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Cruising the Pantanal

I sit in a small motorboat in a shallow tributary of the Paraguay River in Brazil’s flooded Pantanal region. It’s a beautiful and peaceful place, alive with jungle trees and bright green swamps, the idyllic backdrop for Pantanal tours.

The boat’s engine goes kaput, casting us adrift in the middle of one of the largest wilderness areas in South America. Small brown capuchin monkeys gather on overhanging branches and grin at us. I’m not bothered by the monkeys. They’re cute, despite their big, spiky teeth. I’m not even bothered by the anaconda snake that undulates past us in the dark and murky water.

I am, however, bothered by the 127 crocodilians floating right next to us. “Don’ t worry,” says Giuliano Bernardon, seeing the ill-concealed look of fear on my face. “These are Yacare caiman, and although they look ferocious, they are in fact harmless. They’re fish eaters, not man eaters.”

Giuliano is my Pantanal photography tour guide; a man of great knowledge when it comes to understanding the plants and animals of the Pantanal, but he’s not a boat mechanic. He fiddles with our engine and pokes at some exposed wires while a score of caimans close in on our position. “They’re coming closer,” I whisper nervously. “Shouldn’t we be rowing?” But Giuliano is adamant that the caiman are not a problem. “They’re here for the piranhas. You know piranhas, right? There’s a school of them just beneath the boat.” I recoil deeper into the hull and as far from the edge as I can get. Piranhas eat people. I know. I saw it in a movie once.

Tzzt, tzzt. Electrical sparks flicker from the end of a wire in Giuliano’s hands and, much to my relief, our little outboard engine sputters back to life. “OK?” he says, grinning. “Let’s get this Pantanal photography tour underway!”

The Pantanal tours in Brazil takes one on an adventure in one the world’s last true untouched wildernesses. It’s a seasonal flood plain of sorts and is estimated to be up to 195,000 square kilometres in size.

“It’s an astonishing ecotourism destination,” says Giuliano as we slowly motor our way across a wide and reedy swamp. “And probably one of the only places on earth where you are almost guaranteed to encounter a jaguar.”

“Here in the Pantanal, we have the largest population of crocodilians anywhere on the planet,” Giuliano says. We drop anchor beneath a giant overhanging fig tree. A big troop of howler monkeys are busy shouting at each other. Blue hyacinth macaws (the stars of the animated “Rio” movies) are also up there, making noise. “There’s probably about 10 million caiman here in the Pantanal. And that’s why we see so many Jaguars on photography expeditions.”

Although it will eat deer and raccoons and even anacondas, a Pantanal jaguar’s most common source of food is the ever-present caiman. “I have seen them swimming, keeping a low profile, and then leaping onto even the largest of these crocs,” Giuliano says. What a sight that would be: a 135-kilogram cat wrestling with a 3-meter reptile.

I spend a few days exploring the snaking waterways and flooded fields of the Pantanal with Giuliano whilst on our photo safari. Sometimes we walk on forested islands, searching for anteaters and armadillos. Other times we are in our little boat. Each night, after a full day of exploring, we return to our mother ship, the Jacare houseboat, where we dine on traditional Brazilian food, including piranhas caught with a rod from the back of the boat. And each night I go to sleep in my cabin to the sounds of croaking frogs and the distant roar of a jaguar. I dream about them, stalking me through the forests or else sneaking up to the back of our tour boat to drag me into the water. They scare me, but they fascinate me, too.

It is with a heavy heart that my Pantanal photography tour eventually comes to an end and we are forced to return up stream and back to the real world of roads and towns and traffic and people.

But before our Pantanal safari comes to an end, Giuliano turns to me and tells me he has a surprise. He had been out scouting before breakfast and he now wants to show me something he found on a beach in a bend in the river. He silences the engine and allows us to drift slowly around until, to my amazement and joy, a giant spotted cat appears right in front of us.

Giuliano drops anchor about 20 meters from the beach, so we can watch from a safe distance. The male jaguar, yawns, stretches and then comes down to the water’s edge to stare at us before turning around and vanishing back into the forest.

What an amazing experience, and a fantastic climax to an incredible Pantanal safari.

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