At 5 a.m. I wake up and go for a walk before breakfast. In this part of the world you get used to getting up at sunrise naturally. No matter how early you wake up, there is always already someone busy working around here and nature too.
I get a glimpse of Julinho preparing the boat but prefer not to bother him. I stroll down to the river, gorgeous in the morning light. A solitary Jabiru stork wades to the riverbank, not disturbed at all by my presence. A Caracara feeds on a prey in his bill. In the enormous loaded mango trees the ever present community of green parakeets cackle incessantly.
On the riverbank after the bungalows, the place were fish is cleaned and the pier I step onto a big nest, hanging from a tree, guarded by a Caracara.
Behind the grounds of the hotel there is a big lake I remember from last years trip. Here the severe drought that has hit Brazil this year is clearly visible, there is little water and the water lilies are less exuberant.
A group of Jabiru storks and American wood-storks wade on the extreme border of the lake. Horses grass peacefully free on the grounds of the hotel. Julinho had told me to look for Hyacinth Macaws in the early morning in the trees near the reception. I go to get Aldo and we walk together looking for the birds.
And there they are, breathtakingly blue, in the branches of a palm, eating its fruits. Two of them. It's still a bit too dark to get some good pictures, and they soon leave.
We go to get Gianluigi and Enrica and show them the lake were a solitary white water lily floats like a butter artwork in the water.
At 7.30 we go for breakfast and Julinho joins us. He had bought all kind of basic provisions, rice, beans, pasta, dried meat, onions, potatoes and two heavy melons. Luckily there were no vegetarians between us and our folks were untypical Italians, not petty about food. Well, they had told me before departure that Gianluigi was very intolerant to garlic, that could have been a difficult match in Brazil, where everything aside sweets is cooked with garlic. Julinho with his aplomb, probably used to all kind of imaginary illnesses of 'civilized' tourists, had tranquilized me, if nobody told him that there was garlic in the food he would be just fine...and so it was. After two days of typical Brazilian food he was still alive and kicking.
When Enrica mentioned on one of the first days that the only thing she couldn't eat were...melons, I saw Julinho's face get gray. We hadn't any other fruits with us and Enrica ate a lot of fruit and little other food. So J. gave us the task of picking up one apple per person at each meal and we managed to leave with a nice bag of apples...
The night before I had managed to convince the Baficos to leave most of their luggage behind, well kept in Julinhos jeep. From three heavy bags we managed to make one, mine was already a soft light travel bag which could be stuffed anywhere in the boat. I had 'ordered' my reluctant friends to buy hats too. They had assured me they never wore hats in Africa, but I know that the sun can be very hot here and we would stay all these days without a chance of shadow on the boat. Finally they gave in and they never took the hats off during our whole stay at the rivers..
At 8.30 a.m. we leave as planned Porto Jofre. Julinho's boat 'Dudutinha' is heavily loaded with our luggage, photo gear, two big tanks with fuel, plenty of water and a heavy sack with supplies.
He instructs us on where to seat to balance weight, Enrica and me being the lightest in the back, Gian with his inseparable photo bag in the middle and Aldo in front.
At the pier there are some men working on the boats, one calls Julinho humorously 'amigo-da-onça', friend of the jaguar which in Brazilian portuguese means a phony friend. In this case as Julinho is famous for his ability to track jaguars they were joking with the double meaning. It is very common in Brazil to joke 'heavily' with the persons you like most and there is almost never malice involved.
Slowly we leave the Jofre grounds behind, navigating along the broad Cuiabà river.
It's very hot already. We meet some lonely local fishermen on flat canoes who greet Julinho and pass by a wooden houseboat.
Julinho explains that before the creation of the 'Encontro das Aguas' state park all this enormous area was a single cattle raising farm. In 2004 it was bought by the state and became park. An anomalous park, with little unwritten rules and no patrolling.
We won't go straight to the place were we are going to camp these nights, but stay on the rivers all day long, searching for jaguars. It's not the primary goal of my guests, I had assured this to Julinho, but of course the hopes were high and for him, well, he always gives his best to raise the chances.
Wild vegetation borders the riverbanks, alternated to savannah like fields, where once the cattle grazed. In some points you can still see were it crossed the rivers when moved from pasture to pasture.
Silently we slowly glide on the water, stopping from time to time to observe families of capybaras, caimans, birds of all species.
We see some birds busy in trying to swallow fish that are bigger than their bill, they keep moving it until it is in the right angle to be swallowed, sometimes for hours.
We have long left the broad Cuiabà river and are now navigating on one of the innumerable tributaries.
In a tangle of dry branches and weed we see a group of Giant River Otters. We have turned off the motor and are going by paddle. Silently we bind a rope at one of the branches, two of the Otters swim inquisitively towards us emitting strange sounds.
Last year I had had only a very rapid encounter with a group of them, they were quite nervous because of the presence of many puppies and we had left them alone. So this was my first close-up meeting with the 'Ariranhas'.
After a while we leave them, this is one of the many qualities I learnt to appreciate in Julinho's relationship with nature. He seems to have a kind of reverence in front of the animals and never insists in bothering them too much. And I think he is able to transmit this to most of the persons he takes around. You get the feeling that it is the wild animal that 'offers' you an insight into it's elusive life.
We eat the sandwiches prepared for us by the staff of Porto Jofre Hotel during navigation.
The home of the people were we are going to camp is still far away and we have to get there well before darkness. They don't have electricity and we need daylight to organize the camp.
Around 4 p.m. we take the direction of Piquiri river.
I had stayed at Carmindo and Maria's place last year and was looking forward to meet them again. A pantaneiro family who had spent all it's life living on the river, far away from civilization. Carmindo had worked his whole life on the big fishing boats, without a regular contract and now they live more or less on the small social pension of Maria.
Julinho has a strange agreement with them, he takes some of his tourists to camp on the grounds in front of their house, they cook for them and let them use their toilet and shower. For the rest he tries to be as non-intrusive as possible in their daily life, always concerned with how his tourists behave.
I remember the long candle lit nights at Carmindo's kitchen table, listening to his stories about the Pantanal. Having lived there his whole life he knows every river bend and he likes to talk...and tell the tales of the rivers.