The­day­ofthe jaguar

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence -

THERE are at least three per­ti­nent facts to con­sider be­fore fly­ing across the world in search of jaguars. First, their pre­ferred habi­tat is im­pen­e­tra­ble rain­for­est. Sec­ond, they tend to sleep all day and hunt at night. Third, each an­i­mal likes to have about 70km of per­sonal space.

These sim­ple etho­log­i­cal re­al­i­ties mean that even in ar­eas such as Brazil’s Pan­tanal wet­lands, where jaguars are most abun­dant, they are never ex­actly throng­ing the river­banks. Our host, An­dre von Thuronyi, ca­su­ally con­firms as much when he re­veals he didn’t spot his first jaguar un­til seven years af­ter ar­riv­ing in Brazil’s cen­tral west. I have one day and a bit to achieve the same goal.

Still, it is the tan­ta­lis­ing prom­ise of wit­ness­ing an Amer­i­can pan­ther in the wild that has lured me to the Pan­tanal, a 200,000sq km flood­plain in the cen­tre of South Amer­ica, roughly half­way be­tween the At­lantic and Pa­cific oceans. Bo­livia lies just over the bor­der to the south­west. The gate­way to the north­ern Pan­tanal is Cuiaba, cap­i­tal of Mato Grosso state, where the sun- baked soil is the colour of new cop­per. Von Thuronyi bun­dles us on to a minibus for the three-hour trans­fer to his 2700ha ranch and the Araras Eco Lodge, where for the past three decades he has cham­pi­oned eco­tourism as an al­ter­na­tive to ranch­ing and overde­vel­op­ment in this World Her­itage-listed won­der.

He breeds Pan­taneiro horses, a dis­tinct sub­species with hardy, wa­ter-re­sis­tant hooves and pow­er­ful up­per bod­ies from swim­ming through swamps. He has been a ma­jor force in the preser­va­tion of the mag­nif­i­cent hy­acinth ma­caw ( in Por­tuguese), a gor­geous crea­ture with a royal-blue liv­ery that makes it a favourite tar­get of smug­glers. The jaguar is the lat­est fo­cus of von Thuronyi’s en­er­gies. Hence this in­au­gu­ral itin­er­ary com­bin­ing two nights at Araras with a voy­age along the Paraguay River in search of Pan­thera onca, the king of the Brazil­ian jun­gle.

Once we pass the pas­tel-coloured town of Po­cone, the land­scape dis­solves into mir­rored wet­lands. Around dusk we pull to the side of the road to peer into the sunken swamps and, like a Magic Eye im­age, the scene grad­u­ally yields its sur­prises. Those glossy, steel-blue stones are caimans, en­demic al­li­ga­tors that gorge on the teem­ing fish life. Those tan rocks are capy­baras, the world’s largest ro­dent — with trun­cated snouts and burly bod­ies, they look like de­formed wom­bats. It feels like stand­ing in an aviary among so many ex­otic birds — whistling ducks, herons of all per­sua­sions, snow egrets, fly­catch­ers, gnat­catch­ers, Patag­o­nian blue storks, emu­like rheas and candy-pink roseate spoon­bills. About 650 bird species come here to breed; about five mil­lion chicks are born in the Pan­tanal each year. This ar­ca­dian scene has been 400 mil­lion years in the mak­ing, von Thuronyi ex­plains. When­the An­des went up, the Pan­tanal went down and an in­land ocean was trapped in the heart of the con­ti­nent. ‘‘In the next 50 mil­lion years, this will be­come Ama­zon rain­for­est,’’ he says, ‘‘if we al­low it.’’

The lodge it­self is ba­sic but com­fort­able. Each room has a ve­randa and ham­mock, the food is hearty, the drinks are cheap, the wel­come is gen­uine. And the mem­o­ries from here have the sort of sharp fo­cus and de­tail that only come with hard-won ex­pe­ri­ences. Brav­ing car­niv­o­rous mos­qui­toes and taran­tu­las the size of a gi­ant’s

fist feels ut­terly worth­while when you’re laz­ing on a stone ter­race be­neath a sky brim­ming with stars and fire­flies light up the night. Or watch­ing the sun­set from a lakeside bench as three 1m-long macaws feast on nuts in a neigh­bour­ing areca palm, then swoop nois­ily into the tree above my head, like a sto­ry­book sud­denly come to life. A soaked capy­bara sloshes through the swamp as a king­fisher scans the quick­sil­ver wa­ter for sup­per. A caiman chomps down on a freshly caught fish, the crack of its spine echo­ing across the shal­lows. A swift tou­can darts through the air at about tree height. There is end­less life in the Pan­tanal.

I wake next morn­ing to the chaco chacha­laca bird, a plain pheas­ant with a hideous call that sounds like a gen­er­a­tor seiz­ing up and dy­ing. It car­ries on like this from 4.30am un­til sun­rise, when the apoc­a­lyp­tic roars of the howler mon­key, the loud­est an­i­mal on land, shat­ter the peace of the plains. The alarm calls are timely, as we must be off early for the six-hour tran­sit to jaguar coun­try. That means three hours by road, cov­er­ing the 205km to the port city of Cac­eres, then three hours by boat to reach our base camp on the Paraguay River. We are head­ing to a re­mote area where no tour op­er­a­tors have been, so there can be no guar­an­tees. But guide Al­lan Franco claims the prob­a­bil­ity of see­ing a jaguar is good. ‘‘I have al­ways had sight­ings there and other guides have, too,’’ he tells us.

In Cac­eres we board a hum­ble, rum­bling ves­sel, Barao de Mal­gaco, for our float­ing sa­fari. Nor­mally a knock­about fish­ing char­ter laden with beer and what is pos­si­bly Brazil’s most ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion of stubby hold­ers, the two-storey cruiser is mak­ing its first run up the Paraguay River as the newly chris­tened Jaguar House­boat. Von Thuronyi has en­listed a film crew, lo­cal pho­tog­ra­phers and for­eign jour­nal­ists to record this pi­o­neer­ing jour­ney, so there’s quite a weight of ex­pec­ta­tion rid­ing on the trip.

In the late af­ter­noon we an­chor and board Zo­di­acs to ex­plore lily-fringed chan­nels, peer­ing into ob­scure veg­e­ta­tion where jaguars might lurk. At one point our driver, Paulo Luiz Ro­driguez Mot­tav (Paulinho for short), runs the boat on to a sand­bank and hops out to ex­plore. He re­turns non­plussed. ‘‘ There’s usu­ally al­ways jaguars here,’’ he shrugs.

By bed­time, the only cat we have seen am­a­teur video screened dur­ing din­ner of a jaguar crouched on a sand­bank, its body tight as a spring as it eyes a trio of tasty capy­baras nearby. Af­ter what seems like, and quite pos­si­bly is, five min­utes of ex­cru­ci­at­ing sus­pense, one of the ro­dents makes a break for the river. It is game on and, very shortly there­after, game over. Jaguars are dev­as­tat­ing hunters.

The hellish cho­rus of the speck­led chacha­laca stirs us for our dawn de­par­ture on what is to be the Day of the Jaguar.

Our des­ti­na­tion is the pre­vi­ously off-lim­its Ta­iama Is­land, an eco­log­i­cal sanc­tu­ary con­trolled by the gov­ern­ment-run Chico Men­des In­sti­tute for Con­ser­va­tion of Bio­di­ver­sity. Strict con­di­tions at­tach to our per­mit; only three boats at a time can en­ter the con­ser­va­tion zone for max­i­mum 20-minute observations, and vis­i­tors must keep 25m away from jaguars. No one can set foot on the is­land. There are said to be 98 jaguars on Ta­iama, but it has a 62km shore­line largely smoth­ered in jun­gle so we must live in hope that a thirsty cat comes to the river­bank to drink at ex­actly the same time we are pass­ing. It’s expected we will spend about 12 hours, non­stop, on the wa­ter.

In the early morn­ing, con­di­tions are still pleas­antly cool. There are three of us on board, in­clud­ing Paulinho, and we are lead­ing the con­voy so it feels as if we are pi­o­neers of the Pan­tanal. Zoom­ing through the ever­glades, at one with na­ture and a 40hp mo­tor. Beau­ti­ful.

Paulinho was raised on this river and nav­i­gates the flooded jun­gle labyrinths with a know­ing ease. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, the wa­ter­ways trans­form into avian high­ways of rush­ing cor­morants, cor­ri­dors of white herons, grace­ful storks and tow­er­ing jabirus that look like barely evolved ptero­dactyls.

At about 11am, Paulinho reck­ons the tem­per­a­ture is al­ready 38C and as the scorch­ing day drags on we be­come more list­less and dispir­ited. Von Thuronyi’s boat pulls up along­side ours mid-af­ter­noon. He is more philo­soph­i­cal than frus­trated. ‘‘Some­times you go three or four days be­fore you see one [jaguar],’’ he says.

We cruise into a bay called For­moso (Beau­ti­ful) and mar­vel at mas­sive wa­terlilies with frilled pink flow­ers the size of cabbages. This is nor­mally a good place to spot gi­ant ot­ters, but not to­day. The con­sen­sus among our crew is that the wa­ter lev­els are still too high — late rains swamped the plains three weeks ago — so the wildlife has re­treated in­land to drier ar­eas. We see a few caimans, huge and mean-look­ing in these parts, but hardly any capy­baras. And de­spite our ded­i­ca­tion to the cause, we do not wit­ness a sin­gle jaguar. The clos­est we get is an old set of claw marks scored high and deep into a tree trunk where we stop for lunch, and Paulinho’s star­tling im­per­son­ation of a jaguar call that sounds like he’s chok­ing on a fur ball.

By the end of that epic day it feels like the jour­ney’s pur­pose has been less about jaguars than ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the vast Pan­tanal delta sys­tem, which of­fers some of the world’s most re­mark­able wildlife mo­ments. Von Thuronyi re­flects on the foiled ex­cur­sion: ‘‘It’s not so much about how many an­i­mals we see but this feel­ing of pri­mal na­ture that gives the most out­stand­ing of the Pan­tanal.’’

And it is true. The ex­pe­ri­ence, and the house­boat en­gines, leave me vi­brat­ing for days.

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