Wednesday April 10, 2002 at 5:45 AM John Marshall called me to inform me of the first delay. Jack Godbi's Delta airline spilled fuel all over the tarmac the night before. We were set back three hours. At that point I didn't mind because it gave me a few more hours to sleep.
Jack was John's friend from the States who was to accompany us on this journey. Jack had just retired from a thirty-seven year carreer at BellSouth in Atlanta where he oversaw operations in three states. John described Jack as a Godly man of prayer and one of the best friends he has ever had. Seeing that Jack was an ex-Marine and semi-professional fisherman I reasoned he would be a welcome addition to the travel party.
We picked Jack up and left the airport at 11:00 AM, finally beginning our nine day journey into the heart of the largest swamp on earth. The Pantanal, which is Portuguese for "swamp," is a wetland the size of Colorado. The Pantanal is the drain for several rivers of which the Paraguay River is the largest. It is known as the fishing capital of the world and one of the richest ecosystems on the planet.
Before we left I saw this trip as the chance of a lifetime; when I got back, I knew it had been.
arrival in Corumbá
We drove the entire first day. We stopped fairly early in order to stay a the nicest hotel along the way (around $35 bucks a night) with the plan of starting early the next day and arriving in Campo Grande by lunchtime. The next day we arrived at the home of some of John's Brazilian friends. Here we picked up some fishing gear plus one more addition to our travel party, a Brazilian named Richard who owns a pharmacy there in Campo Grande. John and Richard became close friends during John's five year missionary stint in Campo Grande.
We slept at their apartment that night and left early the next day in order to arrive in Corumbá by lunch. Corumbá is a sleepy port town on the banks of the Paraguay River. It is known for its warm Brazilian people and its blistering heat. We arrived in Corumbá around mid day and went straight to the house of our host, Ruy Campos, who is somehow related to Richard's family. This family was amazing and extended to us a hospitality that I had never experienced before. Suffice to say I was amazed and blessed. The rest of that day we took care of details like getting our fishing licenses and checking out our options for renting a boat.
Early the next day we headed out to the ranch of Ruy's friend David Almeida. It took about an hour on paved road and an hour on dirt to get there. Technically this ranch is in the Pantanal, but since the water is low right now it is perfect for raising cattle. Since we got there early, we had the rest of the day to fill with adventure.
However, before having any adventure we settled in and got a short tour. We unloaded our bags, checked out our sleeping accomodations, saw the kitchen and our cook (who produced excellent food), saw where the ranch hands lived, and saw some different areas of the ranch.
Soon after lunch we began preparing to hunt wild boar from horseback. David and his right hand ranch man (who will be known henceforth only as "the man" because I unfortunately forgot his name) were armed with .22 pistols, but they planned to use those only in an emergency. These guys were real Pantaneiros. They lived in the Pantanal for most of the year. What was an adventure to us, was old hat to them.
And so our hunt began as we saddled up and headed out. The primary means of detection was our pack of dogs. The primary means of capture and execution were simple lassos and large knives. This was not sport hunting. Wild boars had already killed several of David's horses. We were mainly along for the adventure and were warned to be careful of the boars if we found any.
I had never ridden a horse before for any significant amount of time so this was very new to me. Since I had the least experience I was always lagging behind, but I didn't mind because it gave me a chance to observe. That entire day was very dream-like. It was incredibly surreal riding across the Pantanal plain under a cloudy sky, mountains in the distance, eyes and ears perked for movement in the brush, and four other horsemen going before me.
We didn't find any wild boars so we decided to make use of our travels and rustle some cattle so that David could mark some calves. We gathered six or seven hundred cattle into a relatively brush free area. The four of us took up positions on the outside of the group to keep them in formation while David and his ranch hand lassoed and marked a calf. It was a bit intimidating facing the cattle as they tried to break from the group, but they were more afraid of me than I was of them so they stayed in line. We headed back after that and I was very thankful because I was sore from riding.
The next day we got up early for another hunt, but before we left we had a little fun with some local wildlife. After breakfast we headed out in the opposite direction as the day before. Again, boar was our prey. We trudged through some pretty thick, swampy areas, but we were eventually rewarded. About the time I thought we might turn back the dogs caught a scent. Both David and his hand took off at full gallop. I wasn't totally sure what was happening since I was lagging behind a bit (as usual). I trotted along and caught up with the group who was scattered around an area of thick underbrush. All of the sudden a boar shot out from the brush and took off with "the man" right on its tail. I stayed with the main group because there apparently was another boar still in the brush. When it came out David lassoed it, wrestled it to the ground, tied its feet (i.e. hog tied it), cut its jugular, and roped it to a tree so it wouldn't go anywhere while we attended to the other boar. We he got done we all took off in a full gallop to where "the man" had lassoed the other boar. This was the male of the couple. Its no good kill the male boars without castrating them and leaving them for about five weeks first. This is because their territory marking fluid, which is produced by their testicles, will ruin the meat (sorry for the graphic content, at least I didn't take any pictures). "The man" castrated him, marked his ear, and let him go so they can find, kill, and eat him later. We then returned to the female where David and "the man" "field dressed" her and loaded her onto David's horse.
It was a fun trip back to the ranch. Spirits were high as we recounted the chase and laughed about the tense moments. Although I made it sound easy, wrestling a wild boar to the ground and tying its feet is no easy task. When cornered, boar are very fiesty. Their teeth and tusks of a boar are very sharp. Even though we had just been "along for the ride", we had nabbed our prey and we were proud.
That next day we headed back to Ruy's and finalized our plans for our fishing time.
into the mouth of madness
The next afternoon we headed out in a pair of johnboats. Each boat had a guide and two passengers. The two hour boat ride took us to a small ranch in the heart of the Pantanal. This ranch was our base of operations as we fished the area. Despite its appearance, it was a pretty pleasant place. They even kept the generator on at night so that fans could move air around the room.
That afternoon we went out for our first round of fishing. It would only be a few hours before dark, but my guide, incidentally named Fabio, said we would come back before the mosquitos got bad. So we went out and, although the sun was incredibly hot, it was bearable. We caught a few fish, but nothing special. Around dusk or "boca da noite" ("mouth of the night") as the Brazilians say, things started cooling off and it became quite pleasant. It stayed pleasant for about 20 minutes.
Then the mosquitos came out. It was like someone just flipped a switch and they just all appeared. Unfortunately for me, I was wearing a short sleeve shirt, shorts, and sandals. I had also mistaken the permethrin spray (which, since it is a protein, works well when applied to clothes, but doesn't work at all when applied to skin) for regular bug spray. I was, quite literally, being swarmed. I asked if we were going to head back thinking maybe it had just slipped our guide's mind, but he replied that we were staying out because this was the best time of night to fish. Unfortunately for me, he was right. The little fish eat the mosquitos when they land on the water and then the big fish eat the little fish which makes it easier for us to catch the big fish.
I, however, caught nothing that night. Its not that the conditions weren't excellent because they were. It was because I stopped fishing. I stopped fishing so that I could wrap up in a towel and avoid any more bites than necessary. Luckily, after fourty-five minutes or so we headed back.
At daybreak the next day we headed out again. We fished until 12:30 or so and then went back for lunch and a nap.
The sun was brutally oppressive. Our boat time in the full sun was miserably hot. During midday I wanted to find a hole and crawl into it. There was typically no breeze while we sat and fished. In order to keep the sun off my skin I wore a hat, jeans, Teva sandals with socks, and short sleeve button up shirts (usually with the collar upturned). Richard went so far as to wear a long-sleeved turtleneck shirt along with his jeans and hat. While you may think you would never wear these types of clothes in such heat, you can trust me when I say it was better than having the sun right on your skin. I applied sweat-proof spf 30 sunblock twice a day, never got in any water, and I still got a tan. All this, and it was only the end of summer.
Before we headed back out for the rest of the afternoon and evening I made sure that I was prepared for the mosquito onslaught.
the one that got away
An hour or so before it started getting dark we were sitting in a spot of the swamp that had been especially good for us earlier in the day. I was fishing from the middle of the boat and had my line a decent ways out into the water. All of the sudden something big hit my line - something really big. Earlier that day I had lost a big fish because it broke my line so I didn't want to lose this one. I waited for the line to get a bit taut and then yanked with all my might so that I would set the hook good and deep into the fish's mouth. As I started reeling I knew that I had him - if he didn't break my line he was coming into the boat.
Reeling in big game fish is no easy task. You have to wear the fish out. You do this by using your rod to pull the fish towards you then after you stop pulling you start reeling. You do this over and over until you can get the fish close enough to the boat to net him. This is done so you can actually reel because if you don't pull them and get slack in your line you wouldn't ever be able to reel them in, the fish are just too strong.
So there I was fighting with this fish. By that time I was standing up in the boat yelling and pulling and reeling. My rod was bending almost in half and my line kept spooling out. The tension on my reel was set so that rather than have the line break, it would spool out (something I hadn't set correctly that morning). I was making progress, though. He was getting closer and closer to the boat and I was getting anxious to see what I had actually caught.
Finally I got him to the edge of the boat but he was still thrashing underneath the water. I gave one more hard pull to get him up and out of the water. As it came closer to the surface I was wide eyed and my mouth was gaping. All of the sudden the nose, eyes, and open mouth of a 5 foot jacaré (type of alligator) came out of the water and almost into the boat. I yelled in surprise and fright. My guide and Brazilian friend laughed.
I didn't know what to do with him. I was tired from reeling him in, nobody wanted him, and for sure nobody was going to get the hook out of his mouth. My guide saw that I was tired and smacked the jacaré on the head to make it wrestle some more. I almost lost my rod and reel as it jerked back into the water. We were all laughing by that time. Eventually our guide cut the line and we continued with our fishing.
Fortunately, the mosquitos didn't bother me at all that night. We had a very pleasant evening fishing under a clear sky. The starry sky, the relection of the moon off the water, and the peaceful sounds combined to make an unforgettable night.
One thing I have not mentioned yet is that we navigated the swamp at night only by moonlight. We had full confidence in the abilities of our guide from the way he had navigated the tight waterways during the daytime. It was very cool to skim over the glassy water at full throttle although we had to keep our mouths closed due to the clouds of bugs that we would occasionally encounter.
the rest of the story
We spent the next day working our way back to Campo Grande. That morning we got up early again and had an uneventful morning of fishing. We caught fish like piranha, dourado, and pacu, but nothing very large or uncommon. At lunchtime we went back to camp, ate, packed up, and headed back to Corumbá.
The boat ride back was interesting. Due to an oncoming storm we got some high winds which caused the river waves to swell, but we never got any rain. When we arrived in Corumbá we unloaded the boats and headed back to Ruy's. We had supper at Ruy's, thanked him and his family, and then went and said our goodbyes to David Almeida who had been our ranch host earlier that week. After wrapping up, we headed back to Campo Grande.
I spent the following day relaxing in Campo Grande. John had some business he had to take care of, Richard worked at his Pharmacy, and Jack caught an early flight back to the States. That evening we fellowshipped and had dinner with Richard's family.
The next day we got up early and drove the ten hours back to São Paulo. I was glad to be back home, glad to have a comfortable bed, and glad I had been blessed with such great experiences.