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Day 72: The Pantanal

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Dramatic escarpment on the edge of Brazil's high plateau.
Michael Palin - BrazilSouth-eastern Brazil is densely populated and can be quite claustrophobic so I'm very happy to find myself, 900 kilometres (560miles) north-west of Blumenau, on the final approach to a tiny bush airport in the Pantanal, the largest wetland on earth and one of Brazil's emptiest places. It's part of the enormous and equally empty Mato Grosso region, where the intrepid English explorer Percy Fawcett was last seen, and at whose northern end is the Xingu River system, home of the Wauja. Mato Grosso, meaning 'thick forest', is a better description of the North than of the state we're flying over now, Mato Grosso do Sul, in whose capital Campo Grande we spent last night. Much of the forest here has been cleared for cattle and soya production and much of it is confined to the dark green, geometric blocks we can see below us, or replaced altogether by fast-growing eucalyptus.

This is frontier country; the borders of Paraguay and Bolivia are only a couple of hundred kilometres (125 miles) to the west. It's also the watershed of two great river systems. One flows north to the Amazon, the other south, via the Paraguai and the Paraná, down to the Rio de la Plata, the River Plate. It's still early and as our single-engined Cessna flies west and north from Campo Grande, the great red sandstone rock-stacks and bluffs of the Planalto, the high plateau, look spectacular as the morning sun hits them. Soon they give way to a much flatter, very green landscape, with herds of cattle clustered below us, tiny as white maggots. The grassland becomes yellowy green and marshy. There are fewer cattle and more of the shallow brackish lagoons they call salinas. Just before half past eight we touch down on a bumpy grass runway at a fazenda, a farm, called Barra Mansa. It's an isolated estate that supplements its income by taking in a handful of visitors and giving them the Pantanal experience. In a happy coincidence the farm is run by the Rondon family, direct descendants of the great Brazilian explorer, Colonel Candido Rondon, who mapped and explored the Roraima border area where my journey began many months ago.

It is his great-grandson, Guilherme Rondon, a big, friendly man, who steps forward to greet us, along with his son Daniel and his daughter-in-law Pollianna, a lively, energetic blonde who runs the tourist side of the business. Her husband Daniel, who runs the farm itself, is taking our plane back to Campo Grande on business. The first thing I notice after two weeks in the deep South is just how hot it is here. The sun is strong and hats obligatory. As she leads us from the plane to the four-square red-roofed house where we shall be staying, she spreads her arm wide across what looks a healthily verdant landscape, and grimaces.

'We're having a very dry year, very different from last year. Between December and June we should get a flood, but not this year.'

I ask how much of a problem this might be.

'When the dry season comes in July, the grass, the pasture, will already be dry. The water in the field will evaporate and we won't have enough for the cattle, the horses and the wildlife.'

Farms are now having to dig down for water, or make artificial watering places. There's a very strong and proud Pantaneiro culture here and Pollianna and the Rondons are very keen that we should see it and understand what makes it unique. First of all, Pollianna has arranged for me to see the property the way it should be seen, on horseback. This is a cowboy culture.

'Gauchos?' She shakes her head. 'We have some influence from the gauchos, but they were from the South, and up here the gaucho culture became the Pantanal culture because we had to adapt to the heat. There's no way to dress like the gauchos, no way to have the same habits as them. Because down there is cold, and up here it's hot.'
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 72: The Pantanal
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: The Pantanal
  • Book page no: 300

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