Howlin´ good time in the Pantanal

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Hrrr... hrrr... hrrr...
The unearthly growls seemed to pierce the heat around us; we fell silent and stared up into the dense canopy, from where a black face scowled back down at us. He moved swiftly to the next tree, then the next, and we followed below, tracking him by the rustles he made. Then he stopped and glared down again, baring a rather menacing pair of fangs and growling all the while. Awestruck by the sight, we nevertheless battled to keep still - we were being assaulted by thousands of mosquitoes. The clever chap seemed to have led us straight into the most mozzie-invested part of the forest!

When we'd started out on the walk, our guide Paulo had just about guaranteed that weŽd see monkeys. "This is one of the best places I know to find them." And here we were, looking a male howler monkey in the eye.

Earlier that morning (Friday 10 February) weŽd set off from Corumba, located by BrazilŽs south-western border with Bolivia, on a four-day excursion to the Pantanal, a vast area of wetland savannah covering approx 140,000km2 and renowned for the abundance of wildlife it harbours.

WeŽd arrived in Corumba the previous day, on Thursday, after a 15-hour train ride from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, aboard the 'Death Train'. Despite its fearsome reputation, the train itself was very comfortable indeed, with air-con and plush seats. The tracks were another matter... the journey was incredible bumpy; it's a wonder the carriages stayed on the rails.

The drive from Corumba to Passo do Lontre, the lodge we were due to stay at, took us along the 'Park Road', a sandy track raised several metres above the surrounding marshes and grasslands. Though the name of the road implies that this part of the Pantanal is a national park, that is not the case. The land is carved up into privately-owned cattle ranches or 'fazendas'. However, despite its use for grazing, the eco-system of the Pantanal is quite well-preserved.

The half-day drive down the Park Road to the lodge was a safari in itself. We spotted toucans and interesting birds of prey, several large, black caiman in the roadside streams and pools, and a fair-sized boa contrictor on the road. Exciting stuff! And then finally, my long-time wish of seeing a capybara was granted. In fact, we saw several of these oversized guinea-pigs, the world's largest rodents, on the drive. They're aquatic, so their fur was usually listening with moisture, and the faces... so cute!

In the afternoon, we stopped for a walk in a patch of jungle, Paulo's monkey spot, and had that unforgettable encounter with the male howler and thousands of mozzies. How magnificent to see the howler so close up... of course we'd spotted them a few times in the Pampas in Bolivia, but never had the experience been so intimate.

We arrived at Passo do Lontre in the late afternoon, and Paulo said goodbye. The lodge boasted a stunning location on the Rio Miranda, and of course we couldn't resist a cooling swim. In the evening we joined the six other guests and the guide we were to spend the next three days with.

After dinner, the staff lit a bonfire beside the river. Rich and I were the first to drift outside and stand beside it. Staring into the flames, we were surprised to see a small snake slither out from between the burning logs. And then... another, larger snake! I hopped onto a wooden bench (just in case) and we called over the guide, Marcello, and the other guests.

Marcello tried to provoke the large snake a little by waving a stick at it, and we watched astonished as it struck a few times, then slithered away towards the river. Needless to say, there was much screeching and leaping on benches from the girls in the crowd. Yikes, another close encounter of the serpentine kind!

On Saturday morning it was all aboard a rickety-looking wooden river-boat for a three-hour cruise upstream to a neighbouring fazenda, where we spent the afternoon horse-riding. Horse-back seems to be the best form of land transport in the Pantanal... the long-legged beasts wade effortlessly through marshlands where no 4x4 driver would dare go. Neither of us are riders, but we both thoroughly enjoyed the experience; Rich even did his first gallop (and loved it!). There were too many of us to ride all at once, so we divided into two groups - while the one group rode the others lazed in hammocks. Bliss!

On the Sunday morning, everyone piled into the jeep for a safari up the Park Road. The rest of our group had come from Campo Grande in the east, so had not actually travelled on the road yet. The two of us were more than happy to make the drive again, as we'd seen quite a bit of wildlife the first time around.

And lo and behold, we clocked up a good number of sightings: several toucans, macaws, capybara and caiman along the road as we drove. At mid-morning, we stopped for a walk. Marcello led us into a dense jungle 'island' (surrounded by swampy grassland) that, apparently, he'd never been to before but thought would be excellent jaguar territory. Rich and I had no illusions that our chances of spotting a jaguar were next to nil, but a couple of girls in our group had fallen for boastful Marcello's jaguar stories.

So, when he suddenly crouched down, whispered "Shhh!" and started creeping forward though the dense undergrowth, motioning for us to follow, excited whispers of "Jaguar!" inevitably went up. We crept along to the water's edge and heard the loud sneezing and snorting sounds before we saw them... a pair of giant otters!

We watched the otters for at least 20 minutes as they wove gracefully between the trees growing in the water. Marcello imitated an otter call, a strange whooping, and the pair responded by popping up and peering at us, sometimes lifting their entire upper bodies right out of the water. What a wonderful sight! We managed to get some cracking video footage, but unfortunately no decent photos.

As we continued our walk, the familiar haunting calls of howler monkeys surrounded us, and we soon spotted a troop in the trees up ahead. Marcello used his call-imitation skills to attract the males' attention, and again we had them staring straight down at us, growling and trying to look as fearsome as possible.

The walk involved much wading from one jungle island to another, and on the wade back Marcello suddenly shouted and lifted his leg out of the water to show us a gash in his jeans... he'd been bitten by a caiman, he claimed (no blood, though, just the damage to his trousers). Dramatic stuff, though the two of us are sceptical!

Monday, our last day, was a little less action-packed and more relaxed. Bamboo fishing rods were brought out and we baited up the hooks with fresh red meat. Yup, we went fishing for piranhas. Rich had success, bagging two pan-sized fish (which were delicious!), while the rest of us did a good job of feeding the buggers. We took it in turns to float down the river in inner tubes - pure bliss - and after an early lunch and saying goodbye to the rest of our group, four of us relaxed by the river, fished some more and swam before packing up.

At 3.30pm, the two of us plus Barbara and Stephan (from Switzerland) caught a bus to Bonito, a four-hour ride away. We'd heard about this little town from a number of people, and it sounded very interesting indeed...
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