Stars of the catwalk
Forces of nature ... a jaguar at rest. Photo: Paul Kennedy/Lonely Planet
Lisa Young visits one of the best places in the world to meet a jaguar — and they don't disappoint.
'Jaguar, jaguar!" The driver fails to suppress his excitement as he slams on the brakes. A huge, golden jaguar has just landed a few feet in front of our small car.
As it stands in the middle of the gravel track, its thick head turns to look at us and then, slowly and provocatively, it moves along the road like a model down a catwalk.
The jaguar has come, the driver explains, in search of snoozing capybara. These large rodents resemble giant guinea pigs and make for easy pickings as they sleep huddled together on the roadside. We drive beside the elegant feline. I'm so close now that if I reached out the window, I could touch its rosette-patterned back. Then, with one last glance at us, the jaguar slinks off into the night.
We're heading along the unpaved Transpantaneira Highway to the Araras Eco Lodge, deep in the heart of the Brazilian Pantanal. The Pantanal, a Unesco World Heritage site, lies in the western part of central Brazil, in the state of Mato Grosso, and encompasses approximately 140,000 square kilometres – the size of France, Holland, Belgium, Italy and half of Portugal combined. It boasts vast savannahs, forests, rivers, lagoons and is bursting with exotic mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. Only 250 kilometres south of the Amazon Forest, it is considered the largest freshwater wetland in the world.
There are two seasons: drought, from June to November (high season); and rain, heat and lots of mosquitoes, from December to May (wet season). Fortunately, there's no malaria or yellow fever in the area.
For travellers, the Pantanal offers spectacular wildlife-spotting opportunities and is one of the last places to see the endangered blue hyacinth macaw. It's also prime jaguar country.
There are 126 wooden bridges along the Transpantaneira, which stretches for about 150 kilometres between Pocone and Porto Jofre.
As we bump over yet another bridge, I can feel the planks of wood shift under the weight of the car. Eight bridges later, there on the road, is another jaguar, bigger than the previous one yet equally beautiful.
I can't believe my luck. I've been in the Pantanal for four hours and I've seen two big cats.
Andre Thuronyi, the owner of the 2700-hectare Araras Eco Lodge, moved to the Pantanal in 1976 when the region was virtually unknown. "The jaguar used to be rare. I waited 11 years to see one in the wild," he says. "Back then, so many of them were killed by local farmers. The cats killed the cattle, so the farmers hunted them."
Today, thanks to Andre's pioneering work, there is a much greater chance of spotting jaguar in the area, with June to October and February to April being the best times.
An avid conservationist, he raised awareness among the local farmers and taught them how to live in harmony with the local wildlife. The farmers also understand the financial potential of protecting the cats and have built lodges to accommodate visitors who come to the area.
The following morning, I join Eduardo Falcao de Arruda, a farmer-turned-conservationist who operates a water-based jaguar-spotting business on the nearby Cuiaba River. We drive for an hour along the Transpantaneira, passing through lush wetlands to get to the river. Jabiru storks (the symbol of the Pantanal) feed on fish as they step between resting cayman.
It is 11am and already 40 degrees. When we reach the river, we climb into a boat and head towards a place called Black Water, a regular jaguar hang-out. Two vultures drift past on an upturned cayman carcass, while cheeky giant water otter play on the bank.
As we turn a bend, hundreds of jumping fish leap out of the water. Some land in the boat, so we keep them as jaguar bait. But the jaguar are nowhere to be found and we return to the lodge, parched and gasping for a cold drink.
Before sunset, I make my way along an 800-metre walkway over marshes to a 25-metre observation tower. At the top, I come face-to-face with a troupe of howler monkeys. Andre erected the tower in 1999. "I built it above tree level so we would have great views. The howlers were annoyed because we were higher than them so they soon claimed it," he says.
The howlers spot an intruder and launch into what they do best – howling. Their necks expand as they expel an intense and chilling guttural sound that is both deafening and intimidating.
The next day, I join Andre at the stables for a two-day trek exploring new riding routes on his property. Chaco and Branco, local pantaneiros (cowboys) who usually look after Andre's many head of Brahman cattle, join us.
After four hours, we rest by a river for lunch, then continue for another three hours along beautiful trails until we eventually arrive, hot and tired, at a traditional cowboy camp called Bafo da Onca (Onca is the local name for jaguar; bafo means breath).
After a hearty cowboy stew, we hang our hammocks by the fire. All the stars are out, satellites cross the sky and fireflies dance around us. Some time later, I'm woken by a strange noise nearby. A few feet away, enjoying delicious fallen fruit, is a large tapir. Tapirs are related to hippo and are the largest mammal in Brazil.
We rise with the sun and wash in water from a deep well. Branco points out a fresh jaguar print. I realise that it must have been watching us last night.
After breakfast, we pack our gear onto the horses and head off. The heat soon returns and I break off a small leafy branch to swat the chorus of insects buzzing around my head. To get back to the lodge, we must cross a large river. It's a relief to get in the cool water, even if there are cayman, anacondas and piranha in its murky depths. Horses are powerful swimmers and we hang on to their manes as they pull us through.
We celebrate our return with a cold beer. I am sorry not to have added to my jaguar count but I also feel very lucky to have seen not one but two on this trip.
LanChile flies from Sydney to Brasilia via Buenos Aires, then code-shares to Cuiaba, which is 100 kilometres from the start of the Transpantaneira Highway. Return fares from $2539 including taxes. See travel.com.au.
World Expeditions offers four-day tours of the Pantanal departing daily from Cuiaba, from $1470. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.