Jaguars, ocelots, capybaras, giant river otters, the great potoo, hyacinth macaws, anteaters...If you can do without hot water and decent food for a couple of weeks, the Pantanal is for you!
I've just come back from a two-week photographic safari to the Pantanla in Brazil with Naturetrek. I love taking pictures of predators, but I was running out. I'd seen lions, leopards, cheetahs, tigers, grizzly bears and polar bears, and the only major one left was the jaguar. Until this trip, the closest I'd come to one was driving around in my E-type, but that was a long time ago...
The trip was geared to the needs of photographers, and there were five guests led by a tour leader and local guide. The leader was a professional wildlife photographer called Andy Skillen, and he was an excellent choice. He was very patient and helpful in giving advice to all of us and was generally very good company with a great sense of humour. The guide was a local man called Paulo Ribeiro, and his knowledge of the local bird life in particular was exceptional...although he did have a guidebook in his back pocket for most of the trip!
We flew to Cuiabá via São Paulo and then drove in a minibus followed by a rickety old truck with open sides to our first port of call: the SouthWild Pantanal Lodge in Pocone. On the way, I stopped to buy a very important present. I have a tradition of buying cuddly toys for the young daughter of a friend of mine, and there weren't going to be any tourist shops in the middle of the wetlands, so I got her a hyacinth macaw while I had the chance! We spent a couple of nights at the lodge, followed by six nights at a 'flotel' - or floating hotel - and finally two nights at Pouso Alegre.
SouthWild Pantanal Lodge
Getting to the Pantanal takes a long, long, long time, so this particular stop was mostly there to break up the journey. However, we did get the chance to go up a rickety metal tower to see three juvenile jabiru in their nest, and we took a trip later on in something that was more Formula One car than boat. If Ayrton Senna had been a photographer, this would have been his vehicle of choice. It was a long, flat-bottomed shallow metal craft containing six individual swivel seats with built-in tripods that spun around with you, so I felt like Luke Skywalker shooting down TIE fighters from the Millennium Falcon. I'd also hired an 800mm lens for the trip that weighed 10lbs, so this was a godsend...
The boat trip was mostly noteworthy for the three toilet breaks I had to take - I think the local food and water had begun to have an effect on me! However, Paulo did throw fish into the water for us to take pictures of birds grabbing the bait. Andy had given us a talk on how to do it and what kind of shots we could get, but I was utterly useless. Every bird was blurred - even at 1/1000 of a second! We also saw a few giant river otters fishing in the river, but I thought they were just noisier and uglier cousins of Midge in Ring of Bright Water, so I wasn't too excited.
At one point, we made a landing to see one of the most extraordinary birds on the planet. The great potoo is almost impossible to spot, because it hardly ever moves during daylight hours, and it looks just like a twig! When it was pointed out to me, I couldn't believe it was a bird, but a gust of wind ruffled a couple of feathers, and I was converted. If I had to come up with a list of the top three most stationary animals, it would be:
- Great potoo
- Marine iguana
When I'm under pressure to get a shot, I sometimes panic and forget everything I know about photography, so taking pictures of animals that never seem to move is a real luxury!
After the boat ride, we walked a few yards from the lodge to see a great horned owl perched high up in a tree - and I used my 800mm for the first time! It's brutally heavy and impossible to handhold, so I used it with a monopod, and I was very impressed. The extra range is hugely important for bird photography, and the images were tack-sharp. I normally fine-tune the auto-focus on all my lenses, but this one only arrived from Lenses For Hire the day before my trip, so I was glad that the default settings were correct. My other lens was only an 80-400mm, so I relied on it more and more during the trip. And it cost £750 to hire it for two weeks, so I was determined to get my money's worth!
Before sunset, we went on a game drive in the truck. We saw a marsh deer and a few capybara, but that was about it. Brazil isn't a very good place to see the 'megafauna'. In Africa, you'll never go more than a few minutes without seeing a zebra, an impala or a giraffe, but the Pantanal is only a paradise for birdwatchers. Paulo called out the species we saw throughout the trip, but his enthusiasm was sometimes confusing. At one point, he got particularly excited about a bird in the trees...
Me: What was that, Andy?
Andy: A black-fronted nun bird.
Me: And why are we so excited?
Andy (mouthing the words): I don't know...
Having said all that, one of my favourite sightings on the trip was of a bird. I'd never seen a tiger heron before, and it's a beautiful bird. At one point, it was putting on the most extraordinary display, which provided me with one of my favourite pictures.
Later on at the lodge, Paulo gave away the 'surprise' activity he had planned, which was to go and watch an ocelot in the dark from a hide. I'd never been in a hide before or seen an ocelot. (In fact, I wasn't absolutely sure what an ocelot was. I knew what an avocet was, but that wasn't very helpful!) When we arrived at the hide, there were a couple of people sitting in our seats, and it was raining. Never mind. We coped with the double booking, took our seats and waited for the show to start. The other photographers had already set up their flash guns on long poles, but I hadn't been told I'd need one, so I had to guess my settings. It was very dark, and even the light from the single lamp above the dead log wasn't enough for my poor Nikon. First of all, a man came along to bait the trap, as it were, by putting food on a shelf nailed on to the far side of the log. Nobody talked. We just waited. After about ten minutes playing Scrabble on my iPhone (!) and a false alarm when a caracara showed up, an ocelot actually appeared at the edge of the trees. It was a small cat with markings a bit like a leopard, and it was very skittish. Before I had chance to focus my lens or compose the shot, it dashed up the tree, grabbed the bait and ran off!
It was very exciting, but it did present a few - ahem! - problems to the photographer. If I'd used my normal daylight settings, I would've used f/5.6 and 1/400 with automatic ISO, but there was so little light that the ISO was already up to 12,800 before I'd even started! I could either slow down the shutter speed or treat the ocelot like a firework display, leaving it on 'bulb' mode and hoping that someone's flash would go off at just the right time. I experimented with all kinds of settings during the next couple of hours and came away with a couple of half-decent shots, just more by luck than judgment. When a flash gun happens to coincide with a 1/13 exposure, you know the Almighty is watching...
The main problem with our days in Pocone was the weather. It's not often that you fly to Brazil and end up colder than you were in London! The dining room didn't help, either, as it had 'windows' made of mesh rather than glass, so it wasn't much more than a wind tunnel. After we drove to Porto Jofre and took the boat to the Flotel, the dining room felt like a sauna by comparison. Andy laughed when I said, "I must say, it's nice to be eating indoors for a change."
Our stay in the Flotel was our one and only chance to see the jaguar, so we went on boat trips every day, once for nearly 12 hours non-stop! On the first boat ride, we didn't see any jaguars, but the next day our luck changed. I lost track of the number of jaguars we saw, but Paulo made a note of everything and sent me the file. Overall, we had 16 sightings and saw seven individual jaguars: Geoff, Estela, Peter Schmidt, Marley, Mick Jaguar and Ruth.
Our daily routine for that middle week consisted of a buffet breakfast, one or two boat trips, a round of caipirinhas and then a buffet dinner, followed sometimes by a slideshow given by one of the guests. I did my turn on the second evening, and Andy was complimentary about my shots. Or just diplomatic. Or both.
Jaguar hunt up and down the banks of the Cuiabá and Piquiri rivers in the Pantanal, so you get great views from the water. I must admit the first sighting was not quite as much of a rush as I thought it would be, but that was mostly because I had too much to think about in terms of my settings and the rather rickety tripod. The guides let all the other boats know when they have a sighting, so it's not uncommon for a dozen boats to raft up 25 yards off the bank. They try to keep track of individual jaguars, too, so the prize for spotting the new jaguar in town is the right to give it a name. That's why we saw animals called 'Peter Schmidt', Marley and even - inevitably - 'Mick Jaguar'. I suppose there must be a jaguar called Kevin somewhere, too...
it was very frustrating a couple of times when our driver positioned the boat a long way away from the bank. On one occasion, a jaguar was diving into the water after a series of caiman, but we were 70 yards away! If I'd missed my first kill because of that, I would've been apoplectic! Instead, I talked to Andy and Paulo to try and understand the rules. They said we had to be at least 25 metres away from the jaguar and that it was first come-first served when it came to positioning the boats, but I wasn't convinced. Fortunately, my little rant had its effect, and we ended up much closer after that. Thank you, Paulo.
The first highlight of the jaguar-watching was when we heard over the radio that one of the jaguars (Marley) had caught a caiman. We'd just been watching him, and we might've seen the actual catch if we hadn't left to find a shady spot to have lunch, but the next 30 minutes were great. Jaguars generally kill caiman by biting them on the back of the head, but Marley was only two years old and din't really know what he was doing. He'd grabbed the caiman by the throat, but it was still alive. A lion would have suffocated it, but Marley was a jaguar, so he somehow had to change his grip to kill it, and that took him about 10 minutes. Jaguars also don't eat all their prey immediately, so we watched as Marley desperately tried to drag an eight-foot caiman up a steep river bank through a tangle of undergrowth. What would his mother have said?! When he finally succeeded, after two exhausting attempts, everyone on the boats have him a round of applause!
The other highlight came when we couldn't see anything at all. We spent a couple of hours one day just driving around the waterways making a futile search for jaguar, but I was happier than I'd ever been...at least since Stevie G scored the third goal against Olympiakos to put Liverpool through to the 2005 Champions League final. I just had a moment. That's all I can say. I was sitting in the bows of the boat with a camera in my hand as we motored along at 25 knots, listening to In Between Days by the Cure at full volume on my iPhone, and I was laughing with joy!
One other 'sighting' I should mention was Paul Goldstein. I went on a Svalbard trip with him last year to see the polar bears, and we bumped into him on one of the boats on the river. He came across and had a quick chat with me and another couple who knew him.
When we finally left the Flotel, it was a slight anti-climax, as we wouldn't any jaguars in Pouso Alegre, but I have happy memories of those boat rides. There were a few times when we didn't see anything, the scenery was rather flat and uninspiring and the cold weather over the first couple of days made me feel like I was back in the Arctic, but we had a lot of great sightings, and there was good cameraderie on board, particularly with Andy. I was chatting to him at one point, and the flapping of my camera cover in the wind sounded like a Huey chopper. I felt like we were in the Mekong delta filming Good Morning Vietnam, so I couldn't resist playing him Nowhere to Run by Martha and the Vandellas...
To get to Pouso Alegre, we took a boat to Porto Jofre and then had to drive for a couple of hours in old truck to the lodge where we would spend our last two nights. The journey wasn't a complete loss, though, as we saw our first hyacinth macaw and a toco toucan in great early morning light.
We arrived at midday, had lunch and then went out on a drive to try and find an anteater. Jaguars are the iconic animals in this part of the world, but the 'real-life Womble' (in Andy's words) is much rarer, so everyone was thrilled when we drove up to a hide and saw a giant anteater loping along towards the water hole. Unfortunately, the noise made by lowering the steps on the truck drove him away, but he came back an hour later and gave us quite a show. Paulo also gave us a few fun facts about anteaters. Did you know anteaters can eat up to 30,000 ants a day? Or that the anteater's tail is as long as its body? I hope not.
On the drive back to the lodge, we heard that a giant anteater with a baby on her back had turned up in one of the fields, so we hurried home and ran out the back. It was very dark by now, but someone had a torch, and the animal was coming straight for us. Anteaters are fortunately as blind as bats, so it got as close as six feet before eventually wandering off. Andy showed me a great close-up of the baby on its mother's back, but I had my usual panic attack and forgot to unlock the zoom on my lens! One of the other guests made an even worse mistake, though: he forgot he'd put a sock over his lens to protect it from dust and didn't manage to take a single shot!
The anteater sightings continued when we went for a walk the next day and saw a baby lesser anteater in the middle of a palm tree. It was very tricky to see with all the palm fronds, but cute sells, so I did my best...
On our final afternoon, we went on another game drive and experienced a miracle. Paulo had somehow lost his phone and couldn't find it wherever he (and we) looked. It was switched off, so he couldn't call it, and he was all for giving up until Russell persuaded him to give it one more go. We stopped to watch a snowy egret and - miracle of miracles! - Paulo heard his alarm going off and managed to find his phone not ten yards away! He later turned water into wine, etc, etc...
Andy provided a suitable send-off for us all by reading us a funny poem he'd been composing during the trip. If it ever sees the light of day again, I'll publish it here - even though nobody who wasn't on the trip would get the jokes!
There were two final 'experimental' exercises for us to do as photographers. That night, Andy took us out to take abstract photos of caiman eye trails lit by torchlight. It wasn't a success. The next morning, we got up early to take pictures at sunrise. It wasn't a success. I tried taking slow pan shots of the skimmers dipping their beaks in the water to catch fish. That wasn't a success either. The last pictures I took were of a flock of toucans at feeding time after breakfast. And that actually was a success.
When we made it to the airport, there was one final surprise waiting for us: some bright spark had managed to book the wrong flights, so we had to faff about for a couple of hours and buy new tickets ourselves! Not a great ending to the trip, and Rob swears he'll never book anything with Naturetrek again, but, for me, it didn't spoil what was a great experience overall. We had an outstanding tour leader, a good bunch of people and some great sightings of the last great predator on my list. What's not to like?
Greater fishing bat
Giant river otter
South American coati
Black howler monkey
Black-capped Capuchin monkey
Lesser fishing bat
Common (green) iguana
Common Tegu lizard
Little blue heron
White-necked (cocoi) heron
Black-crowned night heron
Rufescent tiger heron
Bare-faced (whispering) ibis
Lesser yellow-headed vulture
Great black hawk
Southern crested caracara
Blue-throated piping guan
Grey-necked wood rail
Ruddy ground dove
Picui ground dove
Great horned owl
Southern rough-winged swallow