Thursday, June 14, 2007
A week in the Pantanal, Brazil
Fazenda 4 Cantos:
We arrived at the correct place, Bouraco de las Piranhas, about half an hour before the correct meeting time of noon. There is a Ranger Station there and a roadside snack selling café.
We spoke to the Ranger who said there was gas 7 km up the dirt road and since we had time to kill we headed that way. I was being a bit too exuberant and got my front tire stuck in a rut and took a pretty fast tumble on the hard packed ground. My tires are now strictly street tires and combined with top air pressure I was essentially skating on dirt.
We slowed down the rest of the way, held our breath over some rickety wood bridges with no railings and missing pieces before the final assault over the River Miranda and about a two hundred yard long wood bridge which had railings, but also missing pieces and holes! We made it to the other side, jumped the gap between the bridge and the terra firma and made it to the gas station/restaurant/hotel to fill up on $5 a gallon fuel. They were very nice, and in awe of the bikes, taking pictures with their kids in front of the BMW’s, but they also offered to let us keep our bikes there while we trekked into the Pantanal at Fazenda 4 Cantos.
We went back to the crossing and waited with a local man and a woman who were also going with us to work on the farm. A while later, the proprietor of the snack shop called us over and said that Thiago, our contact, had called and said that they were having truck problems and would be 30 to 60 minutes late. So we enjoyed some chips with him and some other locals and discussed the tourists that visit there. Many come from Germany, Australia and New Zealand as well as the rest of the European countries. They said the Israeli’s are the most demanding, although Texans when they are drinking can be tough as well. Another while later, the Ranger from across the street came over and said that Thiago had called him and stated that they would be another hour. Knowing how these country times can go, we decided to drive back to the gas station, organize our stuff, and maybe enjoy a proper restaurant. We told everyone to have Thiago meet us there. Around 3 pm, he did show up. But not before we ate, took a nature walk, bought fishing tackle, saw some birds, explored the river, turned down a beggar and put our bikes in the back shed. Of course, what really made him show up is that we had become so bored that I decided to break our my tools and do some motorcycle work. As soon as I had opened my panniers, unpacked stuff and took tools out of my tool bag they pulled in. Works every time.
After some minor price haggling we headed up the dusty road in the back of an ancient 4 wheel drive diesel truck with rear bench seats into the Pantanal with Carlos our guide, Elton our driver and the two workers. It was not long before the amazing beauty of nature made us forget our troubles and wait eagerly for each new vista of this wild kingdom. The first encounter was with the Pantanal Cayman’s, or "jacare", which are basically miniature crocodiles, although anything that can get 10 feet long and eat cattle really can’t be considered miniature! There are between 10 and 35 million of them here and we saw no shortage of them anywhere there was water.
Over the next few hours we saw the following animals: giant otters, giant anteaters, two of the three types of local deer, water pigs which run in packs and look like hog sized beavers, two types of armadillos, a scurrying rodent, a far away tapir (very rare), wild pigs, thousands of the white cattle they raise here, and horses. It is hard to even fathom how many types of birds we saw, as there are over 650 species here, none of which are familiar to me, and many of them are quite spectacular visually, starting with the flying Toucans which are so perfect and colorful that they don’t seem real. The largest are giant Jaburu storks, the symbol of the Pantanal which have black heads, bright red necks white bodies and are 3 to 4 feet tall. During our time here we would see: two types of egrets; a snake necked comerant ‘anhinga’; woodpeckers; blue, red and yellow macaws, gorgeous pink spoonbills which are very shy; whistling ducks with their distinctive white backs; white herons; noisy parakeets; king vultures eating cattle carcasses; black collared hawks on the banks of the river; black winged stilts; southern screamers with their loud warning calls; and owls.
The sun set between six and seven p.m. with us having more than 5 more hours to travel. The guides decided around 8 p.m. to stop at a local ranch they were friendly with and ask to stay for the night, instead of risking getting stuck in marsh mud in the dark in the backup truck. Old acquaintances were renewed and the hosts gave us two hammocks in one of their two main rooms to sleep in. After checking the toilet for poisonous snakes, we used the combination outhouse/shower to clean up, before enjoying a well wanted delicious meal of fried chicken, rice and salad. It was a welcoming, standard but rudimentary ranch with no electricity or hot water, but a plethora of standard farm animals such as pigs, chickens, dogs and not so usual such as ornery parrots. The cowboys carried real six shooters in the bullet lined belts that held up their chaps, a reminder of the real dangers that exist out here.
We woke at dawn, piled into the truck and headed off, clear blue sky above and more dusty road ahead. We saw more of the same creatures wandering through the Pantanal which is now in the dry season. The plants and trees are all very green, with the occasional pink budded tree. The land is flat and the soil is basically sand. There are times when you will be between palms and trees flapping against the truck on either side and other times you will be in a vast open green grass plain with just two tracks cutting through it and trees off in the distant. The whole area basically floods in the wet season and everywhere there are the remains of that, with marsh areas filled with birds, caimans, frogs, water flora and tiny fish. The area is divided up into ranches called fazendas separated by wire fences that the wildlife can easily pass through but the cows can’t. We constantly stopped and started as we passed through the gates dividing the different ranches and cattle fields.
We arrived at 4 Cantos just before noon and were greeted by Christina and Ramon the owners. The house is beautiful with multiple arches looking over the lake in front, landscaped around the sides with fruit trees, palms, flowers and various farm accessories likes stables, coops and corrals. We had a snack before lunch before heading out on horseback in the afternoon to explore the area. We returned for a delectable dinner of pork, salad, fruits, pudding and more with everything wonderfully fresh. At the table we decided to go Piranha fishing the next day, with Christina being especially excited proclaiming that no one can out fish Christina in the Pantanal, happy to refer to herself in the third person in Portuguese. A full day excursion was planned, and we were so tired that we were in bed well before 9 p.m.
4 Cantos is a working ranch with around 2500 heads of cattle. Ramon Vilauva de Baros is around 86 years old, a native of the Pantanal, and still involved overseeing everything at his ranch which he has had for years. His wife Christina, in her 60’s, is one of those women who loves all things natural and has an exuberance for everything she does and is constantly making herself laugh. She has “adopted” many local animals including a blue macaw with a bum leg (Diana), a Toucan who sometimes brings her family by for an inspection (Pamela), and many dogs. She has a name for all of them, including the latest star of the show “Phillippe”. Phillippe is a giant anteater baby about three months old which the cowboys found next to his dead mother, killed by one of the local big cats probably a puma or jaguar. I’m not sure any human baby has ever received the attention that Phillippe gets from Christina, but he certainly acknowledges and appreciates it, literally jumping up and responding when she calls as he can pick out her voice among the cacophony of animals, workers and farm noises. He is amazingly cute as his soon to be vicious claws wrap around your finger and his super long cylindrical tongue zips out of his snout explores around your hand. She says that when he gets big enough she will let him free but at this point that is hard to imagine, the attention she gives him has the other animals jealous!
The next morning we started off early to get to the river. The truck was loaded up with cooking gear, a bunch of bamboo poles, Ramon and Christina, Elton and Carlos, and Clara and I. Along the hour or so trip to the river we saw more wildlife of course, including a pair of owls that mate in the dirt, and scores of beautiful pink birds _________ which are very shy and hard to get a picture of especially with an inexpensive digital camera.
True to her word, when we arrived at the picturesque banks of the river about 40 yards across with caiman on either side, Christina just about jumped out of the truck to organize the unloading and was first to put a piece of cut up pork on the hook and head to the shore and within a minute she had the first one! She would not let up over the course of the afternoon, and is a one-woman menace to Piranha stocks in Brazil! Luckily for Brazil there does not appear to be any lack of Piranha here that one woman could ever hope to liquidate.
Fishing for Piranha is about as easy as finding liars among big city politicians, and very similar in concept. You put some bait, such as pork, out there and wait about 2 to 13 seconds for them to do whatever it takes to grab it. Just like a politician. They both love pork. The only difference is that with the fish you need a bamboo pole about 6 feet long with an equal length of 30 pound test line tied to the end, attached to a wire leader not much thinner than a clothes hanger and a hook with some bait on the end. Just add water and you’re fishing! The only real problem is whether you can nab them before they’ve nabbed your bait; not to mention the delicate mneuvres needed to remove the hook from their nasty crunching jaws.
We divided up into two teams of 3 in the two communal flatboats on the side of the river and paddled around more for a change in the scenery than because any one spot was better than another. As long as you had bait the fish kept coming. Clara and Christina were the master baiters and each had a haul of big fish. Every time I would catch one tiny fish, Clara would catch two or three bigger ones with her Lucky Pole! I on the other hand lost 3 hooks due to fish biting right through the line, including the one time she let me use her rod! One of the local caiman swam over to investigate and was at first repelled by piranha attacking him. It was then that Carlos informed us that some years ago his grandfather was eaten by piranha while attempting to swim across a river to get to some boats, and this made his grandmother so distraught that she went crazy and sold their farm cow by cow for a pittance to any fool that would offer. The next time I had a fish on my line the caiman came over again and obligingly followed the fish around in the water guided by my pole so that Clara could take some close up photos. We rewarded him with the delicious fish which he snapped out of mid air when thrown past his chompers.
After a couple hours we headed back to shore and a grand meal was prepared. The fish were cleaned and scaled and cut with slits vertically to let the lemon juice marinade seep in. We had plenty of oranges from the garden at home, and fresh cut tomatoes and onions made a nice salad. The fish were fried in a huge cast iron pan over a deadwood fire. Piranha have many bones but the precut slits also allowed the meat to be easily peeled away and eaten. This was all done in a leisurely way, with hammocks finding their way onto trees in the shade and some of us enjoying naptime.
However, after lunch was done Christina was again ready for battle. She took her husband and Elton the paddler back out to the river. No prisoners were to be left alive, as she and her crew started bringing in fish as fast as she could. Clara and I lazily followed her, vowing only to keep the big ones. We caught a couple of Pacou, which appears to be a close relative of the piranha but without all the bones and hence more preferred for eating, and a couple more larger keepers while throwing away a number of tiny ones. Meanwhile, the other boat caught nearly a hundred fish all to be taken back to the ranch and used in various forms to feed the cowboys, in stews, soups and fried.
We cleaned up the site, the boats and ourselves and headed back home from a full day of fishing that exhausted and pleased all of us. We were even rewarded with a sighting of a swamp deer, the largest species here in the Pantanal, on our way home. Dinner was again delicious and bed was a delight to be found before nine.
The next days passed tranquilly as we relaxed and explored. We took a half day horseback ride to try and find a 15 foot anaconda which a cowboy had recently seen devouring a wild pig. Although we didn’t see him, it would be hard to call the trip unsuccessful as more wonderful scenery and wildlife was observed. We helped rustle some cattle, made necklaces of Caymans teeth and plant fiber, and played with baby alligators. We went on a night safari to try and see the elusive pumas and jaguars but ended up catching some foxes in the act, as well as various deer and fowl. Meals were varied, fresh and delicious which we eagerly responded to when called by the clanging dinner bell. Sleep was peaceful and calm, other than the first night when one of the dogs decided to howl for hours in the middle of the night, and ends only when the roosters or calls for breakfast motivate you to vacate the placation. We did our duty to spread the spirit of New Orleans by giving the ladies of the house a pair of glass beaded necklaces from Mardi Gras.
We left the Pantanal today at 3am with a renewed sense of wonder over the beauty of the earth's creatures.