Morning at the Pousada Aguape is memorable. Have you ever heard the dawn chorus in South America?
Sqawking, twittering, cawing, melodic birdsong -- all occur as soon as the sun comes up. The volume is excruciating. It woke me up, and I staggered out the door to see if I could spot the perpetrators. Perched in a couple of trees opposite were a number of birds making cawing noises. As I watched, more arrived, fluttering in from the savannah and flashing off their bright yellow beaks and beady eyes -- toucans! They are exceptionally rare birds in Brazil, and about five of them were perched in the tree above me.
When I reached the open-air dining area, I realised why they were here. Early in the morning, tropical birds congregate, and our waitress and guide were tossing them bread from the kitchen. At one point, we had eight toucans around us, as well as a number of other marsh birds. They hopped onto the tables on their short legs, croaking for attention, their heads turned on their sides so they could see down their long beaks. The toucans would squabble, they would perch on posts next to the kitchen, and one memorable bird had his beak broken. It did not stop him clutching the bread in his beak, tossing it in the air, and then slipping it down his throat. And then looking around with his beady eyes for more food.
We saw even more birds on the escorted walk through the Pantanal one morning. Our guide was called Silvio, a man who lived with his family on the fazenda and was in charge of the activities on the ranch. A Mexican couple, Carlos and Brenda, and I followed him out of the fazenda gate. The immediate area around the ranch houses fields containing horses and zebu (cows). We walked across what was a minefield of cowpats and rutted tracks. Our presence alerted all the creatures in the vicinity by the shrill cries of the predatory hawk, the Caracara.
We immediately saw our first herd of zebu, who stopped whatever they were doing (not much, just chewing the cud) and just stared at us. It was an eerie feeling having about twenty skinny-looking cows watch you as you move across the field. Zebus were introduced to Brazil from the Portuguese colonies in India, because European breeds couldn't survive the tropical climate. There are now just as many zebu as there are people in Brazil (155 million), and they do look faintly Asian. I saw this kind of cow moving along the road in the heat when I was in Rajasthan. This herd vaguely shadowed us, warily watching us, as if they expected us to suddenly burst into a run and start rustling them. But instead, we turned away and walked into the Mataforest.
The forest was exceptionally dry. It was a cycad forest with the trees forming a canopy and the ground littered with brittle dry leaves. These crunched audibly as we marched over them -- and any animal that was in the forest was instantly scared away. This was evident when we spotted two South American foxes, who immediately put as much difference between us as they could. We were to see the same pair on the nocturnal safari later that evening, and they threw glances back at us as they retreated with an ever-graceful trot.
We emerged from the forest on the edge of a large pond. This is all that was left from the wet season four months ago. Desperate jacare (crocodiles) and piranha crowd the pool in what is the only bit of water left. During the night, the earth surrounding the pool had been torn up like a tractor. We asked what did this, and Silvio replied that it was a group of peccaries -- these are vicious, wild pigs that are dangerous to approach -- and their tusks which had done this damage to the ground. We walked around the pond, and apart from a waterbird and chick which fled at our approach, the only signs of life were baby jacare, with their eyes poking up from the water.
Then it was back to the savannah/water meadows and a massive herd of zebus which, to alleviate boredom, had decided to follow us. One or two is fine, but it was truly unnerving to see a wall of cows follow us across the savannah. When we stopped, they stopped. Silvio had to wave his stick at a bull when it got too close. At one point, we hid near a huge termite mound until they lost interest and wandered off. Speaking of termites, one creature I would really like to see is the giant anteater, but they are exceptionally rare. Then back to the forest, and Silvio had to cut our way through with a machete. We made so much noise between us -- either boots crunching on leaves or the thwump of the machete -- that everything must have heard us.
We did have one scare, though; we blundered into a zebu cow just about to give birth. She had hidden herself away in the forest and was making noises, as she was in great pain. Silvio said that they get anxious and aggressive this close to giving birth. Also, watch out for jaguars -- they had lost 28 calves this year to jaguars already. Jaguars wait in the undergrowth for such an easy kill.
As we emerged from the forest, a fazendeiros cowboy rode up on a white horse with sun hat, bristling moustache, and leather boots. He confirmed to Silvio that a jaguar been seen in this vicinity in the last few days. Whenever I get envious of the fazendeiros lifestyle, spending their lives in the saddle, rounding up cattle, I must remind myself of the threat of jaguars. Ho hum...I don't have to worry about that on the London Underground.