February 07, 2004
Caimans and Big Cats
DAY 108: The one thing about wilderness safaris is that, unlike a visit to the zoo, animals aren't presented in convenient, sectioned off areas. The one guarantee about safaris is that there is no guarantee you'll see anything good. I had come to the Pantanal in hopes of seeing big cats -- pumas or jaguars -- but was disheartened when I heard that one Croatian girl who had been there a month working in the camp hadn't seen a big cat yet.
A BELL WOKE THE CAMP UP AT SIX O'CLOCK in the morning for breakfast, one hour before a seven o'clock hike through the wilderness to attempt to find some wildlife. Nearby we heard the sound of a chainsaw cutting into a tree (for another hut I later discovered).
"They're cutting down the rainforest. They must be making a McDonald's," I joked to Ludovic, an Englishman with really frazzled hair. He had been travelling with the others since Foz do Iguaçu and at one point had a really swollen foot. With his big feet and Hobbit hair, everyone just started calling him Frodo and it stuck.
Our big group divided into halves. Frodo's and my half was led by the energetic Akuna who brought us on a three-hour trek through the diverse ecological environments of the Pantanal:
After a five-hour siesta period -- when the many journal writers tended to their blank pages and the guide played rodeo, lassoing a makeshift cow made out of wood -- we went off again on a hike in attempts to find something more impressive. The Pantanal, thirteen times as big as Florida's Everglades with the largest concentration of fauna in South America according to Lonely Planet, should have something for us to see other than birds. Birds were everywhere that morning, but birds just didn't do it for us.
Our guide Akuna, who we were soon discovering was a bit crazy (but in a good way), decided to stir things up for our walking safari. Using nothing more than a stick and some string, he managed to lure a caiman from out of a nearby bog. Using his gaucho lassoing techniques, he lassoed the reptile around the neck and pulled it up. Holding the head for our safety (picture below), he let us pet the creature and pose with it for photos, slapping us in the ass with its tail as we finished.
In the bog we found an orphaned family of ducklings, which we were going to take back to camp in Craig's hat -- that is, until we realized that holding their feisty bodies signaled us that they just wanted to be let go. Craig the Aussie was hoping we could feed one straight to a caiman for some live National Geographic action, but I think Akuna had chased all the caimans out of the area already.
Dinner was followed by tea which was followed by beers and caipirinhas. I wasn't in the mood to get stupid drunk, which was the complete opposite of the others. The two Swedish guys had inside jokes amongst each other and giggled high-pitched like schoolgirls. Craig used his Abercrombie & Fitch looks to get close to some of the girls. Matt, a tall guy from the U.K., continued his Lord of the Rings references with Frodo --Frodo would always blame his actions with "It's not me, its the power of The Ring!" Deb the English goth girl from Birmingham was a loud powerhouse of drunken energy, stuttering like Ozzy Ozzbourne when he's sober, threatening to piss on people's faces in their hammocks. I was sort of stuck in the crossfire of everything as my hammock was in the middle of all the action, and was swung over and over by the others. As they say, if you can't beat them, join them -- or in my case, just sit quietly and observe the embarrassing entertainment of others. Most of the night I soberly thought "Wow, do I act like that when I drink that much?"
Everyone in the rest of camp was probably pissed off at our hut -- we were so loud the animals in the area were probably pissed off as well. The party went all night, which most people soon regretted since our wake up time was four o'clock in the morning for a pre-dawn safari, the primetime for spotting predators. In the madness of my hut, I only slept for twenty minutes before having to get up.
Our truck raced around the plains, chasing the big cat in a big circle. Akuna jumped off the truck, the mad Brazilian he was, and ran towards it. He ducked low behind some tall grass in a pouncing position and in a flash, he jumped on top of the puma, holding its legs and claws down to keep from getting his face ripped off or eyes clawed out. Another guide ran to his aid and together they held the puma triumphantly in the air.
"HERE IS THE PANTANAL!!!!" declared Akuna.
The crowd cheered with drunken "WOOOOOOO!"s. I was glad I was sober enough to have remembered the thrilling event. After all, on a safari in the Pantanal, there is no money back guarantee for pumas.
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