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Brazil

Day 72: The Pantanal

 
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A business-like capybara trots along the riverbank.
Michael Palin - BrazilMammals are less diverse and spectacular. As Pollianna says with an apologetic grin, 'We have very small big game here.'

Jaguar are the most sought after of the Pantanal game, but they're famously discreet and seeing the claw marks on the calf this morning is probably the nearest I'll get to one. Reptiles are well represented by an abundance of alligators, or caiman as they're called here, but they're hardly exciting. Most of the time they sit motionless on the bank, often with their jaws wide open. This, I'm told, is part of their metabolism. Occasionally one of these long, scaly creatures, which can grow to nine metres long, will stir itself to slither into the water, where it continues to do nothing but look sinister, with only the eyes and the protruding bridge of the forehead breaking the surface.

For bank-side action we have to rely on the occasional sighting of a capybara, whose only claim to fame is that it's the biggest rodent in the world, weighing up to seventy kilograms. And it's a rodent with webbed feet. If they're nervous, and they generally seem to be, they slip into the river, where they can remain hidden underwater for up to ten minutes. I ask my guide why they should be frightened in such a safe environment. The answer of course is that until recently they, and the caiman, were hunted for their skin. Now, with money available to pay for policing, poaching has greatly decreased.

An hour or so up this peaceful river, my guide Juan pulls into the side for me to do some hunting of my own. Piranha-hunting. It's not too complicated, just a stick with a line on the end. Juan baits the hook with a morsel of shrimp, and shows me where to drop it and what to do when I feel the tug of a fish. Again and again I steady myself in the bobbing boat, flinging the line out with repeated lack of success and feeling myself more and more like the old definition of a fisherman, 'A jerk on one end of the line waiting for a jerk on the other'. I do manage to hoist one of them clear, but with such force that it whips out of the water and thwacks the long-suffering Juan on the side of the head before bouncing back into the river. Encouraged nevertheless by at least seeing a fish, I bring the next bite in more gently, and suddenly there it is dangling above the tea-brown water, a fat, silvery body with an orange underbelly and lots of pointy teeth. My first, and almost certainly last, piranha.

I'm afraid to say we don't put it back to continue its happy life terrifying tourists. Instead we do the next best thing, which is to make it into sashimi. Juan skilfully beheads and guts the fish and whilst he attends to the slicing with meticulous care, he leaves it to me to dispose of the piranha debris. I spot a caiman, who until now has been watching this whole pantomime without the slightest blink of interest. But when I toss the fish bits into the river he moves like a shot, opening his jaws and catching the remains before they've even hit the water. Finally, I have seen something terrifying.

The piranha sashimi goes down well and, leaving the black hawks to clean up whatever's left, we turn and head back down the river. As the light fades, Juan ups the speed to full throttle and we swing and curve round the corners, sending waves in a multi-coloured fan across the lacquered surface of the water. Above us a quite sensational sunset is being fashioned out of majestic clouds and red-gold bands of sinking sunlight. I can feel insects pepper my face as if I'm in a dust storm.

In the evening, as a distant thunderstorm flashes on the eastern horizon, Pollianna and Guilherme light a fire in the garden of the house and Guilherme sings folk songs he's written and recorded. They're soft and thoughtful and perfect for this quiet, starry, peaceful night. Pollianna is pleased that we are happy here. She makes much of the spiritual benefits of being surrounded by nature, but she's also practical and realistic about the disadvantages. Like the termites that eat away at the foundations of the houses, which have to be virtually rebuilt every fifteen years, the rodents who get at the food, and the bats that have to be treated with repellent every two weeks. Nothing, I'm glad to say, that stops me sleeping soundly.
 
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Caimans prefer to sit in the sun.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 72: The Pantanal
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: The Pantanal
  • Book page no: 304

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