Brazil: The Northern Pantanal (Big and Wet)
Upon hearing that a Jaguar had been sighted upriver during our Pantanal photo safari, Capello, the pilot of our little speedboat, put us into such a G-force inducing U-turn that the elderly lady next to me nearly lost her dentures. Coffee was spilt, breakfast bars went flying into the air and my hat got left behind to sink or else become a fashion accessory for one of the numerous caiman alligators populating these waterways.“We better move” shouted Capello over the roar of our 100 horsepower outboard “We need to get there first!” And move we did. Our boat reared up like a stallion, Capello whooped like a mad man, and we all held on for dear life.
Brazil’s Pantanal is a seasonally flooded inland delta system of some 150.000 square kilometers, and, as such, is the largest tropical wetland in the world. It’s also a world heritage site due to its amazing animal and plant life, and is famous for being the only place on earth for Jaguar photo tours.
But sometimes photography tours get crowded.
It took about twenty minutes of hairpin bends and turbo boost straits to reach the location where the jaguar had been spotted; but by the time we got there, about thirty other similarly sized Pantanal photography tour boats were already in position.Camera lenses, fingers, iPads and cell phones were all pointed at one particular spot in the undergrowth on the river’s edge, but without a battering ram, our little boat wasn’t going to get through that log-jam of vessels. Eventually, engine fumes and the clatter of hulls must have disturbed the big cat, for one by one, the boats departed, leaving us alone with nothing to see. “Sorry” lamented Capello “We’ll get there first next time. I promise!”
I had already been on this Pantanal photo safari for eight days, staying at several of the many tourism lodges that one finds along the edges of the transpantanal highway (the only road in the region) but I had not yet seen my cat. Along this bumpy and frequently flooded road, I had seen all manner of other wildlife from the comfort of my car, including giant anteaters, armadillos, and tapirs (a sort of pig/donkey/hippo like animal).
I had also seen uncountable alligators, giant river otters, wading birds and even the coiled up bulk of a giant Anaconda snake. Hyacinth macaws, monkeys, toucans and coatis (a sort of long nosed raccoon) were occupying the pink and yellow flowered trees that dominate this area, but as for the spotted cat? Not a whisker had I seen!
And it was approaching the end of my Pantanal photography tour.
“But you will have to drive to the end of the Transpantanal” a Brazilian cattle rancher had told me one evening as I drowned my sorrows at the lodge bar with Caipirinhas (a local tipple made of spirits, lime juice and sugar)
He had lifted the brim of his very wide hat, rubbed his moustache thoughtfully and then said to me “Go to the little piranha fishing village of Porto Jofre and then from there, catch a boat deep into the places where no roads can go. It is there that you will find your Jaguar or your photo safari.”
And so I took his sage advice, and booked myself onto a luxurious Jacari house boat out of Porto Jofre.
“Jaguar Sightings Guaranteed” or so their leaflet said.
The boat itself was very nice indeed, especially when compared to the other semi dilapidated wrecks I had witnessed floating about near Jofre’s little harbor.
Upstairs, a chef prepared healthy meals (mostly of fish) from the galley, and a bar man whipped up fresh Caipirinhas on tap, whilst down below, there were air conditioned cabins to keep the humidity and mosquitoes at bay.
We had cruised up and down on this house boat for several days during our Pantanal photo safari, anchoring off at various bends in the Cuiaba River, and we had taken little speed boats to explore the various oxbow lakes and snaking channels that dominate this watery world. But alas, no Jaguar.
But then, as these things are want to do, it all came right on the last evening of my Pantanal photography tour. A radio message had come through from the captain that a jag had just been seen close to the Jacari’s position, and so, once again, off we sped in Capello’s little speedboat at the velocity of a jet fighter, fingers crossed and cameras at the ready.
Disappointingly, despite our breakneck hastiness, our little boat was still just part of an excitable crowd of other vessels.
“But I know this cat’s habits” whispered Capello when I voiced frustration at the lack of any clear views “Just wait. You’ll see”
So there we waited as, one by one, the other tourist boats peeled away and went home to their floating hotels or riverside lodges.
And that’s when the beautiful cat revealed herself to us.
We watched for almost an hour as she stalked the river banks and pounced at unsuspecting alligators, and we drifted quietly alongside her, holding our breath each time she spotted potential prey.
She missed them all; the caimans, the herons, and the giant guinea pig like capybaras , but then she looked at us with a cold and contemplative stare.
It sent shivers down my spine.
“She’s getting hungry” said Capello “And they have been known to eat people”
Eventually the light faded to such a degree that we could no longer see her, but she could definitely see us. So we left before she added us to her menu.
“I promised id get you a good sighting” said Capello with a smile on his face and a Caipirinha in his hand.
And indeed he had.