There are certain words that carry so much emotional punch that one only has to hear them for the imagination to be stirred. Take “safari”. Rationally we know it’s the Swahili word for journey; but it’s the sort of journey it conjures up that sets the pulses racing – one of thrills, of wind whistling through wild grasses, of herds of animals roaming the savannah, the smell of dusty earth and the vast African sky above.
The other one is “wilderness”. Add “watery”, and I’m off to book the flights. So when I heard that the Pantanal in Brazil was one of the world’s largest “watery wildernesses”, I couldn’t wait to go. The only other watery wilderness that I really know is the Okavango Delta in Botswana, which is to me one of the most beautiful places on earth, and if the Pantanal was anywhere near as thrilling then I couldn’t wait to see it.
In case you haven’t heard of the Pantanal – and until a couple of years ago neither had I, so under the radar is it as a tourist destination – it’s a vast, low-lying wetland, larger than France, fed and dissected by over 170 rivers. It lies mostly in western Brazil in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, but also extends into Bolivia and Paraguay. Every year the Paraguay river and its tributaries flood the area, submerging 70-80 per cent of the land. Journeys that in the dry season can be done by Jeep have to be made by plane, by horse or simply abandoned.
What made the place sound so thrilling was that it has something like 12 different ecosystems, meaning that it’s the best place in the Americas for wildlife. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site, with over 650 species of bird and 260 of fish, as well as wild mammals, reptiles and strange, lush plants. It is speckled with lakes, lagoons and rivers, rainforest and riverine forest; while on the open savannah roam over 20m of the creamy-coloured humped zebu cattle that make ranching the chief commercial activity of the area.
One of its great charms is that the area is still little visited. There is no large-scale tourism. To really experience it, you need to fly deep into the Pantanal and stay in one of the fazendas (farms), which are beginning to open themselves up to a little light eco-tourism. Avoid the lodges on the fringes, which often sound posher, are usually larger and are much more accessible, but don’t offer the authentic wild experience. Do as I did and stay somewhere like the Fazenda Barranco Alto, deep into the land. A short scheduled flight from São Paulo takes you into Camp Grando in the Mato Grosso do Sul, from where your very own pilot and small plane will fly you into the fazenda of your choice.
What I liked about the Fazenda Barranco Alto is that it is right in the centre of the Pantanal in a heart-breakingly beautiful area. The Rio Negro – 13 miles of it – flows through land, which for 27,000 acres is dotted with small salt lakes (salinas) and freshwater ponds. The accommodation is simple in the extreme, and purists who think most African lodges have got way too swanky would love it here. To be truthful, I could have done with slightly softer beds and a little more decorative delight for the eye, but the four double rooms have en-suite showers and loos and I loved the food, which was wholesome, good and plentiful (the beef is tender as butter). But the real reason for coming is because you get something much more priceless than fancy décor, which is the chance to drop in – eavesdrop, if you like – on the way of life of a long-established Brazilian family.
The real business of Fazenda Barranco Alto is ranching: eco-tourism, though professionally done, is a little side show. Here you see the authentic Pantaneiros (cowboy of the Pantanal) way of life before you every day. Both Marina and Lucas Leuzinger, who run the ranch, are Brazilians of Swiss origin whose families have been here for at least two generations: Marina’s father bought the land as a holiday place for hunting and fishing. Every day you lunch with them and hear their tales of the land, its history and the various conservation projects they are working on. There are never more than eight or nine guests, so you have little sense of being just a tourist. You feel part of the life of the land.
Or you could stay with the Rondon family at Barra Mansa, whose ancestors, the first settlers, fought hard to preserve the wildness of the Pantanal. Here, too, there are very few tourists and the accommodation, in four suites and a two-bedroom lodge, is extremely simple. For a few precious days they will share with you the Pantaneiros life; and you can go canoeing, riding and fishing, or just gaze at the birds and the wonders all around you.
But if creature comforts are what you hanker for, then Caiman Lodge is the place for you – it’s larger (25 guests in three different lodges), grander, has posher food and swankier bedrooms. It’s nothing like as remote as Barra Mansa and Barranco Alto but it is quite wild enough for most people. It is also considerably more expensive.
Wherever you are in the Pantanal, the skies are high and wide and blue, the heat is searing, the pools of water reflect back the palms and jungle, just as they do in Botswana. But there is a completely different habitat to explore and a whole new menagerie with strange and wonderful names to learn about. I shrink at the sight of the hundreds of caiman cruising the waters – in Africa they’d be crocs and you wouldn’t put even a toe in the water – but the Leuzingers’ children swim with them every day. Piranhas lurk in the lakes and rivers but these too, it seems, are not what the movies have led us to believe: Fernando, one of the Pantaneiros, would hook one every day and throw it back in the water by hand. In Africa, a flock of pink-tinged birds would mean the flamingos were taking flight but here I see they’re roseate spoonbills. Even the frogs sound different.
I learn about the rhea, a large, flightless bird clearly related to the ostrich. Then there are the capybaras (the world’s largest rodent), which are everywhere, the white-lipped peccaries, crab-eating foxes, wild boar (the only animal they’re allowed to hunt these days) and howler monkeys, all so different from their African counterparts. I learn that while Africa has its iconic big five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo), South America has the giant anaconda (which eats the caiman and the capybara), the giant anteater, the jaguar, the Andean bear and the giant otter (though some would add the maned wolf and the South American tapir). Of them all we see only the giant otter and the giant anteater – but inevitably, the jaguar dominates the talk at the dining table.
Everywhere we go we see signs: here some paw prints in the sand, there some dung, elsewhere bent grass and jungle. But nowhere do we see the jaguar. We did see a puma, though, shaded in the dusk under a tree in the distance, and very thrilling it was. Speaking personally, I missed the sense of danger that the African bush offers, where every sense is heightened as you walk through the bush, where the setting sun brings the certain knowledge that the lion and the leopard will begin to prowl. Here you can walk in utter safety, which for some may be a very big plus.
And then there are the birds – thousands of them. Even those who think they aren’t interested are thrilled by their first sighting of the flashing lilac-tinted feathers of the hyacinth macaw. There are kingfishers, toucans, parakeets, herons, storks and the chaco chachalacas (a noisy bird rather like a turkey). You’d need a heart of stone not to want to learn more about them.
By day there is much on offer. One morning at Barranco Alto we canoe miles down the Rio Negro, picnicking in sandy coves, the riverine forest offering up myriad different birds for our delight as well as the sight of otters at play. We watch the Panteneiros ride their horses through the still forests; we swim in the river and go on game drives with Carol, who seems to know every plant and bird and snake and has eyes as sharp as any African game tracker.
Unless you were a naturalist or a zoologist you’d be unlikely to go to Brazil only for the Pantanal but if you have the smallest interest in the natural world, if you want a glimpse of a landscape that to the African safari-goer is wonderfully, exuberantly different, then add the Pantanal to your visit. If, like me, you have a love of wildernesses, this one has a special quality of its own. It has a loneliness, a vastness that has the power to move one deeply. It isn’t all pristine – much of the forest has been chopped down – but what is left is a joy to behold. It is only by visiting them, by learning to love and understand them that we realise why these precious islands of nature at its abundant best must be preserved.