutted. Now and then, you´d pass a pousada, but even those got increasingly farther and fewer between. Slowly, we started getting into the territory of the real ranches, each of them marked by big wooden gates which we - apparently - had permission to go through and drive over the private land. Every time we got to a gate, Ramona had to jump out to open and close it - 23 in total!
Ramona - Mistress of the Gates
We were almost three hours on the dirt road, but it passed quickly as the ride was a wildlife drive in itself. A lot of people apparently fly in to the lodge (it has a tiny, grass airstrip), but I wouldn´t have wanted to miss all we saw along the way. First of all, the thousands and thousands of ´Ghost Cattle' (my name for them, as they are pure white, and look wierdly emaciated, with sharply defined shoulder and hipblades). This, apparently is just their normal physiognomy, but they are a rather spooky sight when you see so many of them together, especially if there are a couple hundred being herded in your direction on the road in front of you! This happened a couple of times, with the most rough, authentic-looking, horse-riding cowboys I´ve ever seen - all the way down to the chaps they were wearing - moving them along.
We also saw coaties, giant storks, toucans and many other exotic birds I couldn´t even begin to guess the name of. The landscape was very unique: the word ´savanah´ immediately pops into mind - areas of plains and pampas grass dotted with countless trees flowering with beautiful purple blossoms.
But this was also interspersed by very tropical, almost jungle-like, areas bursting with palms, lingae and other creepers. I later learned that you can tell exactly where the wet season water reaches by what does - or doesn't - grow there. Just before noon, we arrived at Embiara, where we were warmly welcomed by Stephan - one of the sons of the family in his mid-30s- and Sam, a wildlife graduate student who was interning there. As well as our hosts, they were also our guides (and extremely knowledeable ones!) while we were there.
Stephan and friend
The family apparently owns a good-sized chunk of land which also includes a working cattle ranch, but the lodge was built separate from it - about 1/2 hour drive away. It was set in a relatively small clearing, surrounded by a lush, jungle environment - there were even orchids growing from some of the trees.
There was one rather large cabin - the back part was family living quarters, and the front a big library-sitting room for guests. Scattered around it was a separate, screened-in dining building, staff quarters, an open ´garage´ for the trucks, and a little further off four small guest houses - everything connected by slightly raised wooden walkways. Our ´home´looked rather simple from outside, but inside it was just gorgeous, and also had its own screened porch featuring rocking chairs and a hammock.
When you´re out in the middle of nowhere, you really have to ´rough it´ sometimes
We didn´t even have to set foot outside the compound to start seeing wildlife. In the trees and walking around us on the ground were amazing birds, including a pair of rare Hyacinth macaws that were nesting in one of the compound´s trees.
We were the only guests there - although more would be arriving in a couple days - and while we ate a delicious lunch, made plans for the afternoon. That set the tone for the whole time we were there. It didn´t feel like you were a ´tourist´, but someone visiting very good friends who just happened to live smack-bang in the middle of one of the biggest wildlife refuges on earth. With the greatest hospitality, they would describe and suggest the different things we could all do together, and it would be up to us to decide which appealed more. For this afternoon, it was canoeing on one of the nearby lakes. Sam hitched the canoes onto a trailer and drove them there ahead of us, while we set off on the 1/2-hour walk to the lake with Stephan. Along the way he pointed out a puma track right outside their gate and, through the nearby field, the remains of a kill it had made a couple days before.
The canoeing was marvelous, with caymen swimming around, a big family of capybaras wandering along the shore, and many different flocks of birds, including egrets and spoon-billed herons, settling, rising and swirling around the lake.
That night, as we were enjoying another fantastic meal, a tapir - which we had tried in vain to see in Manu - went snuffling right through the compound, followed quickly by a fox that we heard skulking around all night. I was very glad that the wooden pathways between the buildings were raised - and illuminated - when we headed to our little house that evening!
DAY 2 - Even in the ´spring´- which we are technically in - it can get bloody hot in the Pantanal! That´s why the rhythm of our days was up for breakfast at six, followed by a morning excursion that needed to be finished by 10:30 or so at the latest before the temperature soared. Then it was relax time, broken by lunch (the food here was SO awesome), with an afternoon excursion starting around 15:30 when it began cooling off again. This morning we took to the river on a small boat with an electric motor. It is absolutely amazing how quiet that thing is! It enabled you to glide along downstream hardly making a sound that might disturb the wildlife.
We had barely gone a half kilometer when we saw a family of seven giant river otter ahead of us fishing. We pulled over and just watched them for a good 20 minutes. Sections of the river there were very shallow, and one of the most amazing moments was when a fish started getting away from one of the otter, and he leapt up and - in full view - kept pouncing after it on top of a sandbank. Just amazing! Eventually we went on, which sent the otter family swimming off ahead of us. As we continued we had another capybara encounter, and saw more amazing birds than you could shake a stick at, from tiny, jewel-coloured kingfishers to a HUGE stork that flew practically right over us. The wingspan was at least two meters.
As we were stopped at a huge fallen tree, and Steph and Sam were telling us about the pair of jaguar they´d seen playing on it just the week before, two more otters came up from behind and passed us. They guys predicted that would cause trouble when they caught up with the other otter group ahead of us - which we could see in the distance sunning themselves on a bank of sand - and they were right. We heard an amazing amount of barking at a certain moment, and saw the family chasing the other two up and away into the trees. Wild Kingdom!
Giant otters sunning on sandbank
Our afternoon excursion that day was a walk of a few hours along a couple of different lakes, in which we encountered a family of deer, piccories, wild boar (shades of Manu!) and an astonishing sunset.
DAY 3 - Stephan stayed at the lodge this a.m. to welcome new guests, and Gerard and I went piranha fishing with Sam. No fancy equipment needed - just bamboo poles with a bit of chicken on the hook, and they start biting!
You just had to be careful as the caymen knew what we were up to and kept lurking very close by. If you weren´t fast enough pulling a caught fish out of the water and left it dangling, they´d sometimes make a leap to try and snatch it from your line!
We caught a good number of the sharp-toothed suckers - I got 7 or 8 myself - but many of them were too small to keep. Gerard had better luck, though, and I was satisfied that we at least got enough for the piranha ceviche which Sam had promised to make for us if we were lucky with the fishing (it was absolutely yummy, by the way)!
On the way back, we saw another, smaller species of otter eating a fish it had just caught,
but I was more than ready and extremely grateful to get back to the lodge again, as this was the hottest day yet - already over 40 degrees before 11am! At a certain point, Sam had even had to shift from a sunny to a shady fishing spot as I started feeling faint. But a cold shower and siesta in a wonderfully air-conditioned room can do wonders. That afternoon we headed out, along Alexandro and Marta, the nice young Italian couple that had arrived, to Stephan´s family´s ranch about 1/2 hours drive away.
There, the gauchos got us saddled up, and we went horseback riding for an hour or so over the savannah and between the Ghost Cows, spotting armadillos as we went. Steph and Sam told us that the last time it flooded, they´d gone snorkelling over the fields we were now riding over, surrounded by countless shoals of baby fishes of all kinds that had just hatched. The sun was going down by the time we got back to the ranch, and fireflies - which I hadn't seen in ages - started sparkling all around us. Returning to the lodge, we had a `night-drive´wildlife spotting session - we had a great view sitting in raised seats on the back of the open jeep. Along the way, Steph shone around with a hand-held floodlight, suddenly revealing wild boars and snuffling tapir in the bushes beside us, and caymen eyes glittering like countless emeralds in the lakes. At a certain point, we stopped the jeep, shut off all the lights and just sat there. It was an unforgettable five minutes. The stars, sounds and fireflies all around us were amazing.
DAY 4 - Finally - monkeys! We hadn´t come across any yet, but this morning we were woken by the unmistakable sound of a group of howlers very nearby. We found them up in a tree at the very edge of the compound.
This morning´s excursion was, for me, the least rewarding of the many things we did. We drove deep into the bush, and went for another walk around a completely different kind of lake - a salt-water one (due to the minerals and other things in the ground there) that the fresh-water floods never reach. Because of this, many of the plants and kinds of birds were different, which was interesting, but even in early morning, it was S-O-O-O hot, and part of the walk took us through very tall grasses that very strange sounds came out of now and then. We were still dearly hoping to see a jaguar or puma, but I would rather it be from a boat on the river rather than crashing out through the foliage in front of us. We never did see either cat, but if it was a trade-off for not seeing one here, then I'm OK with it.
OK...what´s IN there...???
What I did like seeing was the amazing strangler figs we saw. It´s almost incomprehensible how something that starts out as such an innocuous little plant can completely consume the tree it starts growing on. I've seen stranglers before in other places, but never so monstrous as these.
The fig that ate the palm tree - you can still just see the tiniest stump of it still left in the middle...
The afternoon excursion was much more pleasant - we drove upriver this time and put the canoes in there. The afternoon light was just magical on the water, and aside from caymen and other birds we'd gotten used to by now, we briefly glimpsed a giant anteater and had a very cool and close toucan encounter.
When we got back to the lodge, Ian and Karen - a couple around our age from England - had arrived, and we all went on a short night-time wildlife viewing drive before another amazing dinner. Really, the food at this lodge deserved a Michelin star. Woke in the middle of the night to the sound of - WHAT??? - thunder and rain beating down all around us!
Guests and guides in the dining hall the last evening
DAY 5 - I almost felt bereft waking up, knowing we would have to leave in the course of the day. We'd really wanted to make our last excursion a river one - it's the best place to spot the cats - but even though it was only slightly drizzling, the sky still looked quite threatening. So we all piled into the jeep and drove off to for one last wildlife drive, and to collect the camera trap that Steph and Sam had put out the week before. We had already seen some awesome shots that the trap had captured over the past weeks, including a jaguar with a kill it had made. En route, we came across even more birds and animals we hadn´t seen yet - including one (wish I could remember its name!) which was a first for Stephan to spot in the wild.
We were also witness to a rather pitiful tableau. A mama capybara crossed over the road in front of us, followed by four very tiny little babies, on its way to a lake. The last two were lagging behind, and by the time they'd made their way over, the mama and other two had surmounted the slight hill leading to the lake and disappeared. You could see the sudden confusion and disorientation of the ones left behind. They started circling around in all directions except the right one, and eventually went and just huddled together behind a tree. Steph and Sam shook their heads and said they'd probably be dinner for some animal before evening. Apparently the maternal instinct of capybaras is not all that strong. On our short walk to retrieve the camera trap we came across a tortoise, which the guys said was pretty unusual to encounter on land - and the first bothersome mosquitos we came across in the whole Pantanal. OK, it was bloody HOT, but at least we hadn't been tormented by BUGS!
On the drive back, we encountered a lost calf, which we reported to the guys at the ranch, and made it back to the lodge just before a veritable DELUGE of rain hit! Talk about just skidding into the Pantanal under the limbo pole of the wet season! It pounded down like mad all the time Gerard and I were packing up and enjoying one last fantastic lunch.
Have to show pictures of at least ONE of the great Embiara meals!
Thank goodness our jeep and driver back to Campo Grande had already arrived. The rain also thankfully stopped just as we were loading up to start back, but as we started heading out - Gerard doing gate duty this time - we saw the damage had already been done - the road had become (quite dramatically) flooded in places.
Loading up and heading out...
The first part - especially - was just sheets of shining water almost as far ahead as you could see, and considering it was rutted dirt track underneath, really treacherous to drive through. We got stuck twice, and the poor driver spent at least 1/2 hour each time slogging in the water and wedging things under the wheels to give us traction to get out. Afterwards, he started stopping more often ahead of time to wade in and see what the firmest and most level route would be. Still, it took us almost twice as long to get out as it did to get in, and it was really very apprehension-inducing at times. Stephan´s stories about people sometimes not being able to get in or out for weeks had really stuck in my mind. A sobering reminder that the only ruler the Pantanal will ever have is Mother Nature.