South-eastern Brazil is densely populated and can be quite claustrophobic so I’m very happy to find myself, 900 kilometres (560miles) north-west of Blumenau, on the final approach to a tiny bush airport in the Pantanal, the largest wetland on earth and one of Brazil’s emptiest places. It’s part of the enormous and equally empty Mato Grosso region, where the intrepid English explorer Percy Fawcett was last seen, and at whose northern end is the Xingu River system, home of the Wauja. Mato Grosso, meaning ‘thick forest’, is a better description of the North than of the state we’re flying over now, Mato Grosso do Sul, in whose capital Campo Grande we spent last night. Much of the forest here has been cleared for cattle and soya production and much of it is confined to the dark green, geometric blocks we can see below us, or replaced altogether by fast-growing eucalyptus.
This is frontier country; the borders of Paraguay and Bolivia are only a couple of hundred kilometres (125 miles) to the west. It’s also the watershed of two great river systems. One flows north to the Amazon, the other south, via the Paraguai and the Paraná, down to the Rio de la Plata, the River Plate. It’s still early and as our single-engined Cessna flies west and north from Campo Grande, the great red sandstone rock-stacks and bluffs of the Planalto, the high plateau, look spectacular as the morning sun hits them. Soon they give way to a much flatter, very green landscape, with herds of cattle clustered below us, tiny as white maggots. The grassland becomes yellowy green and marshy. There are fewer cattle and more of the shallow brackish lagoons they call salinas.
Just before half past eight we touch down on a bumpy grass runway at a fazenda, a farm, called Barra Mansa. It’s an isolated estate that supplements its income by taking in a handful of visitors and giving them the Pantanal experience. In a happy coincidence the farm is run by the Rondon family, direct descendants of the great Brazilian explorer, Colonel Candido Rondon, who mapped and explored the Roraima border area where my journey began many months ago.
It is his great-grandson, Guilherme Rondon, a big, friendly man, who steps forward to greet us, along with his son Daniel and his daughter-in-law Pollianna, a lively, energetic blonde who runs the tourist side of the business. Her husband Daniel, who runs the farm itself, is taking our plane back to Campo Grande on business. The first thing I notice after two weeks in the deep South is just how hot it is here. The sun is strong and hats obligatory. As she leads us from the plane to the four-square red-roofed house where we shall be staying, she spreads her arm wide across what looks a healthily verdant landscape, and grimaces.
‘We’re having a very dry year, very different from last year. Between December and June we should get a flood, but not this year.’
I ask how much of a problem this might be.
‘When the dry season comes in July, the grass, the pasture, will already be dry. The water in the field will evaporate and we won’t have enough for the cattle, the horses and the wildlife.’
Farms are now having to dig down for water, or make artificial watering places. There’s a very strong and proud Pantaneiro culture here and Pollianna and the Rondons are very keen that we should see it and understand what makes it unique. First of all, Pollianna has arranged for me to see the property the way it should be seen, on horseback. This is a cowboy culture.
‘Gauchos?’ She shakes her head. ‘We have some influence from the gauchos, but they were from the South, and up here the gaucho culture became the Pantanal culture because we had to adapt to the heat. There’s no way to dress like the gauchos, no way to have the same habits as them. Because down there is cold, and up here it’s hot.’
Before I can even mount the horse I’m shown the intricate preparations by three cowboys, or peões, as they call them in the Pantanal. Their names are Alex, Carlos and a much older man, rather splendidly called Vespasiano. Alex shows me the four layers of blanket and other covers that go on the horse’s back before the saddle’s even fitted. This is to make it as comfortable as possible for cowboys, who sometimes can be in the saddle for a hundred days collecting the cattle and moving them many miles to market. Pollianna remembers seeing runs of over 2,000 cattle being moved across country.
Whilst Vespa struggles to blow some sound from an enormous coiled horn, which I presume was some kind of pre-mobile phone cowboy communication, Alex trots out ahead of me keeping half an eye on me and half an eye on the hundred or so head of cattle which are his real responsibility. I’ve just begun to get the measure of my horse, Cambalo, when there’s a sudden commotion up ahead. One of the cows breaks from the herd and races towards us, baying loudly. Carlos moves fast to head her off, but even my docile mount has reared back.
What’s happened is that keen-eyed Alex has spied a hobbling calf and Vespa has lassoed it and taken it out of the herd for examination. Alex, holding the calf down with his knee, finds claw marks in its side which have been inflicted by a jaguar. Whilst the mother is held at bay, Alex squeezes pus from the wound and then sprays it with anaesthetic. In the days before chemicals, he tells me, they would have used dried cow dung to protect the wound. With the calf returned to its mother, we press on.
The morning sun is high and bright by now and I’m glad when Alex leads us on into a marsh-fringed lagoon to enable the horses to cool off. I get to drink too, a draught of tenere, cowboy tea, which can be made without getting out of the saddle. Mate, the dried and powdered leaves of the yerba plant, are dropped into a hollowed-out cow’s horn about a metre long, decorated with a finely carved twisting motif. This is then lowered into the water on a length of rope. When it’s filled up it’s withdrawn and the tea drunk from a silver pipe that runs, like a straw, down the side of the horn. The cool water is refreshing and the mate gives the system a caffeine-like hit. Which is very welcome as we now move on to the herding of the cattle, the most demanding part of my morning as a cowboy, as the heat builds up and the dust from hundreds of hoofs swirls around.
In late afternoon, with the sun less brutal and the light less harsh, we climb onto boats on the Rio Negro and set off upriver to see the wildlife. The birds are particularly rich. The Pantanal, the size of Belgium and Holland combined, stretches 950 kilometres (590 miles) north to south, through Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, making it twenty times larger than that much more famous wetland, the Everglades in Florida, and offers extensive, protected habitats. Even before we get to the boats I’ve spied the pygmy owl, or burrowing owl, a delightful little bird, standing on guard at the rim of a hole, and every now and then upending itself and sending a small cloud of dust flying out of the hole. Out on the river there are black hawks following our progress with interest as well as lapwings, herons and egrets along the banks and the elegantly beautiful yellow-headed caracara, perched up on the stump of an old tree. Occasionally we’ll get a glimpse of a huge bird, the jabiru, or ‘swollen neck’, so called for the red collar at the base of its neck. It’s the world’s biggest stork and the adopted symbol of the Pantanal.
Mammals 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.