Colin Bar­r­a­clough mar­vels at the wildlife-rich wet­lands of Ar­gentina’s Es­teros del Ibera

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays Afloat -

THE Land Rover has barely come to a halt when the air ex­plodes around me with shrieks, war­bles, whis­tles and howls. All night I have pushed north­ward by road into the sul­try dark­ness of the Ar­gen­tine night. Now, as I ar­rive at Rin­con del So­corro, a re­stored es­tan­cia on the edge of Ar­gentina’s Es­teros del Ibera wet­lands, a sun the colour of burnt ochre is edg­ing over the hori­zon, turn­ing the jacaranda blooms a del­i­cate vi­o­let.

Dazed by fa­tigue, I blink twice as a nandu, a South Amer­i­can cousin of the os­trich, struts across the lawn just me­tres away. Flut­ter­ing, pul­sat­ing and trilling, the bird calls mul­ti­ply with ev­ery sec­ond.

There is lit­tle to pre­pare the vis­i­tor for a dawn cho­rus in the Es­teros del Ibera, a wildlife-rich wet­land cov­er­ing 13,000sq km of the north­ern Ar­gen­tine prov­ince of Cor­ri­entes. Along with Brazil’s Pan­tanal, Ibera of­fers the vis­i­tor per­haps the most vivid wildlife ex­pe­ri­ence in South Amer­ica. A vast swamp teem­ing with wildlife, it is in­ter­spersed with lakes that har­bour huge mats of peaty silt float­ing like is­lands and bonded by the en­twined roots of wa­ter hy­acinths. They are suf­fi­ciently strong to sup­port full­grown trees.

By day, thou­sands of yacare caiman, or South Amer­i­can al­li­ga­tors, sun them­selves as they await a care­less piranha. Howler mon­keys swing through trees that float over the lakes, oc­ca­sion­ally star­tling a marsh deer, whose webbed feet helps it to reach suc­cu­lent green­ery deep into the swamp. At night, ocelots com­pete with maned wolves to hunt for carpin­cho, the world’s largest ro­dent.

For many years, Ibera was vis­ited only by bird­watch­ers, who hap­pily braved low-cost hos­tels in the re­gion’s only town, Car­los Pellegrini, for the elec­tri­fy­ing thrill of spot­ting a strange-tailed tyrant or a field flicker.

Sev­eral new es­tan­cias and ho­tels have opened in the re­gion in re­cent years, how­ever, which means or­di­nary vis­i­tors can vie with vet­eran or­nithol­o­gists and still sleep be­tween the soft­est cot­ton sheets.

Rin­con del So­corro, which opened to pay­ing guests in 2005, teeters on the edge of the swamp, 30km south of Car­los Pellegrini. It was built in 1896 in the Span­ish es­tan­cia style and for a long time served as a cat­tle ranch. In 1999 it caught the at­ten­tion of Doug and Kristine Tomp­kins, an Amer­i­can hus­band-and-wife con­ser­va­tion team who have bought large tracts of South Amer­i­can land to con­serve dis­ap­pear­ing nat­u­ral habi­tats.

They re­fur­bished the prop­erty and set about pro­tect­ing Ibera’s del­i­cate ecosys­tem from hu­man en­croach­ment.

I wasn’t sure about Ibera when we first came to visit,’’ con­fesses Kristine.

We had been liv­ing in the An­des, so the flat­ness of the wet­lands here was ob­vi­ously a huge change. But there’s a tremen­dous amount go­ing on and you soon grow to love the big skies and the wild an­i­mals.’’

The cou­ple sold the es­tan­cia’s cat­tle, lifted its fences in a near-re­li­gious act of re­newal and set about en­cour­ag­ing wildlife to re­turn. Restor­ing the run­down build­ings took sev­eral years, but they fi­nally opened the es­tan­cia un­der the ca­pa­ble man­age­ment of Les­lie and Va­le­ria Cook, an An­glo-Ar­gen­tine cou­ple orig­i­nally from Cor­ri­entes.

Nine rooms, some in de­tached bun­ga­lows, look out over a ma­ture park­land of na­tive trees and small lakes. The steamy Cor­ri­entes cli­mate is kept at bay by deep ve­ran­das and high ceil­ings of black­ened rafters and white­washed brick, matched by two-tone tiles that cool the floor. Two-me­tre sepia pho­to­graphs of wildlife dec­o­rate the sit­ting-room walls; in place of television sets are so many vases of fresh flow­ers that per­fume fills the air in ev­ery room.

In­deed, Rin­con del So­corro is so thor­oughly in­fused with the Tomp­kinses’ re­spect to­wards na­ture that at times it can feel like holy ground. Books from their shelves are scat­tered lib­er­ally through­out the re­sort; glossy col­lec­tions of Sal­vador Dali, Pablo Pi­casso and Willem de Koon­ing sit along­side ti­tles such as Ecophi­los­o­phy and Sav­ing Na­ture’s Legacy.

Nos­ing around my room, I un­cover a list of tips on deal­ing with the wild crea­tures that wan­der freely about the grounds. ‘‘ You may well find a carpin­cho cross­ing your path at night,’’ it warns. ‘‘ They are ut­terly harm­less but have be­come so ha­bit­u­ated that they act like they own the place.’’

Fur­ther down, an­other tip catches my eye: ‘‘ Oc­ca­sion­ally, a mean nandu may hiss at you. If nec­es­sary, just run a few steps at it.’’

To­tal im­mer­sion in na­ture is the es­tan­cia’s main draw. The high­light of a stay is a se­date, wa­ter­borne sa­fari on La­guna Ibera, which marks the lim­its of the Tomp­kinses’ prop­erty. Along with a cou­ple from Jo­han­nes­burg, I clam­ber into a flat-bot­tomed skiff manned by guide Martin Gon­za­lez, who mo­tors us through clus­ters of wa­terlilies pur­pling the lake’s sur­face.

Gon­za­lez grew up here and is soon re­gal­ing us with tid­bits and anec­dotes about the lo­cal fauna. On reach­ing a float­ing is­land, known lo­cally as an em­bal­sado , he switches to a punt­ing pole and rams the skiff skil­fully on to its bank. I hop out to test its sur­face, my feet sag­ging alarm­ingly among the tan­gled roots but never break­ing through. He ma­noeu­vres us along­side a 2m yacare caiman and I am nearly over­come by the urge to touch its hoary hide, much val­ued by poach­ers and hand­bag de­sign­ers.

The sheer num­ber of birds roost­ing, nib­bling and fish­ing among the em­bal­sa­dos as­ton­ishes. I marvel at the un­gainly feet of the wat­tled ja­cana that give it the ap­pear­ance of walk­ing on wa­ter as it hops among aquatic plants. We edge past a gi­ant wood rail, dis­turb a heron-like limp­kin as it feasts on snails and alarm a fam­ily of south­ern scream­ers, which emit an ear-pierc­ing cry that car­ries far across the wa­ter. Flocks of ibises, herons and egrets fill the air with whirling colour and a flut­ter ex­plodes into bril­liant white as a maguari stork rises ma­jes­ti­cally over the wa­ter.

With the sun ap­proach­ing its siz­zling zenith, we re­turn to dry land to feast on a typ­i­cally ex­ces­sive Ar­gen­tine asado of lamb, beef and blood sausage, bar­be­cued over wood smoke. Sated, I settle down for a snooze un­der a la­pa­cho tree and awake an hour later to find a marsh deer eye­ing me cu­ri­ously.

Ibera’s prodi­gious wildlife makes it tempt­ing to clutch Tito Narosky’s Birds of Ar­gentina and a pair of binoc­u­lars at all times, de­spite a creep­ing sen­sa­tion of nerdi­ness. I ad­mit it: I suc­cumb. On my sec­ond day, I spend three hours cir­cling a lake that could com­fort­ably have been strolled in 10 min­utes. I see more than 20 bird species, most clad in star­tling plumage. Even the lit­tle tweetie things that nor­mally go un­no­ticed prove on closer study to be ev­ery bit as rain­bow­coloured as their larger brethren.

Most guests fall into a gen­tle rou­tine of twice-daily for­ays, ven­tur­ing off with lo­cal guides in the early morn­ing or late af­ter­noon, when an­i­mal ac­tiv­ity is at its peak. They re­turn to meals tastily pre­pared from lo­cal or­ganic pro­duce and washed down with mal­becs and mer­lots from the An­dean vine­yards of Men­doza.

Be­fore long guests will have an even greater num­ber of an­i­mals to watch in Ibera’s marshes as the Tomp­kinses have be­gun to rein­tro­duce sev­eral mam­mals that once thrived in the wet­lands but died out through poach­ing or loss of habi­tat. In May last year they re­leased the first of sev­eral gi­ant anteaters, and they in­tend to fol­low up with herds of wild pec­ca­ries and, ul­ti­mately, jaguars.

‘‘ Th­ese are the first species rein­tro­duc­tions in Ar­gen­tine his­tory, so it’s been an enor­mous chal­lenge,’’ Kristine tells me.

You don’t need to be a twitcher or wildlife buff to en­joy So­corro, how­ever. You could throw a sad­dle on to one of the es­tan­cia’s many horses and gal­lop off across the sa­vanna, take the es­tan­cia’s private Cessna to San Alonso, a sis­ter prop­erty lo­cated on an iso­lated is­land in the marshes, or sim­ply stomp off alone in rub­ber boots.

Al­ter­na­tively, you could quite hap­pily do noth­ing other than laze by the pool look­ing at the la­pa­chos, lis­ten­ing to the roost­ing ibises or work­ing out the best means of fright­en­ing off a mean nandu.

Pic­tures: Colin Bar­r­a­clough

Greeted with a grin: Clock­wise from main pic­ture, a yacare caiman, or South Amer­i­can al­li­ga­tor; a se­date sa­fari on a skiff on La­guna Ibera; and Es­tan­cia Rin­con del So­corro

Prey for us: A pair of yacare caiman lie in wait on a float­ing is­land

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