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Day 72: The Pantanal

Michael Palin - BrazilBefore I can even mount the horse I'm shown the intricate preparations by three cowboys, or peġes, as they call them in the Pantanal. Their names are Alex, Carlos and a much older man, rather splendidly called Vespasiano. Alex shows me the four layers of blanket and other covers that go on the horse's back before the saddle's even fitted. This is to make it as comfortable as possible for cowboys, who sometimes can be in the saddle for a hundred days collecting the cattle and moving them many miles to market. Pollianna remembers seeing runs of over 2,000 cattle being moved across country.

Whilst Vespa struggles to blow some sound from an enormous coiled horn, which I presume was some kind of pre-mobile phone cowboy communication, Alex trots out ahead of me keeping half an eye on me and half an eye on the hundred or so head of cattle which are his real responsibility. I've just begun to get the measure of my horse, Cambalo, when there's a sudden commotion up ahead. One of the cows breaks from the herd and races towards us, baying loudly. Carlos moves fast to head her off, but even my docile mount has reared back. What's happened is that keen-eyed Alex has spied a hobbling calf and Vespa has lassoed it and taken it out of the herd for examination. Alex, holding the calf down with his knee, finds claw marks in its side which have been inflicted by a jaguar. Whilst the mother is held at bay, Alex squeezes pus from the wound and then sprays it with anaesthetic. In the days before chemicals, he tells me, they would have used dried cow dung to protect the wound. With the calf returned to its mother, we press on. The morning sun is high and bright by now and I'm glad when Alex leads us on into a marsh-fringed lagoon to enable the horses to cool off. I get to drink too, a draught of tenere, cowboy tea, which can be made without getting out of the saddle. Mate, the dried and powdered leaves of the yerba plant, are dropped into a hollowed-out cow's horn about a metre long, decorated with a finely carved twisting motif. This is then lowered into the water on a length of rope. When it's filled up it's withdrawn and the tea drunk from a silver pipe that runs, like a straw, down the side of the horn. The cool water is refreshing and the mate gives the system a caffeine-like hit. Which is very welcome as we now move on to the herding of the cattle, the most demanding part of my morning as a cowboy, as the heat builds up and the dust from hundreds of hoofs swirls around.

In late afternoon, with the sun less brutal and the light less harsh, we climb onto boats on the Rio Negro and set off upriver to see the wildlife. The birds are particularly rich. The Pantanal, the size of Belgium and Holland combined, stretches 950 kilometres (590 miles) north to south, through Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay, making it twenty times larger than that much more famous wetland, the Everglades in Florida, and offers extensive, protected habitats. Even before we get to the boats I've spied the pygmy owl, or burrowing owl, a delightful little bird, standing on guard at the rim of a hole, and every now and then upending itself and sending a small cloud of dust flying out of the hole. Out on the river there are black hawks following our progress with interest as well as lapwings, herons and egrets along the banks and the elegantly beautiful yellow-headed caracara, perched up on the stump of an old tree. Occasionally we'll get a glimpse of a huge bird, the jabiru, or 'swollen neck', so called for the red collar at the base of its neck. It's the world's biggest stork and the adopted symbol of the Pantanal.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 72: The Pantanal
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: The Pantanal
  • Book page no: 301

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