Dispatch #9: The World’s Largest Swamp : Brazil’s Pantanal do Mato Grosso

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       Our days began with breakfast at 6:30, followed by an outing that lasted till eleven or so, then lunch, followed a long siesta (the stifling, muggy mid-day heat  being impossible to function in), then another outing in the late afternoon that lasted until the sun went down promptly at six. The options were setting out on foot, on a mountain bike, on horseback, in a safari truck, or in a canoe. We also arranged for a boat trip on the Akitauana River, which was well worth taking. Vitinho went with us except when we rode horses. His father had been seriously injured in a fall when he was a child and he had been terrified of horses ever since. Each outing produced new mammals and birds, a new outpouring of the Pantanal’s cornucopia. One morning we wandered through an acurizal, a strip of acuri palms. Cattle eat the fruits of the acuri and defecate the pits, which are the main source of food for the hyacinthine macaw, so their presence is  not entirely detrimental. We passed the skeleton of one that had been bitten by a fer-de-lance.  We found the prints of a jaguar and a tapir (the largest mammal in South America, related to elephants, but the size of a pygmy hippo)and  saw, fifty yards ahead of us,  the furtive figure of an agouti, a high-rumped, white-spotted rodent, the size of a rabbit,  carrying a baby in its mouth. We spooked a large herd of white-lipped peccaries that had been stomping and snorting and tearing up the forest floor; they stampeded into the underbrush. We watched  a tiara, a relative of otters, climb a tree that was having the light squeezed out of it by a strangler fig.  The vine was the vegetable equivalent of an anaconda, as thick as one of the snake’s spiraling coils. We saw black howler monkeys and capuchins, one with a baby on its back, cavorting in the trees. The young capuchins were very curious and approached within twenty feet. We heard a sound like a creaking door  that was  being made by a skittish female crimson-crested woodpecker that was doing her best to keep out of sight.

        In the evening there were movies and slides and lectures about the Pantanal, which is an incredibly complex ecosystem, most of which no scientist has ever set foot in and never will,  because it is completely impenetrable. When the rains stop, the swamp dries out. Water lingers in lagoons and bayous choked  with fish, and with their food sufficiently concentrated to fuel the rigors of courtship and reproduction, the wood storks and maguari storks and jabiru storks and the many kinds of heron, the limpkins and egrets and all the other large wading birds gather in breeding colonies spread over acres, whose din can be heard for miles. Depending on the time of year and the water regime,  different shifts of birds are constantly coming in and departing, some for North America, some for the tip of South America, some for the northern Pantanal, which doesn’t dry out as much. Little, if any, work has been done on the butterflies, which are much more varied than the birds. I saw a tattered South American cousin of the monarchs which migrate in the fall thousands of miles from as far north as Manitoba to the volcanos of Michoacan, Mexico. It was darker orange, almost red, with thicker black veins. Its migratory patterns are unknown. Vitinho doubted that there were any undiscovered bird species still lurking in the Pantanal, but no one really knows what is in there, and I find that mysteriousness, that there is still, somewhere,  such an incomprehensible profusion of life,  reassuring.

         The other guests shared our awe and excitement. Among them was a stockbroker from Scarsdale and his teenage daughter. They had planned to go to Machu Picchu but had canceled out after the bombing of the American embassy in Lima a few days before President Bush’s visit and had come here instead. There was a couple from Berne, both lawyers, and their adopted daughter, the lovely product of a short-lived interracial union, and a young British couple who were teaching at St. Paul’s, the British school in São Paulo. The headmaster who had hired them had been found dead, either strangled by a homosexual lover or the victim of sexual self-asphyxiation. They were transferring to the British school in Swaziland, teaching their way around the world.         

       One evening we were invited to dinner by Roberto Klabim, who comes up once a month from Sao Paulo. His great-grandfather was a Lithuanian Jew who fled the pogroms of the l880s and started with a stationery store, then got into manufacturing cigarette papers. Subsequent Klabims had built up a vast cellulose empire, and Roberto had acquired the fazenda in l984. It was part of a much larger spread called the Estancia Miranda, which had been put together by some British aristocrats in l915—the same time that other British aristocrats were putting together huge ranches in Pantagonia and the Texas Panhandle. The original raison d’etre of  the estancia was to extract the aroeira trees—a “noble wood,” as Vitinho put it, rock-hard and water-resistant—for  sleepers for a railroad that was being built to Bolivia. Later, it became a cattle ranch. Roberto’s father had  bought it in the fifties, and it had been split up among his heirs. Roberto was the only one who was supplementing the ranching operation with ecotourism. He was all business, and utterly lacking in the famous Brazilian alegria and sense of fun, not someone who would take the morning off to go birdwatching. He seemed to regard the outrageous flora and fauna on his property more as an asset, a resource that  should be managed and capitalized on,  than as a source of spiritual nourishment or scientific edification. He didn’t know that the  thousands of   mushrooms  sprouting in his cow paddies were hallucinogenic ‘shrooms, as we called them in the sixties, in the genus Psilocybe. You could make a lot of money selling them Rio and São Paulo, I told him,  and they aren’t illegal in Brazil,  unlike marijuana and cocaine (a lot of which, by the way, is flown in from Bolivia to clandestine strips in the Pantanal or is driven in on the road from Campo Grande to Corumba that we came in on.  Roberto wasn’t amused. 

         I picked a dozen of the mushrooms and dried them and took them as a house present for Barbara Leary, the last wife of Timothy Leary, who is now the partner of Kim Esteve, a modern art collector in São Paulo, whom we were going to visit next. Barbara’s reaction was, I’ll take them if you take them first and we wait for forty-five minutes and see what happens. The last time I had done ‘shrooms was at a Jimmy Cliff concert at Carnegie Hall in l976. These were unquestionably psilocybin mushrooms, but the question was which species ? They vary considerably in terms of the potency and toxicity of their alkoloids. One of Kim’s artist friends had a book on the genus with photographs of  dozens of  members, but none of them were from Mato Grosso, so in the end we chickened out and flushed  them down the toilet. Yet another facet of the Pantanal’s bountiful natural history that needs to be looked into.  

Tips

The must thing to bring along is a bottle of rubbing alcohol to wash insect bites with. Even if you slather yourself in bug dope, it is so hot and sticky that it will wash off and you are going to get bitten. The alcohol both cleanses the bites and reduces the urge to itch, and the various microbes that thrive in the moist microclimate of your fingernails can product apricot-sized “jungle ulcers” if you scratch enough and your immune system is not adapted to the tropics. 

De Schauensee has been superseded by tk’s Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica, Princeton University Press.

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