Tuesday, January 4, 2011

...and a Pantanalian New Year !!! (30 December 2010 - 3 January 2011)

"Feliz Ano Nuevo!" (Happy New Year!) from "The Pantanal" in Brazil!

I celebrated the arrival of 2011 with a "Brazilian Beetle" firmly biting my hand!!! This bug was served to me for desert after midnight by my new found friends in Brazil as a joke - more on this later!

New Year for me was defined by a traditional Brazilian feast, music and dancing (Carnivale), in the wild, at the "Pousada Rio Mutum" which is an "ecolodge (pousada)" on the river Mutum, 130km south of Cuiaba (Pop 527K) in the state of Mato Grosso near Mimosso and the geographic centre of South America. Owner, Alice Galuao, her daughter Estephania and their wonderful staff put on a night I will never forget. Aside from my own family and friends being absent, it was probably one of the best New Years I have ever had. Here am I thinking...what will I do?

Approx 30 guests feasted on 8hr oven-roasted lamb, pork, beef and fish accompanied a myriad of side-dishes and plenty of local beer and "Cachaca", the 39% local spirit! The only meat Brazilan's do not eat on New Year's eve is chicken since it steps backwards as it eats, so no Brazilian wants to go backwards in the new year (Julia Gillard's moving forward theory in reverse!). The bug on my hand was a great dinner joke until I tried to kiss it and bit me! It would not come off! Finally when someone revealed a cigarette lighter to burn it off, it released all by itself! It must have understood what the words 'BIC" mean!!!

Rio Mutum Ecolodge and others like it, are designed to expose guests to the rich flora and fauna of the Pantanal of Brazil via guided treks, boat trips, horse-back riding, spotlighting and 4-wheel driving. Rio Mutum lodge comprises 22 individual aircon cabins, a huge dining hut, a big TV and games hut, an outdoor lounge and even a pool and spa. And yes, the www is accessible!!! Rio Mutum ecolodge is located at the bottom of the Amazon so a lot of its vegetation and wildlife is actually present.

Put bluntly, the Pantanal is a swamp the size of New South Wales with a shitload of exotic wildlife in it!!! It is the world's largest wetlands covering 230,000 square kilometers with a living thick pea soup of exotic animal species, including 650 bird and 80 mammal. Specialties of the house include the "Capybara" (world's largest rodent, up to 1m long!), "Jacares" (or Caiman alligator, up to 6m long!), "Rhea" (1.4m high flightless bird), the largest stork in the world, macaws, anteaters, giant armadillos, jaguars, ocelots, pumas, tapirs and the capuchin monkey. 469 of the 650 bird species can be seen in and around Rio Mutum and I was lucky enough to see 49 of these over the 3 days and nights that I spent there. Rio Mutum is particularly memorable because at 7pm, each day, without fail, they serve up Piranha soup! Yes, you heard right...and it is delicious!

To get here I had to endure 23.5hrs of travel door-to-door from my hotel in El Calafate to the ecolodge in Rio Mutum with 9 of the 23.5hrs spent in the air on 4 different flights and a 3hr drive from Cuiaba. Trully the middle of South America. It was so remote I saw a 2 metre anaconda, which I chased, approx 4km from the lodge. As soon as I arrived, in true Golfin travel style, I jumped on a horse and with my new-found friends Vicky and Graeme from Johannesburg South Africa and guided by Raul, we embarked on a 3hr ride through the surrounding wet-lands. My horse almost dumped me when it jumped up, having come across an alligator under water! We would have seen around twenty different types of birds and a brilliant sunset to farewell 2010.

New Year's day saw me up at 11am and what better way to shake off all that Brazilian food and grog than a 50min run in 32C muggy tropical heat! I died. However, I came back to life in the afternoon when we went on a 4hr 4-wheel drive trek 30km north of the lodge. Amongst the many bird species we saw a macua, touchan, crab-eating fox and wild pigs. It rained all the way back. This is the wet season and like Darwin and Singapore the day is sunny with arvo or overnight rain. By March, the whole area is almost totally flooded with water lines rising up to 3-4m. The Pantanal is an ornithologists (bird scientist) paradise. My companions, Vicky and Graeme, who were there for 4-5 days, saw a total of oevr 105 species of birds. Un-belieeeeevable!

Sunday 2JAN11 was a great day. Alligator and monkey day! Vicky, Graeme and I set out on a 3.5hr boat cruise with Raul and "Captain Niko" deep into the Rio (River) Mutum. The place is swarming with Jacares (black alligator). We got so close, that I could reach out and kiss it! In fact, I swam towards one! You will have to wait for Golfco Pictures to see that one! As always, we saw countless birds. I went for another 32C run over lunch in-time for another 3.5hr afternoon boat trip to another part of the Rio Mutum where we disembarked and went on a 2hr walk where we encountered 2 of the 4 types of monkeys in the area. We also saw a number of new bird species.

On the way back we spotted a family of the world's largest "rats", YES, without the tail! They look more like pigs as you can see in the photo! At the end of our boat cruise, we witnessed one of the grandest sunsets of our lives and a super-fluoro-green Iguana! But that's not all. After another wonderful dinner, we embarked on a 1.5hr spotlighting 4-wheel drive. Managed to see an anteater and a Brazilian "scorpian".

Monday 3JAN11 was my last day and featured a 2hr walk surrounding the lodge. Managed to see some monkeys and the "Anybara", a small possum like mammal! I was sad to say farewell to Vicky and Graeme (who had just completed 8.5mths worth of travel in Africa and South America!!!), Raul, the staff of Rio Mutum Ecolodge and the 49 species of bird, 3 reptiles and 6 mammals that I saw in just 3 days!

BRAZIL FACTS: 1) Brazil is the world's fifth largest country and covers almost half of all of South America! 2) Population is 199 million making it the largest Catholic country in the world. 3) It is the only South American country that speaks Portuguese with 180 different dialects. 4) Has 7,400km of coastline, most with powdery white sandy beaches. 5) Since a massive underwater oil field was discovered in 2007, its economy is now number 8 in the world, hyper-inflatuation has ceased all debts paid off but the divide between rich and poor is second to only India. By 2020 Sao Paulo is expected to be the world's 13th richest city. 6) Has won five FIFA World Cups (the most) and is hosting the next in 2014. Rio is also hosting the Olympics in 2016. 7) Indigenous people first setlled here 50,000yrs ago with 1,000 tribes when Portuguese arrived in 1500AD. 8) 6% of the current population is descended from Black Africans, 3.5m of whom were brought in as slaves between 1550-1888 to work plantations and then mine for gold. 8) Independence from Portugal came in 1821 with 1889 being the end of the local monarchy. Since them Brazil has been mainly controlled by the army and factions until the 1990s when democratic elections became the norm.

NEXT BLOG: On Caracas and Angel Falls in Venzuela due 8JAN11.

ACKOWLEDGEMENTS: 1) My operatic thanks went to Alice Galuao (Rio Mutum Ecolodge Owner) for putting on such a wonderful feastive New Year's Eve for a bunch of travellers so far from home! Many thanks to Denise, Edwardo and his staff, Captain Niko and finally Raul for his patience and knowledge in guiding us through so much wildlife! Pantal Power!!! 2) My personal thanks to "Carla" from Hosteria Lupama in Ell Calafate for her great English and efficiency and letting me check out late on the last day!

RELATED LINKS: Learn all about Rio Mutum Ecolodge at http://www.pousadamutum.com.br/

NOTES TO SELF: Argentina price samples: petrol was $1AUD a litre, bread $2, milk $1, 750ml beer $1.50, most wine $4-$10, tomatoes 1.50/kg, most tinned food around a $1-2. Brazil even cheaper except for petrol at $1.80AUD/Litre designed to pay baack Gov debt.