Pantanal Stories and Tips

A trip down the piranha-filled Rio Paragui - taking a motor canoe upriver

giant anteater Photo, Pantanal, Brazil

"A giant anteater! A giant anteater!"

I was relaxing in my room when the cry was heard. I immediately got up, grabbed the camera, and sprinted to where the noise was coming from. Just beyond the swimming pool is the start of the horse paddocks, and within easy distance of the pousada was a taratura (giant anteater -- see photo): the one animal, apart from the jaguar, that I had set my heart on seeing in the Pantanal.

It shuffled along, sniffing the ground, trying to see if the ant or termite nests were still in the place it remembered. Silvio opened the gate to the paddock, allowing us entry, and we slowly crept as close as we could (30 feet) without spooking it. It was an extraordinary-looking creature; on first glance, you didn't know which part was the head and which was the body. Then its elongated head became apparent, along with its long, rolling, grey-haired body, ending in a bushy tail, while its claws tore at the green earth. A horse whinnied a greeting and walked over to the creature. The anteater wasn't perturbed but continued to paw the ground. Only when the horse nudged it with its head did it shuffle away...

A few hours later was a river trip in a motor canoe. At the back of the pousada, past the stables, is one of the hundreds of tributaries of the Rio Paragui. At this point, it is quite wide, about 70 feet across, and is lined by jungle. During the wet season, the river bursts its banks and floods the fields around the pousada. The zebus (cows) and horses are forced to retreat to the higher ground, and grazing becomes very scarce. During the dry season, as it is now, the river shrinks but still remains moderately deep and fast-flowing. Its brown waters are one of the few water sources around here, and its banks are filled with creatures. Its depths are, too, with not only the ubiquitous jacare but anacondas and the most dangerous of the piranha family -- the black-bellied piranha.

It was the piranhas which worried me as I strapped on my lifejacket. I just hated the idea of them swimming in the water below me as we cruised along the river. I asked about them and was told they were harmless. The pousada does "piranha fishing," so Silvio announced that "you are more likely to eat them then they are to eat you..." But still, I didn't want to take any chances; I've seen "You Only Live Twice," and that morning, I didn't shave and made sure I didn't have any cuts in case I fell into the water. The boat itself was sturdy and a reasonable size. Silvio took the tiller/motor, and Carlos, Brenda, and I seated ourselves on the benches. It was with a roar of the diesel engine that we spun about and headed upriver.

We settled back as the jungle swished past. There is something melodic about jungle river travel -- the motion of the boat, the ever-present green, and the buzz of the motorboat lull you into a catatonic state. Once every few minutes, Silvio would shout a name in Portuguese, and you would scan the undergrowth or water. Whether you see it or not (and his eyes were better then mine), he would spin the motorboard around and head further upriver. There was plenty of life, including the usual birds and jacare(small crocodiles) which slid into the river at our approach. But after ten minutes, we struck gold!

Silvio slowed the motorboat and pointed at tree roots sticking out of the water. A face popped up, hissed at us, and then submerged again. Giant river otters! Exceptionally rare and elusive endangered creatures, and we had found a married pair! The boat was positioned for a better view, but it was clear that the pair had submerged. They appeared again twenty feet away! They hissed a warning with their little brown heads bobbing in the current -- and then they were gone. We chased them up and down the river bank for twenty minutes, occasionally getting a glimpse of head or tail amongst the roots of trees. When we finally gave up, I began to feel sorry for them being harassed and didn't mind moving on. Around the next bend, however, were local fishermen who were best avoided. The fishermen can be very territorial and aggressive in this part of the Matto Grosso.

As the afternoon wore on, the sun began to set on the river (see photo) and a group of noisy roosting howler monkeys caught our eye. The tell-tale signs of moving branches gave them away, and I could just see them against the setting sun. The river took on an ethereal quality at sunset. The light changed, and the current swept us back downriver to our starting place. Time to just sit back and savour the moment....

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