Where can you find an ant-eater, a sex-obsessed teenage stable-boy, five German missionaries, crocodiles, a French guy who introduces himself as "Funkadelicious," Jamie Oliver’s double and 40 million mosquitoes all in the same place?
I know it’s a question you have long wanted to know the answer to. I am
extremely relieved that I am now able to provide it. It’s in Rio Claro
pousada in the Pantanal in the far west of Brazil.
I was persuaded to head out by a Brazilian friend in London, Telma, who said that I couldn’t leave Brazil without visiting the Pantanal, a vast wetlands region renowned for its water and landscapes and its wildlife.
To get to the Pantanal, I took a car that headed South – first along a smooth tarmac road but soon erratically swerving its way along a muddy red track with green marshy fields dotted with clumps of trees on either side. It looked at times like plains in Africa, and I half-expected to see giraffes and elephants even though they are not known to exist in Latin America as far as I am aware.
In fact, we were almost immediately surrounded by wildlife, although I would never have known it without the help of the taxi-driver. Where I saw a hazy green, he seemed able to conjure up caymans, kingfishers, kites, monkeys and marsh deer which were obvious when he pointed them out but strangely invisible until then.
This proved to be my experience for the next three days. The only wildlife I seemed to spot before my guide were the millions of deranged mosquitos out for gringo blood. My guide seemed completely oblivious to them.
The taxi-driver dropped me off at a very unconvincing side-road at the point where the track turned into a vast lake. I was starting to wonder whether I could remember how to construct a shelter from my cub-scout days, when a tractor turned up and delivered me to a surprisingly luxurious farmhouse with hammocks, a swimming pool and nonchalant tourists who acted as if they had lived there all their lives.
Over the next three days, I used almost every form of Pantanal transport to explore the surrounding wetlands, rivers and forests. It was the wet season which meant that every journey involved water whether it was cycling, walking or horse-riding.
The scenery was beautiful and tranquil – winding rivers that reflected the entire skyline, marshy fields with a rich scattering of flowers, forests filtering sunlight through spiraling creepers and dense green foliage. And for each time of day, the vistas had their own musical accompaniment – the wailing growls of howler monkeys at dawn, the piercing one-note shrill of the cicadas in the midday heat, and the cacophany of birds as dusk settled.
We had a very rigorous schedule – up at 5.30am for sun-rise walks, horse-riding in the morning, boat trip in the afternoon, night-walks after supper. To cope with these exertions, the guides gave us 6 hour breaks in the middle of the day to swing nonchalantly in hammocks pretending that we had lived in the farmhouse all our lives.
At meal-times, I would retreat behind netted verandahs to look at the different species of tourists. I spent my first meal talking to five young Germans, who had come as missionaries to the Brazilians, although they were a rather depressing bunch I thought to bring much ‘good news.’ I liked one of them, Simon, who spoke the most English, and very methodically worked his way through each chapter of a standard language book. My family, my work, my hobbies…
So I decided to join the English/French table at the next meal. "Hey, mate. Cool. Howz it going?. Pukka" said Will, a blond-haired, sunburnt English guy in a silly hat as soon as I sat down. It was Jamie Oliver in disguise. Soon I was being introduced to Em, a geordie lass and Lozza from Swindon and being regaled with stories of "wicked" carnival antics and his plans to "burn it down to Argentina" to "do" the country.
I was soon trying to score my own travellah points by saying I was coming to work here (that gets you a higher score here). "That’s sweet, brother" said Will. Funkadelicious smoked camels in the corner and drew very cool-looking drawings of the scene in his notebook.
It was one of the guide’s birthdays, so at about 10pm, the guitar came out. Luckily, there is an international songbook which exists in every tourist’s head so we were soon singing "No woman, no cry", "Stairway to heaven", "Let it be", "With or without you". I think you can guess all the others.
I say sing, although of course none of us knew any more than the chorus and the first verse. The Brazilians, by contrast, all seemed to know all 16 verses of their own songs and never had to fill in with vague hummings.
On my last day to escape the tourists, I decided to go for a walk with the teenage guy in the pousada who looked after the horses. It turned out that he had only one topic of conversation: sex. Unfortunately there is not much of it to be found on a pousada, especially as he was a bit shy of tourist women. And he only has four days off out of every thirty.
He had a girlfriend in Pocone, 30 miles north of the pousada. When I asked if she was beautiful, he said not particularly. But I think you can guess what he said when I asked him what he did when he went back for his four days in Pocone.