I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.
I could feel a tiny rivulet of sweat start its journey from the back of my neck, rapidly accelerating in its descent .
It was hot. Very hot.
Another one of those pesky flies or bugs buzzed and settled comfortably on my hand that lay lightly on my camera. Too tired to swat at it, I just shook it away irritably. I knew it will be back soon.
There were two jaguars out there behind the bushes. We could see the odd movement and the flick of a tail or a raised paw, but nothing more.
So, we waited. And waited.
Patience, of course, is the name of the game in the wild.
However, to be honest, patience wasn’t usually much required in the Pantanal. Simply, due to the stunning density and diversity of wild life on the river.
Almost smack in the middle of the South American continent, below the Amazon basin and to the east of the Andes, all famous names, lies an unfamiliar name on the map – Pantanal.
The Pantanal…I picked this off a book and forgot to note the name 😦 …would have loved to give the credit
The Pantanal is a sprawling river delta where the water levels rises and recedes several meters and forms an unbelievable ecosystem thriving with life, a sanctuary to some of the most spectacular birds and animals. Birds and beasts carrying some lovely names, strange shapes and brilliant colours live, nay, thrive here.
A paradise for any nature lover.
Capybaras, tapirs, ocelots, crab eating foxes, caimans, giant anteaters, giant otters, the howler and the capuchin monkeys, monitor lizards, caimans, not to speak of the famed anaconda and the jaguar…
The Capuchin monkey….saw these frisky animals only a couple of times and never got a great shot
The very last pic as we left the Pantanal
And I haven’t yet even started on the birds. The Hyacinth macaws, the savannah hawk, the jacana, the jacamar, the plover, the cocoi heron, the rufus tiger heron, the buff necked ibis…
The Pantanal occupies an impressive 66,000 square miles. That’s a heck of a lot of area. And, the North and the South Pantanal are completely different in terms of the wildlife inhabiting it.
Well, why am I saying all this to convey the sense of the density and the diversity of the place ?
Lets just digest this nugget of information – in the Pantanal, you can find 3,500 plant species, 656 bird species, 325 species of fish, 159 mammals, 53 amphibians and 98 reptiles.
Read those numbers again.
We stayed on a house boat – the Jacare. The caiman as its known locally.
The Jacare – our home for the four nights we spent at the Pantanal
The other, more commonly found Jacare…
While we take the speed boats for the safari, our place of stay is on a house boat, one of many that are anchored around. Staying on a houseboat is much more convenient other than, of course, the points you score in sounding casually exotic when you drop the line,’ Oh we spent 4 nights on a houseboat in the Pantanal” :).
You simply save such a lot of time just reaching the river from any of the lodges. More time on the river, more wildlife you see. Simple.
A typical day begins quite early. We set off even before the sun starts lazily peeping over the horizon. Its rather chilly early in the morning and the speed of the boat as it scythes through the water adds to the wind chill. Caps and scarves to protect the head, thick sweaters or jackets to guard against the chill we set off curious to see what the day holds in store for us.
What delights will unveil themselves today ?
If you want to see jaguars, the Pantanal is the place. North Pantanal specifically. Over 8 safaris we had around 20-25 sightings. Now, anyone who has gone to any forest would agree that is some strike rate.
But, the thing about the Pantanal is that its not only about jaguars. There is just so much more to see. So much more.
You go down the winding river and take a detour into one of those narrower branches off the main river. So narrow that if there is another boat coming from the opposite side it becomes a bit of a squeeze and you often duck to avoid hitting the overhanging branches.
But, oh the treasures that lie here ! So many birds !! These waters are simply teeming with life !! Birds, big and small and of course, with such vivid colours !
We can wait next to a kingfisher as it looked this way and that, went off for a sortie and return to the same perch.
This Ringed Kingfisher sizes us up …worth a meal ?
An Amazon Kingfisher or is it a male Green Kingfisher ?
Or admire at the vivid colours of the Jacamar as it flitted from one branch to the other.
The Jacamar…such a pretty bird with such a pretty name…repeat the name slowly, love the way it rolls off the tongue !
Or watch a Black Collared Hawk slowly dismember a rather plump fish that it had caught.
We spent a long time with this guy as it focused on devouring its tasty meal
Or watch a cocoi heron on a perch with a lovely background or stroll past you with a nice meal in its mouth.
The Cocoi Heron…sun in the right direction, nice background…what more could you ask for ?
For some reason this heron kept walking with its prey for a long long time instead of eating it
Or study the Caracara as it kept a steady vigil on the waters below before putting in a swift dive and coming up with a fish, so large that it struggled to carry it up the slope.
I love the Southern Caracara…both for its oddly shaped head and its name. This one is nothing but pure focus as it studies the waters
And then …success !!! It struggles off with a real heavy catch !!
We admired the rather aptly named Screamer looking impassively down at us, and clicked away furiously at the savannah hawk perched rather royally on a branch and looked at vultures as they patrolled the banks so close to us that I struggled to get the entire bird in my frame.
The Screamer…we heard it much more than we saw it. But must say the name, while appropriate, was disappointing. So ordinary 🙂 I wonder what the local name is for it
The Black Vulture looked rather solemn this evening…must have had a tough day
We learnt the existence of a bird cutely called the potoo. Never heard of it ? Well, potoo fossils have been found that are 40 million years old ! They are like nightjars – they hunt during the night, sleep during the day, which explains why it was always difficult to immediately know which way they were facing !!
The Great Potoo !!! Had never ever heard of this bird ! What a lovely name !
We once landed at the corner of a sandy expanse of land which had a really large number of skimmers and terns at the other end and desperately tried to get some sharp pictures of these birds as they flew around. Both these birds are incredibly fast in the air ( the terns more so ) and it was a lovely challenge to try to capture their images… I failed to get any wall hanger :).
The sheer joy of being alive !!! This skimmer seems unable to contain its excitement !
Yeah…just about managed to fit it in the frame !
We watched in awe as Jabiru stork landed gracefully on the shallow water with the early morning sun behind it giving an unbelievable golden hue to the scene.
A Jabiru Stork lands…got a split second warning that its landing, could squeeze off a few shots…quite happy with the result
And lots more. Lots and lots more.
The Wattled Jacana ( ah the name ! ) looks rather glumly at us intruders
We spent a long time with this Buff necked Ibis…the shore was at a height from our boat and we could easily get eye level shots with a dreamy background. Bliss.
This cute little bundle is the White headed marsh Tyrant…it was remarkably unafraid of our proximity !
A Pied Plover goes for a leisurely stroll
“Do I detect a fish there ? ” A Great Black Hawk seems to wonder
The Striated Heron decides to give us a good shot
The Black Capped Donacobius…now why on earth would you name any bird, let alone a pretty one like this as ” Donacobius” ????
A Roadside hawk sitting by the riverside ( sorry ! 🙂 )
Such a pretty bird is the blue crowned trogon and I missed getting a clean complete shot 😦
The Tropical Kingbird…remarkably similar to the Kiskadee, the only discernible difference I could see was the patch around the eye
The Pale Legged Hornero spots something interesting
Did I mention the giant otters ?
A giant otter wonders if it should dive
On a couple of mornings, as the sun was winning a muted but one sided battle with the chill, we sat in our boat watching a small group of otters frolicking about. These are such delightful creatures ! Its great fun to see them, all sleek and shiny, as they kept darting around, vanishing underwater in one place, coming up somewhere far away , more often than not, with an unfortunate fish in its mouth. Which it will proceed to leisurely gnaw at giving many a photo-op.
Its lovely to watch it have its meal…full of enthu !
The giant otter is the one animal that the jaguar is a little wary of. Otters are quite ferocious and extremely agile in the water ( some locals apparently call the otter as the “aquatic jaguar’ ) and it also roams around in groups that take care of each other. Even such a strong and ferocious animal like the jaguar is known to avoid getting into the water if it notices the giant otters nearby. Well…that’s impressive. I never knew that !
The best time to visit the Pantanal is after July, when the monsoon has ended and the waters have started receding revealing the sandy stretches where caimans come up to bask in the sun and the jaguars appear to prey on them. Dead branches are visible onto which jaguars frequently climb and observe the world around them. On one occasion, we saw a caiman do that, on a branch that was poking out of the water. I couldn’t help but wonder what the caiman would have thought when it decided to clamber up that branch and get a different perspective of the world. It seemed rather pleased with itself but I thought it reckless. In case a jaguar saw it, it would have been a sitting duck for a meal !
My…doesnt this caiman look rather pleased with itself ??
Trees abound on either side, resplendent with some brilliantly vivid colours of red and yellow in between the lovely green that the other trees flaunted.
The banks were an unruly mass of bushes, dried branches, thick trees with splashes of red and yellow thrown in for variety
The Vochysia tree…yeah and danger lurks behind the beauty
One afternoon, after a particularly spectacular morning filled with unbeatable sightings, we went off in the opposite direction to our usual safaris. We went to a place where the Hyacinth macaws can be seen.
The Hyacinth macaws are the largest macaws and actually the largest in the entire parrot family. It has a stunning deep cobalt colour all over its body with a brilliantly bright yellow around its eyes and under its beak. We had missed seeing them earlier at Pouso Alegre and I was rather desperate to see them here.
The Hyacinth Macaw is such a pretty bird…such a fantastic blue !
The Combed and The Uncombed
We did. They were all around but unfortunately I really didn’t get any truly spectacular picture of them. I spent hours trying, but rarely got a good clean shot. Such is life 🙂
Those beaks can be really strong !
But then there were the other birds…the currasows proudly strutting about with their unbelievably stylish hairdo, the guans, the turquoise fronted parrot and so many more.
The Chestnut bellied guan strikes a pose as the setting sun really shows off its colours
The proud, haughty look of the bare faced curassow
The Bare faced Curassow…with such a hairdo even I might strut around
The Turquoise fronted Parakeet
The Crested Oropendula made a brief appearance, thought it was a very handsome character
It was a comparatively relaxed afternoon, spent walking around on firm ground after a long time and soon it was time to head back home to our house boat. As we started our journey back, the sun setting behind the trees, the temperature dipping providing some much needed respite from the heat, a group of macaws flew high above us, behaving like perfect hosts escorting us to the door.
You cannot miss them. They are everywhere, looking faintly comical, their unathletic frames resting either on the banks or in the river. Every fibre of their body seems to be perpetually alert, which they well might better be, cos they are clearly one juicy meal for both the jaguars and the caimans.
The do look adorable, dont they ?
They are superb swimmers and we usually saw them very close to the waters and at the slightest hint of a threat they leap into the waters. The slightest of noise is enough for them to take a frantic jump with a loud alarm call. On shore, we often saw two of them sitting facing opposite sides. That way they can see danger from all sides.
The capybaras are the largest rodent in the rodent family. Rodent ? This large animal is a rodent !??? An adult male can be as heavy as a human being !! Rodent ! Wow…makes one look at them with renewed respect !
There are some rather interesting facts about the capybaras.
They eat their own dung to extract maximum nutrition. Well.
Their facial features are located near the top of their heads to allow them to see and breathe while swimming. That explains their slightly weird shaped heads. Fascinating.
They are agile swimmers all right…but are fast on land too. For all their bulk, they can hit 35 kmph of speed on land…that’s as fast as a horse !!! Let no one talk of reducing weight for speed from now on to any athlete !
Another aspect that I loved about the Pantanal was their rules. Both concerning the wildlife as well as the etiquette while on a safari.
The speed boats cannot get too close to a jaguar. I think the minimum distance is around 20 feet. They have to give that much personal space to the animal. Lovely.
If the jaguar is near the edge of the water, there is a high probability that it will enter the water for a swim or to cross over to the other side. The boats willingly listen to each other and spread around giving the jaguar the needed space to swim across.
Since most of the subjects are on land and us photographers on the boat and the boats naturally being on water aren’t stationary, there is always the risk of other boats appearing in front of you. And, the rule is that you cannot stand in your boat if there is even a single boat behind you cos you might come in their way.
A jaguar clearly has been sighted. Not very clear since you can see someone more intent on taking photos of their friends instead of the animal :)…soon, there will be a rush and the rules kick in
So half the time you are looking behind you to see if any boat has drifted behind you which would mean that you need to sit down.
I liked that. Polite. Considerate. Even when you are in the middle of the frenzy that comes over when you see mindblowing wildlife in action in front of you.
I also liked the fact that these are rules framed by the association of those who offer the safaris. Not rules laid down by the government. Self regulation is always better.
We spent four days on the Pantanal.
Four unforgettable, magical days. And for all the magnificient wildlife that got served to us, there was so much that we missed seeing. We got only glimpses of the capuchin and the howler monkeys. We didn’t see the giant anteaters. We didn’t see the crab eating fox.
But what we saw was spectacular in both quantity and variety. Simply mindblowing.
A vulture provides the perfect silhouette against the rising sun…full credit to Fabiano for this shot. He saw an opportunity and we waited for almost 15 minutes for the sun to reach the precise spot !
We started and ended our trip in almost exactly the same way.
As we wound our way to our houseboat on our first day, we saw an anaconda tightly wound up on a rock. And when we were making our final trip from the houseboat to our waiting jeep, we saw not one, but two anacondas separately making their way on the rocks. I think it meant something deep but can’t for the world figure out what 🙂 🙂
An eight nine footer…impressively thick tho not as much as you would have seen in the movies !
Ominous music can play in the background right now
But despite the throbbing wild life around us, despite the many breathtaking moments that we had on the Pantanal, the most magical moments for me were during the return journey at the end of each day.
Sigh….such beauty !
The light fading. The temperature dipping. The sun blinking its presence from behind the treetops. The sun changing its colour from the lovely, full of life, blue to a quieter, thoughtful shade. The mood in the boat matches that, all of us thoughtful, thinking of those moments of the day that we would never forget, wondering how those pictures that we thought are great, will show up on the monitor screen.
And we return at the end of another day full of magic and discovery !
And, not for the first time, I would thank my stars for being so fortunate that I could make this trip and savour the beauty that this lovely land has to offer.