Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Pampas Tour- Day One

Alligator and stick

Pampas (the Bolivian pampas in this context- the Argentinian pampas are closer to a cold savannah) is a slightly more exotic word than swamp or marsh- but it still describes the same muddy, insect-infested haven for wildlife and masochistic travellers on a nature bender. From the promotional material, our tour of the pampas seemed to include enough jungle-esque environs to be sufficient for us to tick off the jungle and the Amazon from our must-do list in South America (it’s in the Amazon Basin). The tour began with a rattling three-hour jeep ride to edge of the Beni River, which was the lively body of water our next couple of days would be based around.

Turtle scrum

The Beni is a winding line of caramel coloured water that slithers through jungle and the pampas. It supports an incredible amount of tightly packed fauna, most noticeably as we boarded our out-board powered canoe, mosquitos. Millions of viscous, bloodthirsty swarming itch machines- the stuff of La Paz hostel gossip and creators of hideously disfigured English people (for a good laugh/horrorshow, find an Englishman recently returned from the pampas and ask to see his bites).

Birds of Paradise

Once the boat was underway, the mosquitos couldn’t keep up and we were left to enjoy the plague proportions of other, larger wildlife. The first sighting of an alligator caused an excited uproar on the boat. There was a cacophony of shutters snapping and vivid exclamations when the guide steered the canoe closer and closer, eventually beaching us next to the sunbaking beast, who splashed away disgustedly after we almost squashed him.

And that set the tone for the rest of the trip, which resembled something closer to an animal harassing excursion rather than a wildlife tour. When the guide, who we called Freddo (his real name was Wilfredo, but he also sported a remarkable resemblance to the chocolate frog) spotted a gator, he would send the boat straight up beside it. The smart ones would slink away early, but the stubborn ones, who stayed put until the bitter end, would be treated to a splashing of water (or a possible ramming) if they ignored the boatload of firing cameras beside them.

Apart from annoyed alligators, we also saw birds of paradise, cranes and storks, stacks of turtles, pink dolphins, monkeys and capybara, which are rodents the size of a Dalmation, with the build of a wombat and the fluid movements of a rat (but actually very cute). We arrived at out camp, which was a mosquito colony with a few rudimentary buildings slapped up around it. Our new home was basic and filled with the sound of a million buzzing, blood-hungry, invertebrate bastards, but the location, perched on a picturesque elbow of the river, was spectacular.

An uncooperative capybarra

This is a very unspectacular shot of a pink dolphin, but it's the best I could do. At this time of year, the river is low, so the dolphins don't chase the boats and jump out the water like dolphins are supposed to.

After dinner, we grabbed our torches and floated down the inky dark river alligator spotting. The motor was turned off, so Freddo couldn’t charge them, but we were happy just to float along while the orange dots of alligator eyes stared back at us through the darkness. The trees filled with fireflies were a beautiful sight, as was the night sky completely unfiltered by city lights.

Turtle stack!!!

We returned to camp and watched frogs feast on bugs below the bare electric bulbs outside our room, then fell asleep inside industrial mosquito nets, bodies soaked with jungle sweat. Although the rain thumping down on the thatched roof sounded nice, it was not a good thing to hear when you have a day of walking through mud ahead of you….

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