A fantastic winter excursion with a special spring follow-up to southern Brazil
July - August, and October 2013
It is said that no accomplishment is as satisfying as the one that included doubt. And no achievement as rewarding as the one that demanded utmost commitment. If there is a general rule that applies to my personal life, it is the one that I will only ever succeed at any of my ventures when I pursue them with all I have. It is never about possession, but only about appreciation and the sharing of life's experiences.
So on this excursion, for more than one reason I wanted to concentrate very intensely on further raising the bar. On taking certain aspects of my photographic work to the next level. Moreover, I wanted to make the most of the three weeks spent in the field with one of the best professional wildlife photographers I know. All that was required to get the ball rolling was for nature to play along. - It did after a few days, but the beginning of this trip was quite unusual, as southern Brazil got hit by a severe polar cold front covering over 80 towns in snow and sending temperatures to a never before recorded -7° C. in some places.
Leaving Zurich late at night, Swiss Int. Arlines LX092 reaches São Paulo after 11hrs 50min flying time. However, the Airbus A340-300 already moves into Brazilian airspace a good four hours before landing. I always enjoy observing the geographic window that opens through the flight map program in modern aircraft. On this route, I am once again reminded of just how vast Brazil as a country is. 8,5 million km2. More than 2.6 times the size of India. Thus, it can be imagined just how diverse Brazil is in terms of geology, climate and vegetation. Of course, if I could zoom into this map the way I can on Google Earth, I would be able to see the ugly scars which massive deforestation continues to inflict on this land.
Sadlly, Brazil too was colonized by people who saw nothing but immense resources, up for the taking on behalf of their old world rulers. The land, with everything on it simply was here to be used and exploited by man and for various reasons, many still see it this way today.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book „Guns, Germs and Steel“, Jared Diamond describes in a captivating abstract one of the final onslaughts on the continent and its peoples by Europeans. It was a campaign lead by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the name of King Carlos I that lead to the capture of Atahualpa, last emperor of the Inca Empire. Not just for South America, but for all areas of the world that had to face European invasion and subsequent conquest, I sometimes wonder what their development would have been like if the dominant European societies would have been less religious, but more humanistic and generally more advanced at the time of these conquests. Unfortunately, we will never know.
From São Paulo it is a quick 1 1/2h hop to Iguaçu. Most intercontinental flights reach Guarulhos airport before 06:00h and in theory, it would be easy to catch the 07:30h connection on TAM to the falls. However, international visitors have to clear immigration and customs at Guarulhos, and especially immigration at the airport can be such a lengthy process that it becomes impossible to make any onward connection within 3 hours from landing. There are a few bars and restaurants on the first floor at Terminal 2 (go to the left side, there is a Starbucks with power plugs) that will offer a cup of coffee and a toasted sandwich.
The Iguaçu falls can be seen from the Brazilian and the Argentinian side of the Iguaçu river. I booked a room with a view of the falls at the Hotel das Cataratas. Any one visiting this place: This is a worthy investment. It is the only hotel located inside the national park on the Brazilian side and hotel guests are allowed to access the falls at any time, while visitors staying outside the park may access from 09:00h to 18:00h only. So the best light is reserved for whoever stays at the Cataratas. Furthermore, this definitely is the kind of place I enjoy spending a couple of nights on such a trip. The small, colonial style house has recently undergone careful renovation after it was taken over by Orient Express Hotels. Standards are excellent and one can only hope that its remote relative, the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe will one day find back to the hospitality and service which is offered here.
And when you stay at the Cataratas, make absolutely sure to hit the bar for some extensive Caipirinha tasting. There is a considerable selection of the finest Cachaças on offer and the variety of Caipirinhas that come from it is phenomenal. Although one does not see many Brazilians order this drink. It is something for Gringos, so it seems.
Caipirinha time :-)
The cold front
A few days before arrival, I had been informed about cold weather conditions that would prevail in southern Brazil at the beginning of this trip. However, no one could have been prepared for what we were about to experience: The coldest weather ever recorded in these parts of the country brought snowfall to Florianopolis and Curitiba, temperatures below freezing in Campinas and around freezing in Campo Grande. At Iguaçu I still saw daytime high temperatures of around 15° C., dense cloud cover and intense rainfall at times. This meant that I couldn’t capture any of the typical “white spray, lush greens, blue sky” images the Iguaçu falls are famous for. Instead it provided a rather special opportunity to set the falls against a most dramatic background. And just to complete the picture, late on the last afternoon of our stay at the Cataratas, the cloud cover lifted for about an hour. I jumped up, got my soaked jacket out again and headed down to the falls for some golden hour impressions of this most impressive place. The scene was archaic, eery, in a "Jurassic Park-esque" kind of way. What a fantastic display of the powers of nature.
The main falls in stormy weather
Parque do Zizo, Atlantic Rainforest
The flight back to Sao Paulo was scheduled to depart from Iguaçu at 06:00h. This meant an early start and I was delighted to see that the hotel was very well prepared, with a light breakfast ready next to the reception area. Later at the check-in counter I heard about the flight having been cancelled. The TAM staff was quick to re-route us on a connection via Curitiba. This meant that we would arrive at Sao Paulo two hours later than anticipated, but just in time to meet up with Octavio Campos Salles, who would be our guide for this trip from here on.
Octavio’s timing was as impeccable as ever. He was already at the arrivals hall and we immediately headed off to pick up our rental car. After crawling through some heavy Sao Paulo traffic we eventually cleared the city outskirts in a south westerly direction. Our next destination would be the fantastically beautiful Parque do Zizo Private Reserve bordering the Atlantic Rainforest National Park. Just about 4 hours after leaving Guarulhos Int. Airport we parked our rental car at the reserve’s boundary and Chico, the spiritual father of Parque do Zizo was waiting for us in a battered 1960-ies Chevrolet offroader. The last stretch of track into the park consists of some very steep and heavy 4x4 terrain with wet rocks and drenched sand tracks. Low range gear and locked diffs all the way. It was getting dark as we unloaded the Chevy and moved our stuff to our very basic, yet super charming rooms. And it was considerably cooler than Iguaçu.
Dark and wet Parque do Zizo
The cold front had now hit the area full force. Temperatures dropped to about 4° C. and remained at this level throughout the four nights we spent in the park. Since Parque do Zizo has no electricity, the only way to keep warm was standing next to the fireplace in the open kitchen. It felt like the cold weather had brought life in the park close to a standstill. This area holds one of the world’s highest biodiversity and the birdlife is absolutely phenomenal. On his previous visit, three weeks prior to our stay at Zizo, Octavio observed over 140 bird species in just two days, while during our four days in the park we merely encountered 59 species. Or they encountered us, I should rather say, as we were pretty much grounded in our camp and could not venture out on the forest trails. Soaked, steep slippery paths are not ideal grounds on which to carry a 600mm f/4 lens mounted to a sturdy tripod. Several times a day a mixed flock with some tanagers, euphonias, woodnymphs, woodpeckers and some other species showed up to nibble on pieces of banana and on the hummingbird feeders we had put out for them. Whenever the rain stopped for a moment, toucans and toucanets came close to camp to feed on fruiting palm trees in the valley. There was no sign of the mammals that Octavio had previously managed to photograph here. Understandably, they had all taken shelter deep within the forest.
Throughout our stay at Parque do Zizo, Chico and his sister Maria Antonieta looked after us in a most wonderful way. This pocket of primary rainforest is a true marvel of nature and an absolute birder’s paradise. I will definitely include Zizo (accompanied by Octavio) in future travel plans, not least because this time I have missed the Blond-crested woodpecker and some other feathered gems that can be observed here in a completely pristine, authentic and peaceful habitat.
The only warm spot, as I'm preparing my breakfast at the fire place
The old Chevy had more hard work to do to get us out of the Parque do Zizo valley, but it was perfectly reliable and after switching to our rental car we reached Guarulhos Int. Airport within just over 3 hours, in time to board our flight to Cuiaba. It is difficult to imagine that travelling a mere two hours inland could make such a difference in climate. The cold front had passed Cuiaba and the northern Pantanal while we were at Zizo and as we were disembarking the Gol Airlines Boeing 737 at Cuiaba airport, winter sunshine and a mild afternoon breeze at 25° C. quickly helped us our of our fleece sweaters. A good half an hour later we were en route to our next destination, the Araras Pantanal Eco Lodge on the Transpantaneira highway. From Cuiaba it is a good 2hrs drive down to Pocone, rough and rugged mining town and access point to the Pantanal. After filling up the car at Pocone, it took us another hour in golden evening light with the odd photo stop to get to Araras.
Gate to the Pantanal / Transpantaneira highway
Araras Eco Lodge, I knew from my 2011 trip to this area, would be a perfect place to relax and enjoy what I call nature growing back in the Pantanal. Of course this farm still holds large herds of cattle and breeds fine horses, but significant tracts of land of this 2'700ha property now remain untouched and so it is no surprise that wildlife is more abundant and less shy here than in many other areas of the northern Pantanal. The boardwalks and observation towers are well maintained and the accommodation has recently undergone a bit of renovation. A basic and comfy place that makes me feel at home.
One particular highlight of this place is the opportunity to photograph Hyacinth macaws in flight from the observation tower. The birds will sometimes fly belower the tower, providing a clear view with green backdrop. Another excursion worth doing is the canoe cruise on a small river on the western fringe of the farm. It takes a bit of time to get there on the open game drive vehicle, but there is lots to see on the way and the forest along the river is really stunning. Among many other species we saw Boat-billed heron and Green-and-rufous kingfisher there. And yes, it had to happen: After launching the canoe, one has to decide whether to go up- or downstream first. Two other boats went downstream, we instead headed upstream first. It is a 50/50 chance, but Octavio and I had a slightly raised blood pressure for a moment when a guest from another canoe returned with a fairly decent picture of an ocelot patrolling the river shore in the open. The canoe tour ended with a fantastic BBQ, after which one could have a little siesta in a hammock and enjoy the bush sounds, or go for some Piranha fishing. An Amazon kingfisher perched next to me and tapirs moved through the bush behind us, as we were enjoying our lunch.
A Hyacinth macaw in flight, as seen from the observation tower at Araras Eco Lodge
(Four exposures combined into one frame)
Seven jaguars and unexpected reunions
Once again, a main focus of this excursion were the jaguars along Rios Cuiaba and Tres Irmaos, to be reached from Porto Jofre at the end of the Transpantaneira highway. After lunch on our last day at Araras Eco Lodge we bid farewell to our hosts, Andre von Thuronyi and Akhila Krusic and then tackled the good three hours of gravel road down to Porto Jofre Hotel. We found PJ as nice and friendly as ever, but now with 6 breeding pairs of Hyacinth macaws nesting on the hotel grounds and with the beautiful lagoon behind our bungalow fringed by Victoria water-lilies, their leafs easily carrying birds as large as tiger herons. And we found Vanderley, who would be our boat guide for the next couple of days.
Porto Jofre Hotel offers excellent, traditional food. Piranha soup, steaks, beans and maniok in all forms and shapes. Searching for jaguars means a very early start and since at Porto Jofre, the kitchen is used to having fishermen requesting equal departure times as photographers, a full, hearty breakfast buffet is ready at 05:00h. Fantastic, as this meant that each of the following six days we would see the sun rise while being well up-river towards the jaguar heartland of this area. The search is intense and requires days on end spent on a small boat cruising up and down the Cuiaba, Piquiri and Tres Irmaos rivers and some of the lagoons that are accessible. I sometimes think that parking off at a lagoon and listening to the souns of the bush for cat movement could be equally productive, but if there is a cat out there, Vanderley will find it. That's for sure. As a result of this instinct and determination, we found 7 differend jaguars in 6 days and some provided fantastic photographic opportunities.
Sadly it must be said that there are other operators in the area that have little understanding and respect for the animals they base their income on. On several occasions I witnessed very bad behaviour by large boats from an American operator. Some of the boat guides would shine powerful laser pointers on the jaguars. Are their guests, armed to their teeth with the biggest tripods, the longest lenses and most sophisticated cameras not used to spotting wildlife in the field withouth the red dot of a laser beam, I wonder? Also, some of these guides and guests never stop chatting and this is particularly annoying when alarm calls by various birds are a clear sign for a cat on the move. Good thing though that the American boats are too large to access some of the more shallow channels. On several occasoins we could leave this noisy, ill-behaved crowd behind at a narrow passage.
Take off your shoes and pants, hop into the swamp and pull the boat to the other side of this passage to leave any larger boat behind
What happens when one finds a jaguar? Sometimes, there will be a number of other boats around and if all goes well, the cat will be undisturbed by this, just carrying on with what it has been doing (i. e. hunting, grooming, sleeping, patrolling, etc.). On some occasions, though there will be only one or two boats and this is when the magic happens. Our shortest sighting on this trip actually resulted in one of my favourite images: A young female, well after sunset with very little light left. When I check my camera read-outs I see that from when I first layed eyes on the cat until I took the deciding picture, I had 4 seconds. Another 3 seconds later the jaguar had disappeared. Another sighting lasted almost two hours, through golden to blue hour light, as we followed a female hunting along a channel. This was a legendary afternoon. As a highlight I recall sitting in our boat and observing the gorgeous jaguar on the shoreline, clearly less than one leap away to my left, stalking a cayman that rested about 30m in front of us, while some parrots raced across the channel, calling out loudly. Vanderley had to use his machete, chopping through vegetation while Octavio and I pulled our boat through the swamp to get it to a remote part of that particular lagoon. What a privileged experience.
I will compile a new jaguar image collection, combining the new images with some of the photos I captured during my 2011 excursion to the Pantanal. At least two of the jaguars I photographed in 2011 I now saw again this year. Interestingly, in both instances I recognized these cats the moment I looked through the viewfinder.
On my list of photographic adventures to come, I have now noted to spend an extended period of time at Porto Jofre, to add to my Pantanal portfolio some truly magical momens.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible
Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
Wildlife and farming communities in the Pantanal
Human-wildlife conflict sometimes carries a friendly smile, and sometimes it looks very pristine from the air. Nevertheless, it puts constant pressure on wildlife and where this pressure is growing too big, wildlife will simply be driven over the edge. On a local scale, a group of fishermen may not think anything if the giant river otters are gone from "their" river. Or a farmer may be happy to see he doesn't loose any calfs to jaguars anymore and can just carry on with outdated husbandry practices, leaving his cattle unattended to wander into riverine forests. But add one river and one farming property to the next and suddenly you realise that cornerstones of biodiversity are gone from vast tracts of land and extensive stretches of river systems.
A friendly fisherman illegally drifting into the Tres Irmaos State Park to set his traps
The Pantanal is home to huge cattle farms and in light of the world's ever increasing hunger for cheap meat, most of these farms will likely continue their business as suppliers to the meat industry in decades to come. The essential question is: Will the farmers afford more room to nature?
Cattle in the forest: A situation large predators like jaguars will try to take advantage of
In most places, eco tourism is in its very early days. The farm where I am right now, for example, is the only operation in the entire region with eco tourism guest facilities. This means that few if any of the neighbouring farms currently attribute value to biodiversity and care to reserve tracts of land in support of wildlife on their properties. Thus, even if pumas are tolerated on this farm, their offspring, during dispersal will most probably run into trouble. Even if Hyacinth macaws are protected and looked after here, the next farmer may still cut down the palm trees these birds feed on, just to have some heart of palm in his salad bowl. Even if I can enjoy observing the ocelots here, a neighbouring farm worker may shoot and skin the cats, then smuggle the fur out to Paraguay for a couple of bucks. But if future generations of farm owners see that having wildlife on their farms pays hard currency as they can welcome local and international visitors to spend their holidays here, then chances for long-term survival of the Pantanal's wildlife will significantly inrcrease. After all, this is such a fantastic place. Very much like the Okavango delta, minus the African mega fauna, but with plenty to compensate.
Charismatic wildlife and pastures: A scene so typical of this beautiful land
Porto Jofre to Bonito
In 2011, our transfer from Porto Jofre to Bonito (MS) took us a full day, as we had to drive back all the way to Cuiaba (7hrs incl. lunch at Pocone), then fly to Campo Grande (3hrs incl. airport time) and from there drive to Bonito (3 1/2hrs). So for this trip, I was very happy to arrange a private light aircraft charter flight, straight from Porto Jofre airstrip to Bonito airport. Our air transfer was supposed to leave at sunrise, but the pilot never made it to Porto Jofre the night before. Instead the Cessna 206 Stationair arrived at about 08:00h and was ready to depart again shortly after that. As opposed to the 206 models I know from Africa, this plane had no cargo hold under the cabin, but we managed to fit all our luggage inside and squeeze into the seats ourselves. The pilot was supposed to do a low fly-over at the confluence of Rios Cuiaba and Piquiri, but he never did. Instead he just headed straight south and never interacted with us, never even bothered to deviate a few metres to make sure we would see some highlights of the Pantanal landscape below us in good light. Another reminder of the fact that many people here are not used to having visitors who just wish to enjoy the sights of nature. Thus, such requests have to be firmly arranged before take-off. There will be a next time, I hope.
On a lighter note, we reached Bonito about 1hr 45min after take-off and now had the full day ahead of us to enjoy.
Aerial view of a floodplain in the southern Pantanal, between Porto Jofre and Bonito
The beauty of Bonito
Bonito is famous among Brazilians, and rightly so. This area holds so much natural beatuy, yet it is largely undeveloped from an international eco tourism point of view. Not that I need to see more international visitors clogging up the two or three current hotspots, but if some of these farms that offer eco tourism activities, some farms that don't yet and some of the hotels and resorts between Bonito, Jardim and Aquidauana would put their heads together, this area would be a perfect completion to any jaguar safari in the northern Pantanal and a perfect link to Iguaçu. As it stands now, it is a patchwork of more or less well organised arrangements. Never mind, Octavio and I do the obvious: Pick the best, forget the rest. In our case, the best is:
To make myself clear: The area between Iguaçu, Bodoquena and Cuiaba, in combination with Parque do Zizo and perhaps including the southern Amazon holds the potential of being the Brazilian equivalent to the area between Windhoek, Victoria Falls and Nelspruit, i. e. some of the hotspots of Southern African eco tourism.
Snorkelng in the Rio da Prata
Jaguars are easy...
..but to see any of South and Central America's small cats in the wild is extremely difficult. The smaller cats include species you may have never hear of: Ocelot, margay, oncilla, geoffroy's cat, pampas cat, jaguarundi and Andean mountain cat. These cats occur in varying habitats and all but the Andean mountain cat are primarily active between dusk and dawn, mainly to avoid larger predators like jaguars and pumas, where they occur. Some then are arboreal and prefer dense forests. The largest and most widely known of the small cat species is the ocelot leopardus pardalis. Unfortunately, in the last century this stunningly beautiful cat came to fame through the fur trade, as ocelots were killed by the hundreds of thousands up to the mid 1970-ies to supply skins for the then still environmentally ignorant and largely unchallenged fashion industry. Fortunately, the ocelot is now protected across most of its range, although illegal killings may still occur in many places.
We had missed an opportunity during our canoe outing at Araras Eco Lodge, and all the time while we were criss-crossing the Tres Irmaos river system in search of jaguars, I hoped to perhaps come across an ocelot (sightings do occur, but are extremely rare). Then, one late afternoon while we were capturing beatiful images of a pair of least grebes at Estancia Mimosa, a French gentleman walked up to us, enquiring about our trip, and whether we had seen jaguars in the northern Pantanal. He then pulled out his camera and showed us pictures of an animal he couldn't identify. There they were: A female ocelot and a cub about half her size. We immediately asked where the photos had been taken and learned that this was at a guest farm some 300km north of Bonito. That same evening we returned to Cabanas Hotel and Octavio called the guest farm, enquiring about availability and directions. The farm could only offer us one night, but we immediately confirmed and cut short our stay at Bonito.
As we reached this farm on our last day of this trip, we could see that yet another strong cold front was moving in. Still, we wanted to try and headed down to a stretch of dense riverine forest where we were told the ocelot would appear from time to time. Waiting for nearly three hours, while the storm grew stronger and colder didn't bring success and we eventually had to abandon this mission. It just didn't leave me alone that night in bed and I kept thinking that this would probably be the one and only place where a wild living ocelot could be observed, perhaps even photographed in its natural environment. After all, I had been searching the internet for "ocelot+safari", "ocelot+photography", "ocelot+research", etc. for years with no result, other than that of some zoos and people who held captive animals. After all, not even Octavio had heard of a place where this beautiful animal could be seen in the wild. My mind was made up and over breakfast Octavio and I agreed to return to this place later in the year. October it would be.
Back in October
Right now as I type these words, I sit here at a table in the main building of this guest farm, next to a very intelligent, beautiful and charming lady, daughter of the family who owns this fanastic 2'500 ha property and mother to the children who will be the following generation to look after this land. Five of the eight nights I have to find the ocelots are behind me and I have had the opportunity to not only observe four different cats, but to photograph three of them from close up. My results are spectacular. The situation is such that these ocelots have grown used to having people around, albeit people who take no interest in the cats and just leave them alone. I guess this could occur elsewhere, too. But for now, this is the only place known to me, between southern Texas and northern Argentina, where wild living ocelots can be observed and photographed in their natural environment. Four nights out of five, so far, and counting.
See the 2013 Southern Brazil gallery in the By Excursion section for more ocelot images
Octavio is due to arrive any moment now and we intend to make the most of this unique opportunity by arranging perfect lighting for the natural stage. Because of the delicate nature of this arrangement, we will not yet reveal the name of this farm and the circumstances under which these fantastic cats can be found. But we are in contact with the owners of this property and we will draw up a communications plan to inform interested members of the wildlife photography community around the world. Meanwhile, enjoy the images captured this week here in the Brazilian Pantanal and if you are in urgent need of your own ocelot images, then Octavio Campos Salles will be able to arrange accommodation and "the guide" for you at this place. And don't expect for a second to find the cats without "the guide". It will never happen.
What Brazil lacks in large mammals, it more than compensates through its fantastic birdlife. Not only the vast diversity, but also the spectacular beauty and fascinating biology of many species turns Brazil into a paradiese for any one with as much as a slight interest in birds. The ID list is long, although as described above, we had a difficult start to the July - August trip because of bad weather. 59 species at the Atlantic Rainforest, 158 species at Araras Eco Lodge, Porto Jofre and Bonito, with another 4 species observed exclusively at Bonito. At the place where I stay now, I then found a good dozen of species that I hadn't observed in the Pantanal before. And we found a Greater potoo, both at night and during daytime.
The July-August excursion was arranged through Octavio Campos Salles Photo Tours, Campinas, Brazil. Many thanks to Octavio for perfect planning and, as ever, equally perfect execution. It was great fun and again throughout this trip we have had access to places and situations one would simply never find and experience without a local guide who knows what he is doing. Swiss Intl. Airlines offers a daily service from Zurich to Sao Paulo and except for the flight to Iguaçu and back, which was booked with TAM Airlines, all other domestic flights were booked with Gol Airlines. I like the no-nonsense, no bells & whistles service Gol provide. They do charge excess luggage, but at a fair rate and they never bother me about the carry-on luggage. Trip Airlines arranged the light aircraft charter from Porto Jofre to Bonito. As said, this worked ok from a technical point of view (i. e. the guy got us there in one piece), but I would definitely scout for alternatives next time, simply to find a pilot who is more open to international visitors and photographers.
Patrick Meier - October 2013