Getting back into the swing of things

I don’t mind admitting that I’m feeling a bit flat at the moment. It’s been 3 weeks since arriving back from my trip to Brazil and I just can’t seem to get back into the swing of things.

It’s not helped by the fact that all eyes are currently on Rio for the Olympics Games. I know it’s difficult for anyone coming home after a significant time away, but I can’t help feeling that my particular situation is made worse by being able to see ‘my beach’ through the window of the Beeb’s TV studio on a daily basis: the very studios that I watched being built on the Copacabana whilst I was there. I recognise it all. The pedestrian crossing in front of the Irish bar, the Rio 2016 official merchandise store where I bought my T-shirts and Olympic Havaianas, the promenade that I walked up and down every day, the beach bar where I drank many a caipirinha, even the flags that flutter in the wind. They are all so familiar to me and they all make wish I was still there.

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In nature, with love – Araras Eco Lodge

It takes a long time to get to the Pantanal from London. An overnight flight to Sao Paulo, a lengthy 5 hour layover in the domestic terminal which boasts a Subway and not much else, a further 2 hour flight to Cuiaba and then an onward 2 hour drive up the Transpantaniera Park Road; most of which is nothing more than a dirt road stretching out into the distance. You have to really want to get there but boy is it worth the trouble. My destination was the Araras Eco Lodge  and it would be my home for the next 4 nights.

The drive itself was quite eventful. My driver spoke no English and my Portuguese runs out after por favor and obrigada (note to self, I really need to learn how to order beer and wine at the earliest opportunity) but we muddled along famously and as soon as we hit the dirt road he was pointing out the jaw dropping array of birds foraging for food in the wetlands that lined the side of the road. Hundreds and hundreds of them, every species imaginable, on every post, tree top and telegraph wire. I had seen nothing like it.

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This was just the beginning of what was to become a most memorable adventure. As we arrived at the lodge I was greeted by the friendly, smiling staff and from that point onwards nothing was too much trouble. My room was comfortable and spotlessly clean with every all amenities, all provided whilst upholding their strong ecological principles. At dinner that evening I was introduced to Edson, who would be guide throughout my stay. His smile was infectious and his knowledge quite incredible and he made every day interesting and enjoyable.

Life at the lodge settled into a calm, relaxed rhythm. Breakfast around 6 am – the freshly baked cheese bread incentive enough to jump out of bed early  –  and then a day filled with a mixture of foot, canoe, horse or jeep safaris and down time to read, chat to the other guests, laze by the pool or nap. A spectacular lunch and dinner buffet, offering a vast array of local, lovingly prepared dishes, made sure that no one ever went hungry. Oh, and just in case that wasn’t enough, freshly baked cakes were served during afternoon tea at 3!

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Arars Eco Lodge is situated in its own vast grounds, which means that you really don’t need to stray far at all to see caiman, toucans, capybara, parrots, blue macaws, woodpeckers, herons, ibis, storks, vultures, lapwings, kingfishers, egrets, plus many, many other species – they are absolutely everywhere – and during the safaris monkeys, armadillos, anteater (giant and small), marsh deer, emus, coati, were common place. The Jaguars, for which the Pantanal is particularly famous, are only really visible during July, August and September, the dry season, when the wetlands dry up completely and the vegetation dies away; something to bear in mind if you are planning a trip there and particularly want to see them.

For me, it’s onwards to Rio and a completely difference experience. I’ll miss the sunset over the river and the birds flying in for the night to sleep; the peace and quiet. Oh and I’ll also actually miss those bloody chaco chachalacas, screeching at 5 am in the morning and making sure that I was never, ever late for the freshly baked cheese bread.

 

Cowboys, Caipirinhas and Condensed Milk

Brazilians, it seems,  have a very sweet tooth. Take for example the national cocktail, the Caipirinha, made with cachaça, sugar and lime – a heady, lethal mix of the very sweet with just the right amount of sour. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, it would appear that the best Caipirinhas for some miles around are located in a bar right next door to the lodge where I am staying. What are the chances of that?

On the side of the Transpantaneira Park Road is the Baras Bar, which is where we ended up for sundowners yesterday evening after a particularly eventful late afternoon safari involving Edson, horses and a giant anteater. More on that later.

I can confirm that the Caipirinhas were indeed fantastic and it was whilst on our second round of drinks that the only other occupant of the bar strolled over to share with us his photos of a jaguar spotted a few hours earlier just kilometres up the road.  Sadly I will not get to see this spectacular creature before I leave tomorrow morning, as I am reliably informed that it is particularly difficult to encounter them in this region until August or September, when all of the undergrowth has died down. As disappointed as I am by this, I can honestly say that my amazing wildlife experiences over the past few days have more than made up for this. Each foot or jeep safari has introduced me to such a huge variety of creatures and during each of these excursions my trusty guide Edson has done a fabulous job of spotting even the most camouflaged iguanas, armadillos and coati.

Yesterday afternoon, however, as he led us through the wetlands on a late afternoon horse back safari, he came into his own. The light was fading and we hadn’t really seen anything of note when suddenly Edson pointed ahead to something in the undergrowth; a large ball of fur, which turned out to be a giant anteater. The startled animal looked up, saw us approaching and headed off across the ground at breakneck speed. Quick as a flash Edson spurred on his horse and set off, cowboy style, to give chase.  He was magnificent and moments later he appeared from behind the trees, corralling the anteater in front of my stationary horse to provide a fleeting yet priceless photo opportunity. What a guy!

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Edson and the giant anteater

Dinner last night was a quiet affair as most of the guests had departed during the day – the end of a local holiday weekend – giving us the chance to reflect on the afternoons excitement over yet another wonderful evening meal. Of particular note was the dessert. Those who know me well will confirm that I don’t really do desserts, yet I found myself reaching for a second helping of the passion fruit mousse. Possibly a bit of a misnomer, the ‘mousse’ was a mix of condensed milk, sugar and local passion fruit – teeth achingly sweet and yet completely delicious – the sour hit of the fresh passion fruit brilliantly countering the sickliness of the cream. It seems that condensed milk features in many desserts here and I for one am all in favour if it. Whisked back to my childhood, it reminds me of special teatime treats and birthday parties and I’m already looking forward to tonights version of a similar offering, lime mousse. Before that though there’s my last afternoon walk with Edson. We’re heading to a local vantage point to watch the birds settle into the trees for the evening. It should be quiet and uneventful but in the Pantanal with Edson as your guide you just never know!

 

 

Caught up in a caiman face off

Today we’re talking reptiles and mammals and despite the night safari being cancelled due to high winds, the 7am 4km walk through the neighbouring area showed up a whole array of strange and exotic creatures. That may sound like an early start to some of you, but believe me, it’s impossible to sleep past 5am as a cacophony of birds, ably led by the extremely loud and extremely ubiquitous chaco chachalaca, shake you out of your bed whether you’re ready or not. (Side note here – I am awarding the chaco chachalaca my, ‘how to big yourself up’, award as it has a fabulous name that sounds like a samba step and a call like nothing you’ve ever heard before yet it is the most dull and boring looking thing you’ve ever seen. The thing is, everyone knows it and it is completely unforgettable  – a great job of self publicity that we could all learn from!)

Back to the morning walk and it wasn’t long until we came across howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, yellow armadillo, marsh deer and South American coati.

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Capuchin monkey

When I say we, that means me and my personal guide Edson. He and I are now joined at the hip and he leads the way on our daily walks, thrashing through the undergrowth with his large machete – why push a branch out of the way when you can hack it off in one majestic swoop? I do however, love a man with a machete. It makes a girl feel very safe!

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Edson with his machete

The highlight of the day, however, came during our afternoon canoe trip. Edson and I were paddling down the river, taking in the incredible array of birds along the river bank, when we came across two enormous male caimans, nose to nose in the water, staring at other, neither one moving a muscle. Edson explained that they were in a fight for a female caiman and that it could get very nasty. We watched for a minute or so and then went on our way. About an hour later, as we came back past the same spot, there they were, still nose to nose, only now they were hissing at each other and looking as though it had moved up a gear. Just as we decided to leave them to it and paddle past, one of the caimans lunged at the other and the fight was on. Unfortunately we just happened to be in the exact wrong spot as two huge, marauding caimans came right for us, drenching us with water, rocking our canoe to the point of almost turning it over and pushing us up against the river bank. I was petrified and screamed like a chaco chachalaca. I was sure we were going into the river, to be bitten to shreds by the caimans and then finished off my flesh eating pirana.  Edson found it all highly amusing – although he did tell all the other guides about the encounter in great detail as he had never experienced anything quite like it. I now have a phobia about caimans – they seems to be everywhere, their beady eyes following my every move. They may not be dangerous to us humans but I have heard them hiss and I am giving them a very wide berth.

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Shocked and still shaking from my near death experience, I walked back to my room only to be greeted by a group of capybara happily munching away on the grass in front of my porch.  Docile and content, they barely gave me a glance.

That evening, after dinner, Edson lit a fire in the pit out front of the dining room. We all sat, drinks in hand, and chatted about our day. Personally I think he did that so he would have a captive audience for a retelling of our afternoon adventure. I’m sure that will go down in history as one of his more memorable canoe trips. I for one will never forget it!