Thursday, December 4, 2008

Staff Report - Recce the Festival of Wildlife 2010, Pantanal, Brazil

Brazilian Mission - by Alison Bembridge

The mission : “To recce the Festival of Wildlife 2010, Pantanal, Brazil” (translated to: see, do, learn, take note, explain, organise and experience as much as possible in as short a time frame as will allow)”. This is a mission I had to accept.

Four flights and 30 hours later I arrived in Cuiaba, Mato Grosso, Brazil (obviously not the simple, more direct route that I will take with the clients in 2010!). A short rest and I met my host Andre. He bundled me into his little blue jeep and off we went on the adventure into the wild Pantanal.

Day 1
My initial impression was of the intense and immense heat. Hot, hot, hot, humid and hot! Having come from snowy North Yorkshire it was a shock…luckily the little blue jeep had AC!
Andre and I chat and discuss the ethos and programme of the Festival of Wildlife as we zip through the countryside. We stop a couple of times and exit the little blue jeep to ensure that we remember how hot it is in the real world – but the focus is getting onto the Transpantaneira (the dead-end road into the Pantanal) and Andre’s lodge – Araras Eco Lodge.

Andre is a tall, thin, strong, blue eyed, fair shoulder length haired individual – if you looked around quickly you would swear it was Crocodile Dundee! He even wears a similar hat – and I knew that whatever happened over the next three days it was going to be fun, wild and I was going to experience everything.

December is the beginning of the rainy season – so the landscape is seriously green and the grasses, bushes and trees are sprouting to get the most of the water during this period. The landscape is flat, and horizon can be seen during the breaks in the forest, but the Transpantaneira road is long, red and very straight. Very quickly Andre is pointing out bird after bird after bird. We have to stop every two minutes so that I put the binoculars to my eyes and get the camera out. A Bare-faced Ibis, then a Little-blue Heron, a White-necked Heron, a Jaciru Stock (the emblem of the Pantanal), a Muskovy duck, a Snail Kite, a Southern Lapwing, an Amazon Kingfisher, over flys a Toucan – phew – I’m not sure were to look or how I’m going to be able to take everything in!

We arrive at the lovely Araras Eco Lodge and a cool fresh fruit juice is waiting for me – delicious. I’m refreshed and ready to explore! But first lunch. It’s a hearty affair, taken under the shady area next to the pool (which I later discover contains such beautiful warm water that it’s like a hot tub without the bubbles). The food is good, honest and simple – almost all of it coming from the organic farm associated to the lodge.

In the afternoon I don my hat, suncream, anti-bug juice, grab the bins and the camera and we are off to explore. Andre gives me a grand tour of the lodge and surrounding grounds. We walk a little and I have to quickly get over my fear of Caiman. They do have big teeth and look every bit as irksome as one would expect – but they do (pleasing) slip gracefully into the water as soon as they realise I have my Canon lens ready to shoot at them!

We also cross some of the areas of the lodges numerous hectares in the little blue jeep – which is a jolly good job as I experience a tropical rain shower – ‘shower’ in terms of a heavy, warm power shower, with great big drops making one exceedingly wet exceedingly fast! I’m honoured by Andre’s gentlemanly ways as he insists on opening the gates along the track (being a girl does have good advantages!). One of the gates leads us into the farm, the rain stops for a brief moment and we jump out to look around. It’s then that I realise that the loud, squawking, shouting noise coming from the trees above is none other than about fourteen Hyacinth macaws being rather miffed that we are staring at them. They are every bit as beautiful, blue and large as they are made out to be. Flying in pairs, they soon settle down at the top of a tall tree, with the sun behind them, making my already poor photography skills no match.
However over the following few days, and several more Hyacinth macaw pairs later, I get a photo that is about acceptable!

Dinner and a night drive later I can scribble another 20 birds on my growing list, as well as a Crab-eating Fox, a Crab-eating Racoon, a Great Black Hawk eating a crab, a few dozen caiman and a few hundred mosquitoes.

I download onto my laptop my 250 photos and fall into a deep sleep with the cacophony in my ears of frogs and insects enjoying the night outside my room.

Day 2
What feels like 2 minutes later is in fact 6am and Andre is rapping on my door excitedly telling me that I just have to get up and see the stunning sunrise. (We had arranged a 6.30am start, but it seems Andre is an early, early riser!).

Today we are to bounce in the little blue jeep 140 km south along the Transpantaneira to Porte Jofre for me to look at the hotel there and spend some hours looking for Jaguar. My eyes are peeled to the trees, grasslands and shores. My binoculars are up and down and the camera is on overdrive. The river is a muddy red colour and the shores are a combination of grasslands, forest and small sandy beaches. It’s all so beautiful and the wildlife is all around. I feel that this is their home, and I am just a passing guest.

We stop for lunch on the river bank – and who do we see in the tree above us?… adorable porcupine. Our guide in this area is a local man called Eduardo from the nearby Jaguar Ecological Lodge. He travels on the river on the look out for Jaguar about five times a week and has not seen a porcupine in over three years.

We also see a very brave little Agouti crossing the river Cuiaba. A manoeuvre of great risk for such a small mammal, with the strong current and the jaw snapping caiman!

The six river otters playing happily infront of me have been a highlight of the day, along with the amusing flying fish which flew directly into the boat and the Green Kingfisher scooping a fish just ten feet away.

At 5pm we have to head back, which is unfortunate as the Jaguar has not come to say hello to me yet. However, during September, it is much drier and the probability of seeing this elusive and magnificent cat increases ten fold when the lush green grass (that I have so praised) is not in the line of sight!
The journey back along the Transpantaneira brings me to my bed by midnight.

Day 3
After the intense day yesterday I opt to catch up on notes, planning and discussion meetings with Andre this morning and then a short horse ride in the afternoon.
My peaceful horseride turned into more than I bargained for though – and I won’t go into detail but it involved the horse, me, bees and a whole heap of adrenaline!

Day 4

Calm restored this morning, Andre and his lovely wife Akhila take me on a beautiful sunrise walk. The dawn chorus is in full swing when we glimpse the Tapir padding softly into the undergrowth. We also see a snake speedily crossing the path through the forest.

We have breakfast at the lodge annex 3 km from the main lodge and then the little blue jeep shows it’s 4x4 capabilities (heaps of muddy water splashing and sideways motion over the water logged track – great fun!) as we go to investigate where the canoes are launched from. On arrival at the river we are gifted with a heron having freshly caught its lunch…magical.

We then have to return to the lodge, have a final planning meeting before I am taken to Cuiaba for my flight back to Rio.

I’ve certainly had an adventure during my three days in the Pantanal. The Festival of Wildlife 2010 is going to be unique, spending six days exploring a tiny (but wildlife packed) part of the planet’s largest wetlands. I’m so excited about it!
September will be drier, less humid and the wildlife more concentrated than my experience – which stuns me…because how much better can it get?

For further information and how to book on the Festival of Wildlife 2010 please click here,