As always, our adventures for 2013 began with many hours of research on potential river destinations. This year, that was in Peru and Argentina. However amongst what we learned of those countries, we came across an area known as the Pantanal. This is an immense floodplain within the borders of Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. Estimates put the size of this wetland area at roughly twice the size of Ireland. This vast alluvial plain floods during the southern summer rains from December to May and then slowly drains over the winter months. Pantanal is a Portugese word for swamp. As such, and considering it's size, it has been wisely decided that building a road through this area would be too expensive. Pavement still has not penetrated the Pantanal. Therefore it has, arguably, the densest concentration and largest variety of birds, reptiles and other animal life than anywhere on our planet! It also has a variety of flat water rivers lined with gallery forest which drain these lowlands. As well, these rivers all have an urban center on them of differing sizes with handy transportation connections. This region was hitting all the right notes so we came up with a plan for a 4-5 week paddle through this wildlife mecca.
Plane tickets to Rondonopolis, Brazil via Sao Paulo brought us to our put-in on the Rio Vermelho. So far so good. Now we needed to get those items we couldn't transport, namely perishable foods, fuel and a stove. Finding a supermarket wasn't hard and despite not having our accustomed choices we thought we could manage with what was there. Finding a camp stove appeared to be a tougher task. The main streets were lined with clothing stores, pharmacies and home appliance outlets with blaring stereos. A larger modern-looking building selling farm goods looked promising so we approached a salesman there to inquire in our best Portugese version of charades. The store manager overheard our sign language and we were asked to "follow me please". At his desk he introduced himself and Hoffmam became our volunteer guide. He made some phone calls around town for a campstove for us and we headed out in his 1982 VW beetle for our purchase. The following evening we were pleased to have such a generous young man and his lovely wive, Raffaela, for dinner at our hotel.
Our first view of the Rio Vermelho couldn't have been better. Here we found an easy entry point and a very placid pace to the river.
A taxi brought us and our gear right to the top of the stairs just above me and despite the biting midges in the grass, I'm thinking this trip is starting out ideally. We were paddling by around 10:00 on the morning of Sat. Aug.31. The no-seeums or midges or whatever followed us and we nodded and waved to the occasional fisherman as Rondonopolis drifted away behind us. We passed a couple of monkey troops and many colourful birds and it was apparent right away that we were close to nature. The chickadee-sized yellow-billed cardinals were especially abundant. About an hour after our start we passed the outlet for the city sewage treatment plant. The smell followed us for a few kilometers. The clouds of biting insects continued for the remainder of the day. At this point it became obvious to us why the locals were all dressing in long pants and shirts! We pulled out our long-sleeved shirts, Diana changed into her long pants and I regretted my decision to not bring a pair of long pants. The afternoon was torturous as the insects were relentless and I admitted that if this continued, we would not. As we put into shore for our first camp, Diana suggested to cut the legs off my old pair of calf-lengthed shorts and sewing them onto the bottom of my other paddling shorts. She did so right away and this brilliant idea solved the long pants issue. The following photo is of our first camp.
While we were in Rondonopolis we bought a couple of large sun hats from Hoffmam. These hats were recognized by a fellow fishing on the riverside and he called out, pointing to our hats and saying that Hoffmam was his amigo. At least we got the words Hoffmam and amigo. We repied that Hoffmam was our amigo too, smiled and waved and marveled at this coincidence.
Everytime it was possible to reach the river by some dirt track we found rough fish camps with floating docks. Sometimes these were decked out with umbrellas and deck chairs. It seems that fishing is a family pastime as we saw generations of families together enjoying the river. Mostly these seemed to be middleclass families as it required a car to get to the river.
Monkey troops, toucans and parrots along with lots of songbirds entertained us as we paddled. Around one curve we past by this jabiru. These stork-like birds stand over a meter and a half tall. Their feet are larger than mine!
About midday on day 3 the Rio Vemelho emptied into the Rio Sao Lorenzo. We were glad to see this river as it was flowing clearer and stronger than the Rio Vermelho. We stopped here for a swim in the cleaner water. It continued to heat up in the afternoon and we camped again at 14:00 with around 60 kms. paddled so far. With dinner done we crawled into our tent as the sun set and listened to the night sounds and the odd motor boat returning to their camp after a day of fishing.
The large, clean, high sandbanks continued. Stopping for a swim or lunch break or a camp set up was no problem at all. This next camp was just too nice to pass so we stopped early and passed the remainder of the day relaxing out of the sun. During the afternoon a Brazilian tapir walked out of the brush behind our camp and walked to the river. After having it's cooling dip it ambled off into the bush once more. Wow!
A rhythm to the day was evolving and we felt more relaxed each day.
Constant companions on the sandbanks were the black skimmers. As it was spring, the birds were raising their hatchlings and the skimmers were understandably protective of them. It was difficult to imagine how a young chick could mature to adulthood considering the pathetic depression in the sand that was their nest. Somehow it must be working as evidenced by the numbers of adult skimmers. We always tried to set up our camps as far away from their colonies as possible.
Most of the caiman were very shy. A large one at our next camp did not want to share his preferred sandbank. We heard him splashing in the water in front of our camp all night long while he fished. It had to be about 2 meters long.
Catching our first look at a family of capybara was a real thrill.
This species must be good eating because they are very cautious. Their eyesight seemed to be quite poor. As we floated by they would freeze and try to figure out where our sound was coming from. The moment they identified our direction they bolted for the water or bush, whichever was closest. They are very good swimmers and can disappear under the water for long periods. Quite surprising for a hoofed creature. The way they dive head first from taller river banks is comical. They throw themselves very powerfully head first very much like a dive or head first cannonball. They don't hit the water with their legs first as a dog would. It would be very unfortunate to startle a capybara on a bank above you as they can be a meter in height and weigh up to 75kgs. None the less, they are very cute and we loved seeing this new species in the wild.
Anywhere from 100 meters to 2 kms. from the river banks the forest was cleared for cattle ranching wherever there was higher ground. These were vast acreages many square kilometers in size. Something like 8 million head of cattle are raised in the region.
The pananal is also home to the largest concentration of jaguars in the world. Besides habitat loss the jaguars are also at risk of being shot by ranchers protecting their livestock. One morning we paddled by this dead jaguar in the river.
The workers on the ranches dwelt in small villages on the river and we began to see and meet a few of them as they sat on the banks fishing.
As with everyone we had met so far in Brazil, they were very friendly and always tried to invite us to stop and have a meal with them. We made our excuses as best we could and continued on our way.
I had printed a set of copied satellite images of the Pantanal to use as maps. These images were taken in the same months as our journey, albeit in previous years. They were so accurate that I felt confident of finding my way through the smaller channels in these lowlands. We were rewarded immediately by an excellent viewing of a pair of giant river otters fishing in the shallows, out of the water! These are huge creatures measuring a couple of meters. We watched them running into the shallows and catching small fish with their hands and eating them until they grew worried about our presence. This was such an amazing sight to us we didn't think to get a photo. It turns out that giant river otters are the most endangered species in the tropical Americas!
We continued through the backwaters of the Pantanal. Among other raptors we sighted this king vulture.
As we approached the joining of the Rio Sao Lorenzo to the Rio Paraguay we found the forested riverbanks once more. This photo is of a fishing resort that was under construction.
A small boat with 2 local fishermen stopped to chat with us. While we were being told of the jaguar that one of the fellows saw at some point earlier on this exact spot, a 2 meter long snake slid out from the tall grass right behind Diana. She was seated on the sand and this big snake wanted to get to the water. We were mostly curious, but the way the 2 guys jumped and shouted ( they were in their boat ) made the snake turn from the edge of the water and disappear into the grass the way it came. We weren't able to learn anything about the snake and we didn't see it again but stepping into the tall grasses to heed the call of nature adopted a more focused approach immediately!
This is our camp at the Pousada Porto Joffre. We got a bit of fresh food here and enjoyed a luxurious shower with clean water. Unfortunately we had to listen to a very loud generator all night. This camp marked the halfway point in our journey. We now had only 450 kms. to go to reach Corumba.
A clear day greeted us on day 15 and with relief we left the sound of the generator behind.
Live-aboard fishing boats referred to as barco hotels lined the shore here.
We saw several tour boats over the remainder of our trip. Dourado, peacock bass and pacu are especially sought after species.
The Paraguay river is more than twice as wide as the Sao Lorenzo and the shoreline was often covered in an invasive waterlily. The sandbanks were also covered in swamp grasses and willow bushes. Just beyond the gallery forest lining the shores were tens of kilometers of swamps, lagoons, lakes and wetlands. This made finding a suitable campsite somewhat more difficult. Finally we found a spit of land where a small channel split from the main river. This smaller channel reminded us of the Sao Lorenzo and we decided to follow it as our maps indicated it would rejoin the Paraguay river. Capybara families continued to delight us as we made our way along the channel. About an hour later a giant river otter swam up out of the lilies beside us, carrying a 2 meter long snake. It then laid down on the bank and ate the entire thing right in front of us. A second otter followed it with another huge snake which it also devoured.
This pair of giant river otters then walked into the woods towards the next lagoon and left us
congratulating ourselves at our good fortune. There were many of these otters in the river but it was only when they came out of the water that you could get a true sense of their size.
After this last snake viewing Diana devised a new method of washing her hair!
The weather continued clear and hot. The hats were a very welcome shelter but even more so when they had been soaked over the side of the boat for a few minutes. When that wasn't enough there was always the old stand by of just jumping in.
Before we left we imagined a very isolated experience paddling through this pantanal region. So far we had not had a single day when we did not see someone. Now we were finding a bit of commercial fishing being done. Quite unlike the tourist quality barco hotels, these boats were very rough clapboard affairs. Anywhere from 4-8 fishermen lived onboard and fished everyday from small dugouts or motorized craft. We think they were filling freezers, powered by generators and then eventually taking their catch to the markets in Corumba. One day when we felt that we were completely on our own, we were surprised to see 2 fellows in a side channel fishing. Their freezer boat was around the next bend!
The Paraguay river was now straightening out for longer stretches and we were finding winds coming up from the south which was our direction of travel. It finally grew strong enough to stop us for a couple of days and we had our first day without paddling for 17 days. The strong winds were surprisingly cold and we were actually drinking hot chocolate drinks while we wore our fleece jackets. We were lucky enough to find a protected forest camp to wait out the wind.
Large cattle ranches again began to appear. The workers' villages huddled around higher ground on the riverbanks. Their houses are extremely basic but just about everyone had a satellite dish. The rancher also had a cell tower so even here in the middle of the pantanal everyone is connected!
Some of the villages had up to 2 dozen homes. These mostly seemed to be seasonal villages as they did not sit very high off the level of the river. The larger settlements had families living in them and we were surprised to pass by a very nice school that picked up the kids from up and down the river each day with their school boats. Those are the yellow school boats in the next photo.
The river is the main transportation road of this vast region. If you don't have access to a boat or a horse you are going nowhere. This barge was slowly making it's way up river to some ranch.
A couple of days later we were hit with another windy day. Once again we waited a day for calmer water. The following morning, after 24 days on the waterways of the pantanal, we left camp for our final 35 kms. into Corumba!
We were amazed at our luck to have this sighting on our final day! What a beautiful creature. A couple of days later we were told that our "jaguar" was actually an ocelot. Thanks Mariah!
With a new found lightness to our strokes we turned the boat downriver and headed south.
At the end of every expedition, there are a number of items we no longer need. As we had just left our last camp, we decided to give everything to the first person that looked like they could use it.
A small homestead appeared later that morning and we gave Nilo our stove, remaining fuel, matches, Diana's rubber boots and some food.
Nilo seemed to tell us that he could paddle to Corumba in 3 hours. As it was still 30 kms. to go, we thought that wasn't possible for us but it was only 0800 so we felt good about being in town well before 1400. We rounded the next bend and were confronted with severe head winds with 3 foot swells and breaking whitecaps! Over the next 7 hours we inched our way along the shoreline. If we still had had a stove, or even matches, we probably would have stopped and waited for better conditions. However our task was before us and we persevered. With supreme satisfaction we reached our destination around 1530.
A ramp at a marina presented an ideal take-out spot. While packing up our gear we were approached by Diego Faoro who asked, in English, if he could help us. It was a welcome surprise to hear English. Instead of phoning for a taxi as I requested, Diego stopped what he was doing and drove us to our hotel. What a fortunate meeting for us. We hope your new restaurant is doing well Diego!
Just in case anyone out there is unaware of the magnificent setting in which Rio de Janiero is located we thought we'd add this photo.