Giant River Otters and... stories of anacondas

At dawn I wake up and find Julinho and Carmindo already at work. The sun is still low and it is slightly fresher than during the night. 
We have coffee, while Julinho cooks fresh rice to put together with the meat and potatoes that were left from yesterday's supper. I fill up plenty of little bottles with water and prepare the rest of supplies. 
Today it will be easier, our boat will be less heavy and we will be freer to move. 

After a while I call my friends for breakfast, Julinho urges to leave. We weren't lucky yesterday with jaguars, maybe today it will be better.
While Enrica, Gian and Aldo get ready I take a stroll around the house. There are chicken and ducks running free in the porch, in a stable there are more than ten little yellow ducks, one with a broken leg.
From the backyard I hear the noise of some horses. There is the ever present giant mango tree, with its load of birds, a cotton tree, an acerola tree and many more.
It's a very basic life, without the 'comforts' that make our chaotic city life bearable. Here most of them aren't really necessary.
Carmindo had told us the night before about his sporadic stays  in the city (Poconé a very small little town), about his fear of being mugged, the noise and the almost unbreathable bad air. Maria too couldn't wait to come home to her small house on the river and was waiting for a lift.

While walking barefoot on the grass (shoes aren't necessary here either...if you don't have too delicate feet) I couldn't help thinking about how long a single day lasts here. I don't think it's only because you simply wake up earlier, you just loose every relationship to time. I go to sleep without knowing what time it is and wake up with sunrise. And the days and nights are eternal as should be in life.

Julinho calls from the boat, we are ready to leave. Gianluigi is loading his big black bag under the disapproving gaze of J., a tripod and some smaller backpacks. There we go, first by motor and then by paddle. I had asked Carmindo for a second paddle and Aldo and I alternate with it, while Gian and Enrica sit in the 'backyard'.

We follow in part the same rivers were we had been yesterday. That's what jaguar tracking is all about, you have to keep following the same routes over and over again because you never know when he'll be appearing on the riverbank. Maybe he appears exactly after the boat passes by and you miss him.

'Jaguar tracking' is not the right expression for what Julinho from Pantanal Trackers does,  he doesn't chase after the jaguars, it's more about patient observation of nature. He always says that there is no magic involved, just respect and faith. He gets a lot of correspondence from persons who are anxious to know which chances they have of meeting a jaguar, more and more lately as the word spreads, but he always carefully advices that there is no way to force such encounter, at least not for his 'style' of guidance. He believes nature should be left untouched and observed respectful of its timing.
It may seem boring to do the same thing over and over again, but the environment is so extraordinary that you wish to go on forever, jaguars or not.

Again it's a nice sunny day, Gian and Aldo drench their hats in the river to cool their heads.
Enrica reads a book about the Fauna of the Pantanal and takes annotations. Paddling the whole day is quite tiresome, even for Julinho who is used to it.
Many smaller rivers have very shallow waters, where more than paddling you use the paddle as a stick to push forward the boat.

The morphology of rivers is constantly changing, depending on the level of the waters and on the proliferation of water hyacinths (aguapés). In some parts the aguapés form barriers. To pass them without getting stuck you have to give gas to the motor, hive it up and lower it exactly after the barrier ends. That was my task and after almost falling into the water because of the weight of the motor I learnt to manage it quite well.

On a tributary we meet a group of Giant River Otters. They are feasting on some strange eel-like fish. They are not bothered at all by our presence and we observe them in silence for a quite long time.
One after the other they come to the same spot to eat their prey.
Julinho explains that they can be identified by the white stain they have on their necks, it's different for every individual. There is a cave in the riverside which must be a kind of den for this group. Some of them disappear into it.
We have seen a lot of dead fish floating on the rivers, used as we are to pollution caused animal deaths we felt quite uncomfortable about it. Instead Julinho says that here it is related to the drying out of certain acquatic environments, it's part of the cycle of renovation of the Pantanal.
After a while we decide to leave the Giant Otter group and make a lunch stop not too far away. We stop at a clearance where two rivers meet.
Enrica is enthusiastic about the place, there is a nice cool breeze and there are no mosquitoes. Normally during navigation you are not bothered by them, there are only some places, specially when you slow down to pass some more tangles of water hyacinths sometimes clouds of mosquitoes surround you. The problem is when you dock at the riverside, there mosquitoes and mutucas are quite disturbing. The only solution is to stay under the water.

Here probably a combined effect between the wind, the drier vegetation and some luck has created a corner of paradise. Delighted we have lunch and rest a little under the shade of a tree.
We haven't met any human being during the last two days on the rivers, I relish on my choice of this time of the year.
After two days we still haven't seen any jaguar. Julinho had told me before our arrival that it is getting more and more difficult to sight them. Too much human pressure, too many boats in his opinion are making them move to other, more remote territories.
On a tributary surrounded by high-grass plains, were he had seen two jaguars with the tourists that had preceded us, he takes out his 'esturrador', a traditional instrument made of a hollow bamboo cane that emits a sound that resembles the roar of a jaguar, and starts blowing into it.
The night before he had told me that if we hadn't seen any jaguar until our third day he would have operated a change in plans. We would have left Carmindo one night earlier, slept in Porto Jofre and tried to find a Jaguar along the Cuiabà river, trying at night also. The problem in the remoter river areas is that you cannot navigate in the darkness, the waters are full of woods that make it a risky business. The Cuiabà is larger and there is not so much floating vegetation, woods and so on.
I admit that we too had lost a bit of our hopes, even though we wouldn't talk about it with him, seeing that he was really doing his best to make it happen.

Gianluigi has a particular fixation with Kingfishers...from time to time we hear an excited voice in Italian from the back of the boat "martin pescatore" and Julinho already knows he has to turn the boat and stop. Black-Collared Hawks too are on his priority list and there are quite a lot around, beautiful and esier to photograph, they seem to be 'posing' for pictures.
We meet again the group of Giant River Otters, they are still feeding on fish.

photo: Gianluigi Bafico
Navigating in shallow waters means sometimes jumping off the boat and pushing it forward to avoid getting stuck in the 'islands' of aquatic vegetation. When I see Julinho doing it the first time I don't think twice, I jump off too, not thinking of where I was putting my feet. After some time Aldo follows too, always very helpful.
This afternoon we encounter a particularly closed part of the river, we see another boat coming towards us and turning around, there aren't many guides willing to paddle for hours or even jump into these waters....
Julinho jumps out of the boat and promptly I follow, on the wrong side...where the water is deep. I grab the boats side and try to smile and pretend that nothing has happened, while struggling to get out. Julinho who misses nothing of course is giggling at my 'stupidity' but keeps his mouth shut. The guys from the other boat shout if we need help. Finally i manage to get out of the water, soaked to my waist, Julinhos laconical comment at night was that of course when you jump of the boat you have to choose the side that faces the river bank, not the middle of the river. Well, it was reason for a good laugh with Carmindo, it must have been a hilarious scene...
We stop at a little sandy beach were Julinho and I have a quick swim, the Baficos stay on the shore, not trusting the muddy waters.
After some more navigation on different rivers it is getting dark and we head home.

When I get out of the shower I see  two young men  arriving by boat. Carmindo is waiting for them. It is strange to see other persons around here. Carmindo takes them to the back of the house where the horses are. Julinho tells me that they are here to castrate one of Carmindo's stallions. It's a beautiful animal, but lately he is constantly fighting with the other male about the mare. J. tells me to ask my friends if they want to see it, they are quite horrified and deny firmly. For him these things are part of life and he mumbles something about city people and their weak nerves...
Later two other men arrive, it's a lively evening! They sit down at the kitchen table with Carmindo and Julinho, after a while I join them. They are talking about meetings with sucuris (anacondas). J. whispers  to me that Carmindo is frightened to death by snakes, it's what he fears most. Carmindo remembers when, not a long time ago, while Julinho had come to visit him together with his younger brother they found a big anaconda in the front yard of their house. Julinho had managed to put it into a sack and they were going to liberate it far from the house. Well, when J. got onto the boat and Carmindo was going to hand the sack to him, he fell into the river with the sack, the anaconda and all. J. had to jump in to get both of them on the boat again.
The same night J.'s brother slept with a knife stuck between his teeth...

During dinner Carmindo tells us the story of the two stallions, the beautiful one who had been castrated and the uglier who was still integer. We were quite curious about the strange choice.
The beautiful one was Carmindos horse, the uglier had been a gift from a man for whom he had worked. He was sad about having castrated his own horse, but he said: "If I had castrated the other horse, imagine if the guy who gave it to me one day asks about the well-being of the horse, it would have been a very ugly situation." So the beautiful stallion had to pay the price for human relationships...and the mare settle-down with the second-best.

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