Piranha Fishing in the Pantanal

The article below was a runner-up in the Guardian Travel Writing Competition and was published in abridged form in the Guardian on 30 August, 2008. Click here.

“Just chase them away,” Laercio shouts from the car. We are on a little dirt road in the Brazilian Pantanal and I had got out to open a cattle gate. There is only one minor problem: blocking the gate are half a dozen caiman alligators, basking in the sun. Seeing my hesitation, Laercio gets out of the car and simply shoos them away like a bunch of lazy dogs.

The world’s largest wetland area, the Pantanal is home to an estimated 10 million caimans and a paradise for wildlife watching. Every year, following the rainy season from October to March, the floods recede and the rivers settle back into their channels, until – by the end of the dry season – only a few major streams and scattered water holes remain.

“Just chase them away,” Laercio shouts from the car. We are on a little dirt road in the Brazilian Pantanal and I had got out to open a cattle gate. There is only one minor problem: blocking the gate are half a dozen caiman alligators, basking in the sun. Seeing my hesitation, Laercio gets out of the car and simply shoos them away like a bunch of lazy dogs.

The world’s largest wetland area, the Pantanal is home to an estimated 10 million caimans and a paradise for wildlife watching. Every year, following the rainy season from October to March, the floods recede and the rivers settle back into their channels, until – by the end of the dry season – only a few major streams and scattered water holes remain.

Laercio, a photo-journalist from nearby Cuiaba, and I are headed for the Pouso Alegre, a fazenda catering to ecotourists, offering simple accommodation as well as walks and horseback riding to see the local wildlife. But you don’t even have to leave the fazenda for the spectacle  to unfold: flocks of yellow-faced parrots chatter noisily in the palm trees, a crab-eating fox snoops around for scraps, and small groups of the endangered hyacinth macaw stop by, preening their magnificent cobalt blue feathers.

Still, I probably wouldn’t have seen half of what I did without Judy. A cheerful local guide, she points out owls, monkeys, and tamanduas (a type of anteater) I would have walked straight past, explaining their habits and answering patiently when asked for the tenth time the name of a particular animal. David Attenboroughs aren’t made overnight.

Much of the wildlife, though, is hard to miss, and a real treat is in store at the next fazenda, Pousada Sao Cristovao on the banks of the Bento Gomes river. In a boat expertly punted by Joao, we noiselessly glide past caimans with their jaws agape (to dry out leeches lodged in their mouths), families of capybaras nervously looking out for jaguars, spoonbills, pink like flamingos, swishing their bills from side to side, and giant jabiru storks perched high up on the trees against the setting sun. The magical silence is broken only by the distant roar of a howler monkey and the occasional splash of a caiman catching a piranha.

The next day, we get a chance to go piranha fishing ourselves. Judy has brought rods and chunks of beef, and I can feel them nibbling at the end of the string. But while Judy catches one after another, I only manage to feed the fish. That evening, though, I do catch one, but wish I hadn’t. Judy has taken us for a boat night safari, shining a strong torch at the riverbank. We have almost given up when we chance upon a magnificent ocelot taking a drink. Blinded by the light, the cat stays frozen, when suddenly a piranha lands in the boat, flapping noisily and sending the two Dutch ladies in our group screaming. Instinctively, I grab the fish and throw it out – but the ocelot has disappeared.

For more photos of the Pantanal, please have a look at my gallery.