Although it was dark, it was still unbearably hot. The humidity lingered heavily in the air and the mosquitoes feasted off out sweaty bodies without abate. “Listen,” whispered Marcelo, our guide. The sounds were almost deafening; along with the usual chirping crickets, a chorus of `meeeowwww` and `buuurrrrrrrppp` filled the air. Clearly these were not your average frogs. As the howler monkeys cackled away in the distance, a pair of red eyes stared at us from the murky swamp. Could this be the moment we would come face to face with the Patanal´s star player: the Jaguar? The torchlight revealed a caiman lying silently in wait.
The Pantanal is the world´s largest freshwater wetland and covers an area the size of France in the central-south of Brazil. It floods every year, and with the greatest concentration of wildlife in South America, becomes a theatre of amazing sights and sounds. The jaguar is only one of many rare species to be found here, but it was one of our main reasons for making the intrepid trip.
Back in Campo Grande, the nearest town, that morning the bus station had been a hive of activity. Tour salesmen pounced on bleary eyed backpackers as they emerged from the overnight Rio bus. Other backpackers looked like they had been afflicted with some terrible motor coordination disorder as they scratched at their limbs in a frenzy, these were the returning “Pantanlers”. Undeterred we had signed up for an “authetic Pantanal experience”.
After four hours on a luxury air-conditioned coach, we were welcomed by a clapped out 1975 Toyota farm truck. As we bounced up and down on the unstable wooden benches in the back, we could see the miles of green wetlands, lakes, rivers and floating vegetation. In this landscape seemingly untouched by time, there was an instant feeling of remoteness. After two hours of dodging the potholes and cows wandering around in the road, we arrived at the entrance to the farm and drove through 2 swamps. It was in the middle of the third swamp that the truck simply refused to go on. We waited under the burning sun whilst Marcelo and the driver attempted to tie rope to the wheels of the truck underwater. I looked around at our companions: mostly European and Australian backpackers accustomed to this sort of adventure, except for 2 that is. Joan and Francis were two rather large American ladies who didn´t seem quite as at home. “Everyone out” shouted Marcelo after what felt like hours, “ We walk from here”.
“Walk?” spluttered Joan, “but we´re in the middle of a swamp!”
“And what about our luggage” shrilled Francis.
“Don´t worry, it´s easy, no problem..” said Marcelo – this was to become his standard answer for everything. Joan and Francis looked down at the murky swamp water, horrified.
Marcelo was a man whose heart and soul were in the Pantanal. Having grown up in an indigenous village here, he resembled a cross between Crocodile Dundee, Tarzan and a Wild West character. He knew every plant and creature of his land and when he wasn´t slashing through the jungle with his machete he was making some weird and wonderful potion from leaves. Being the girliest of the girls, wading through swamp water up to my thighs was hard for me. Seeing the disgusted look on my face, Marcelo astutely observed ‘You haven’t done this before have you?’ I explained to him that no, there’s not much call for swamp -wading in London. By day two he had persuaded me to swim in a river we had just fished for Piranhas in. (Apparently they only eat humans in bond films…).
“Fazenda Naturaleza” belongs to a farming family, but is no longer the “authentic” working farm we had been sold. The family have realised that tourism is far more lucrative. Sleep options were tough: either cook in the airless, mossie-infested barn or be munched on all night outside in a filthy hammock positioned between a swamp and a thundering generator. Joan and Francis were suitably unimpressed by this arrangement and even worse, thought that the answer to the unbearable heat was to sleep naked in the dorm.
The usual fare of rice and beans were served in a “sauna” where eating was virtually impossible. Showers were buckets of swamp water that may or may not contain monster insects such as the huge hairy tarantula I encountered one day!
However, the farm was sited in the midst of swamps, wetlands and exotic jungle. Brilliant hyacinth macaws could be spotted sitting in the trees everyday. Rhea and jaburu storks ran around metres away, and huge black hawks and toucans gracefully swished past.
Galloping through the swamp waters and jungle on the back of a once-wild horse was the highlight for me. My horse was lost in his own world and seemed quite oblivious to the fact that he was about to tread on a family of wild boars at one point. Marcelo ushered me to stop and not make a sound, as they are prone to attacking horses. After some argument between me and my horse he finally stood still and we watched as the whole family trotted along. We never did see the elusive Jaguar that the Pantanal is famous for, but no doubt if we had my horse would have sauntered up to say hello to it!
Despite the stifling humidity, evenings were spent wearing almost the entire contents of our backpacks in an effort to outdo the ferocious mutant mosquitoes. Swinging in our hammocks under the huge starry sky we sipped cairpirinhas and mulled over the experiences each day brought. Roughing it had taken on a new meaning, but there was no question in my mind: the Pantanal was worth every piece of dirt, sweat and mountainous mossie bite. The important question though, is about how long this ecological paradise can last as tourism takes over more and more farms. With Brazil´s less than unblemished conservation record will the Pantanal manage to escape unharmed?