Pantanal- If ever there was a paradise

The Pantanal has mentally and physically exhausted me. It cast a spell on me the minute I saw the first swamp heaving with life: a riot of birds, caiman packed like sardines, the water boiling with fish and an orchestra of sounds.

This got me so excited I was hyperactive the entire week- if I wasn’t photographing something, I was looking for something to photograph. Day, night, evening, over lunch, even in my room- it didn’t matter, there was always something interesting around.

 

 

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Sunrise at the docks

A day in the Pantanal

5 am: the cicadas were still thrumming their monotonous din. Pairs of Chaco Chachalacas (Turkey-like birds) could be heard spreading the night’s gossip throughout the forest. It was so early the mosquitoes were still out hunting. The camp slowly stirred and the smell of freshly brewed coffee drew everyone to the dining tent. Brazil has delicious fruit- watermelon, pineapple, mango- decadent morsels that revitalise you at this wee hour. And along with scrambled eggs and toast- what more can you ask for in the middle of nowhere.

We walked through the palm forest to reach our boat passing the resident pair of hyacinth macaws, sleepy-eyed, just emerging from their hollow in a tree.

By the docks, a nest was humming with monk parakeets. Their screeching racket was bordering on irritation in the morning. Black vultures were taking off searching for thermals and their next meal. A familly of otters was already up and about, slipping between the boats chasing beautiful black spotted catfish for their breakfast.

The sun was about to crest over the eastern horizon, splashing waves of magenta, crimson and finally gold across the sky. This mesmerising show ahead of me, the wind rushing past and the anticipation of seeing a jaguar summated to an incredible feeling as we raced up the Rio Cuiaba to the meeting of the 3 brothers (a culmination point of three rivers considered a hotspot for jaguars).

Here we slithered through the rivers looking for wildlife. The bird life was astounding. I have already logged up 70 different species so far. To this I added a white woodpecker and a timid razor faced curassow. We saw giant jabiru storks nesting, metallic coloured kingfishers darting across the river clutching fish and ultramarine hyacinth macaws enjoying a good banter. They were joined by an equally impressive cast of raptors patrolling the sky.

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Searching for wildlife on the Cuiba river

Finally around 10 am we got the news we’ve been waiting for. A jaguar was spotted 20 minutes away. At this point the cameras were locked away and everyone strapped into a seat as we sped down river. Other boats joined us and soon a squad of 5 boats were zeroing in on the spot. When we arrived, the riverine forest was still and quiet. Assuming the jaguar was hidden, we awaited it’s appearance. After a couple of minutes, closer examination revealed a dappled coat slumbering on a bed of hay. A male jaguar was sunning himself in full view of us but he blended into the grass so well, we didn’t see him at first. Even though I’ve seen them before, the first few seconds brings about a surge of excitement. Every now and then he woke up, posed like a model in the morning light, before falling back asleep. Years of dominance had left a scar across his right eye rendering him blind. In spite of this, he was gorgeous.

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A flotilla of boats following the jaguar, including a BBC film crew

Around midday the mercury hit 40. We left the jaguar to his sun tanning and retired to our lodge. Lunch was similar to yesterday and the day before- chicken, rice and beans, haha. I rested in the shade with a book whilst southern caracaras rustled through the leaf litter for a snack.

The afternoon boat tour started off with a caiman clasping a fat fish in its jaws. With difficulty it managed to swallow it just before a larger caiman came lumbering up to challenge it. As the heat simmered down around 5 pm, we were searching a shallow river when dad exclaimed ‘jaguar!’ As the boat came to a halt, I caught sight of ocher and black melting into a bush. Out the other side appeared not one but two jaguars; a female and a rather large male (probably a courting pair). They were nervous and disappeared for a second time. We quietly made our way around the corner and caught sight of them deep within a thicket. They rested there for a while before moving out into an open glade. Their amorous affair was masked behind snarls if either of them got too close to one another. Yet they couldn’t leave each other’s side- a true love-hate relationship. We left them as they took their romance into thicker cover.

At a lazy bend in the river we disembarked onto a sand bank. We had to be careful not to disturb the large billed terns nesting there. Their eggs easily blend into the creamy sand. We watched the horizon chip away at the sun whilst skimmers did a spot of last minute fishing.

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On the ride back home

It has been a great day! As the dying embers of the sun danced on the western sky, nightjars took to the air. Cormorants swarmed into their perennial roosts. Their favourite trees stained white with guano. By the time we reached our dock the mosquitoes were out in clouds and it was a frantic run to get into the safety of our room.

We celebrated the day with a bottle of Malbec and had a delicious lasagne for dinner. Now if only the god damn mosquitos would let me get some sleep.

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