Theatre of wildlife
All good wildlife adventures offer the remote but thrilling possibility of being eaten alive.
As if to reinforce this, visitors to the Pantanal have to sign a curious disclaimer - renouncing all rights to compensation in the event of being devoured by carnivorous fish. I was so happy to be in this vast, weird, shimmering swamp that I’d have signed anything. The ink barely dry, we were paraded off before the animals.
These Pantanal animals live and die around swamplands four times the size of England. It is so flat that over its 1,300 km length, the Rio Paraguai only drops a laughable 30cm. But it’s no laughing matter for the animals; in the wet season, flooding forces them onto tiny areas of higher ground where survival becomes rather more urgent.
Life is short, brutal and wet, so they’ve adapted. Nearly everyone has long legs. The capybaras - aquatic guinea pigs - have snorkel-style nostrils and even the termites have learnt to swim. The jabiru stork - the world’s third largest bird - is a sort of dockside dredger and the other birds - all 650 species - have completely abandoned sobriety. Even their names are redolent of a Drag Queens’ Ball; we met limpkins, English Policemen and Flaunting Marys. Everybody had a party trick. The best was the Savannah Hawk, who skulked around waiting for grass fires; he likes his lunch barbecued on the hoof.
Our little corner of this tropical bun-fight, The Pousada Caiman, wasn’t immune from swamp selection. "Every year," said Ricardo "Pumas kill 300 of our 3,000 calves".
Beyond the estancia house was a lagoon full of murderous, cold-blooded pets - alligators. When they heard our truck, they clambered out of the lilies for dinner; twenty-one of the 36,000,000 Pantanal caimans. They looked like armour-plated safe-breakers - stupid, villainous six-footers with missing fingers and gauged-out eyes.
"They would eat their own babies," Ricardo remarked unnecessarily. "There is nothing in their heads but jelly". But the jelly-headed killers were also the hunted. "Each year, 1.5 million are poached for their hides. One hide, one shoe." Imagine: 750,000 pimps in new footwear.
Then, Ricardo came up with another startling thought "They control the piranha population."
We all did our bit to control the piranhas, sinking great draughts of Margarita’s piranha soup. She ran our immaculate little lodge. Everything was on stilts - even the pool - and fortified with mosquito netting. Nothing penetrated the defences except a little frog, who I could hear singing his heart out in the cistern.
Margarita’s husband, Ary, was a true pantaneiro from his crow-footed eyes to the tips of his spurs. He wore a little sword, which, he said, was "for slaughtering, castrating and shaving". Naturally, we followed Ary around like ducklings as he slashed his way into thickets of cactus and strangler figs. He knew fruits that could induce abortions and others to dye you black. He steered us safely through armadillo earthworks and colonies of Howlers who - if they could - would have pelted us with monkey-doing missiles. One morning, we took off in boats across the swamp. It was surprisingly serene; barmy, bible-black cormorants were a reassuring sign that there was indeed life in this alligator stew.
The afternoons were hot so I lay in our swimming pool, alongside a lagoon. On these private, doggy-paddle safaris, I spotted 13 coatimundis, a jittery agouti, pampas deer and countless, deliciously-named roseate spoonbills. My favourite visitors were the hairy, long-legged pigs. Porcos monteiros could claim to be descended from colonial Portuguese pigs. Never cross-bred or genetically modified, they were the original trotters, the Utter Pigs.
The same could not be said for the pantaneiro horses. They were an improvement on the Utter Horse because they just liked plodding. Each evening, Ary would lead a cavalry charge out into the grass at 2mph. These were some of the most exquisite moments of the day, everything orange. Mounted on "Fantasm", I became convinced that we were somehow invisible. A giant tortoise fell asleep at our hooves and two crab-eating foxes slouched past us, heading for Margarita’s dustbins. Just for an instant, the Pantanal seemed profoundly untroubled.