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Tales from Brazil II – on the Transpantaneira

Transpantaneira. The highway to nowhere.

For some reason, the story of this highway has always fascinated me.

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Somewhere in the early 1970s, the then military Brazilian government decided to build a highway connecting Cuiaba, a city in the North to Curumba down in the South cutting across some of the largest wetlands in the world. They started work on the highway in right earnest and soon completed the first leg.

Just around that time, the original state of Mato Grosso was divided into two and the government of the new state had more than its share of tasks to be prioritized and the Transpantaneira generally got pushed to the background. Or the entire idea of having building a highway was found to be too challenging since during the rains, the entire place gets completely flooded.

Whatever be the reason, the net result ?

The second leg of the highway never got started and the Transpantaneira suddenly stops in the middle of nowhere on the banks of the Cuiaba river. Almost smack in the middle of the original planned length.

Most people are grateful for the fact that the highway was never completed since that allowed the simply amazing wildlife along the road to continue to thrive. Its quite likely that a completed highway could have destroyed the ecosystem that we see today. Though in an ironical way, the half constructed highway helped too. The earth that was cleared away for the highway’s construction left holes that have become ponds, canals, and lagoons.

Today, the Transpantaneira is a mud road, one ramrod straight road running besides and over many marshes and small water bodies, with 122 ( or was it 126 ? ) wooden bridges (some of which are fairly risky to cross – these have an off road diversion ).

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This, I think, was the longest of those numerous wooden bridges that we crossed ( phone pic )


And why are we on this road ? What lies where the Transpantaneira ends ?

The land of the jaguars.

But then, this is one case where the journey is also almost as exciting as the destination. The Transpantaneira is not short of its own share of attractions.

In these roadside marshes and ponds caimans wallow luxuriously and multiple waterbirds walk about nonchalantly feeding off the riches that lie in the waters. Along the side of the highway, perched on the wooden posts, you will find the rather appropriately named roadside hawk, many different kites, kingfishers…. You might see an anteater amiably stroll across…plus if you stop at the right places for the night, you will see some rather striking birds and more strange creatures, like the tapirs, the capybaras and the ocelots to name a few.

This road trip in itself can be an extremely fulfilling safari.

It was.

*****

But before we hit this faintly romantic highway to nowhere, we still had an interesting stop to make.

We flew in from Sao Paulo to Cuiaba late afternoon, on Azul airlines. The trip was around three hours long and a rather pleasant flight. We were quite impressed with the airlines. Quietly efficient, comfortable, in flight movies and a ton of snacks to gorge on.

It was at Cuiaba, the next morning, that we met Fabiano ( who was going to be our friend, philosopher and guide for the next few days, guiding us to the best spots to take a photo, teaching us about the bio diversity of Brazil, educating us about the history of the land and in general, being simply fabulous company and a brilliant host. Fabiano runs his company called Bio Diverse Tours ( https://biodiversebraziltours.com ), but more about him later 🙂

Instead of heading in the direction of the Pantanal, we went almost diametrically into the opposite direction. We went to a park where the black tailed marmosets are found. Black tailed marmosets are a species of New World monkey from South America and the only marmosets to be found naturally outside the Amazon.

We entered the park where a lot of early morning joggers and the walkers were enjoying their morning routine with the customary heads up that the visit might be in vain and we might not see the marmoset at all…cos, well that’s the way of the wild. Can’t predict them, can we ?

But in what was to be either a continuous run of spectacular good luck when it came to sightings or what is simply the way of wildlife viewing in this land of plenty, just a few minutes into the park we saw the first marmoset far away and high up in the trees.

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Presenting the black tailed marmoset…


Over the next half an hour or more, quite a few of these chirpy, active animals were visible and a few of them got reasonably close. Seeing a group of them wasn’t surprising since they live in groups ; all in all we had a good time capturing these frisky little animals as they jumped from one tree to the other.

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A rather frisky animal…towards the end got a few close ups


Good fun. And now…onwards we move.

*****

I had read that the biggest problem while traveling down the Transpantaneira is the number of times one ends up stopping cos of the simply innumerable number of birds and animals that are seen by the roadside. And while there is an embarrassment of riches along the way, the more we delay the less time we could spend at the place of stay for the evening where again there is a lot to see.

Talk about choices 🙂

But, stop we did and possibly more times than was ideal and less times than what we would have if it hadn’t been for Fabiano’s stern admonishments!

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How do we not stop to take pics of all those birds around ?? ( phone pic )


We stopped by a marshy place and took our first pics of the caiman, of egrets lazily flying past and terns zipping around. We saw kingfishers, roadside hawks…… and we got off to take pictures of the famous Transpantaneira signpost and of the longest wooden bridge on that route.

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The Ringed Kingfisher…the largest and possibly the most common kingfisher in this part of the world


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One possibly always ignore the egrets, but there is a beauty about them, especially when they are gliding about with a nice green background


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…and it lands !


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Not the best of pics of a tern, but a half decent pic of a bird in flight is something I savour !


And, finally we reached Pouso Alegre.

Our place of stay for the rest of the day, the night and the following morning.

****

Quite a bit of the Pantanal is privately owned by cattle ranchers and small-scale farmers. And some of the farms along the Transpantaneira have been converted to eco-lodges. There are more than ten such lodges in total, spread out along the 147-kilometre long highway.

We turned off the main highway and travelled a fair distance on a bumpy road to reach one such eco lodge – the Pouso Alegre. Just in time for lunch.

It’s a lovely little place, the kitchen and the dining area smack in the center and the rooms spread out a little distance away. After putting our luggage in our rooms and as I was stretching my legs and taking in the sprawling, open surroundings, one of the employees at the eco lodge caught my eye and beckoned to me to come over.

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The Black and White Tegu lizard seems to have a real purposeful air about it


A black and white Tegu lizard, a rather imposing creature was lumbering its way across the open space. Gave me enough time to position myself a little ahead and go for a few nice ground shots. A friend saw a couple of them mating. Seems so normal…to walk into a lodge and see this large creature loitering around nonchalantly. How cool !

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And when that sickly pink, rubbery forked tongue darts out…photoworthy indeed !


After lunch we chased a little woodpecker as it flew searching for its daily meal from one tree to the other before we got onto a jeep and went off explore the property and meet some of its more interesting denizens.

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We spent quite some time after this Crimson Crested Woodpecker as it flew from one tree to the other with us clumsily ( and breathlessly plus sweatily ) lugging our tripods behind it


And we did meet a few of them.

The capped heron, the sun bittern, the rhea which seemed to be such a carbon copy of ostrich that I went and checked out how they were different. The rhea is similar but smaller in size and has three toes, the ostrich has two toes. Yeah…very big difference 🙂 …imagine seeing a bird and trying to distinguish whether it is an ostrich or a rhea…!!!

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The capped heron is a pretty little bird…that pale yellow and light blue forming a nice combo but its those large feathers  on its head that gives a distinctive look to it


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A Rhea…and sadly not a photo where I can show you its toes to prove this is not an ostrich !


It was a largely uneventful evening, other than the waterbirds and a few more kingfishers, and of course, the caimans…they were simply everywhere. We also bagged our first ( I think ) sighting of the famous Jabiru stork.

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A Cocoi heron goes a fishing !  ( notice the caiman in the background ? )


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Danger !!! There is a caiman tho for the most part they didnt seem dangerous 🙂


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An egret again …


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A male Green Kingfisher struts its stuff, fortunately caught it with that bit of a green background  fortuitously well positioned


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The famous Jabiru Stork…it definitely is a striking bird, not only for its size but for that rather prominent pouch on its neck which is not very noticeable in this pic


We saw a rather sad looking tapir walk down one of the paths, but the light was extremely poor to even try to take a pic.

There was a flutter of excitement later in the night after dinner when we heard a few shouts of excitement and everyone rushed over to one corner outside the dining room. A pygmy owl had caught of a rat that was almost half its size and was sitting rather primly with its kill right there on the verandah. Sadly, I just couldn’t get any decent pics in the poor light (  an area that I definitely need to upgrade my skills ! ).

But that last incident once again gave me an idea of the sheer density of wildlife that exists in this wonderful part of the world.

*****

The next morning was what we were all waiting for. All sorts of exotic birds were expected to make an appearance – the hyacinth macaws, the toucans, the aracari, the currissow…phew.

It started a little sour though.

The hyacinth macaws, the largest of all macaws were usually expected early in the morning on some trees a little behind our rooms.

Prompt as always, we trudged to the place. The light was poor, I noted glumly. But the greater disappointment was that the macaws didn’t make an appearance. We hung around for a while knowing it was time to go to the spot where the toucans are expected.

“ They might have come in earlier,” observed Fabiano.

Well….nothing to be done…we moved over to the next spot hoping that at least the toucans don’t disappoint us the same way that the macaws did.

They didn’t.

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” Here I come !”


For the next hour or more, we had a lovely time watching these striking birds on different perches. Total fun. The toco toucan, is a little less colourful than the red breasted toucan which I missed at Trilha dos Toucanos, but still a toucan is a toucan is a toucan :).

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” I always favour my right side for a profile pic.”


What a lovely bird ! I loved the way it used to balance that humungous beak while turning its head this way and that. Awesome ! And, hence, indulge me, while I go a tad overboard in posting pictures of this rather special bird !

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That scimitar like beak…fascinating !


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” Caught ya ! “


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I had long wanted this angle…but I lost the details in the white 😦


But then the toucan wasn’t the only bird that came up in front of our lens. There were cardinals, currossows and….the Aracari !! What a bird ! It belongs to the toucan family but in many ways is quite different. All that apart…such colours ! What a vivid appearance ! And that beak …with that serrated design !

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The Aracari…doesnt it look truly magnificent ?


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Just look at those colours…and THAT beak !!


We admired the energy of the hyper active cardinals, we marvelled at the absolutely stylish hair do of the currossow and the simple beauty of the rock thrush, the Brazilian national bird….

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The Male Yellow Billed Cardinal appears to be at a decision point


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The Female Yellow Billed Cardinal in a contemplative mood


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A Chestnut Bellied Guan


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The Female Bare faced Currosow doing a ramp walk for our benefit


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And ain’t that one heck of a  snazzy hairdo !??


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The Rufus Bellied Thrush…the national bird of Brazil. A real pretty bird..ok, another pretty bird


But soon, it was time for us to hurry up have a quick breakfast and then set off for that last leg to Porto Joffre and….the land of the jaguar !!!

*****

A quick word about Pouso Alegre (https://www.pousoalegrepantanal.com ). A sprawling place, comfortably spread over a rather wide open expanse of land. The rooms were fairly large and comfortable. The food was rather good too. ( The desserts especially ! )

We spent a real short time here. One evening safari and the morning tryst with those exciting birds and we had to rush. The evening safari was a bit unexciting, but then you don’t always get safaris which are throbbing with excitement. Also, water birds which were the main birds of interest don’t really excite me. But the colourful birds in the morning…boy, they were something else.

Also, we were trying to pack a lot in the days that we were here. Getting a little taste of everything. The Pouso Alegre had a lot to offer in terms of trails, boat rides, hides near the waterholes, horse back riding but for all that we would need to spend a much longer time !

So well…that’s the way it goes…and now we move on to what clearly was the phase of our trip that we were all most excited about ( with my sincere apologies to the wondrous birds 🙂 ) – the yaguars, as the locals called it !!

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