E enche“If I said sitting around a fire in central India whilst chasing tigers in January 2009 was how I found myself 6 months later in Brazil chasing Jaguars, I can understand one might find this a little confusing”
I am a school teacher in Melbourne Victoria who, for the last 15 years has had a growing passion for wildlife photography. Specifically my interest lies in the rare or more elusive animals in places infrequently visited and wildlife rarely photographed. I have spent time with researchers photographing Jungle Elephants in the Congo, Desert Elephants in Namibia, Wolves in Ethiopia, Striped Hyena in Kenya and Orangutans in Kalimantan, just to mention a few.
The trip I would make to Brazil would be equal to any I had had previously undertaken.
Looking for the elusive Jaguars in Brazil has been on my photography menu since as far back as I can remember, however research had led me to the acceptance this experience would be almost impossible. That was until I was on a trip to India where I met a National Geographic Channel film crew who were creating a documentary on the life of an important researcher. Around the fire that night and talking about previous wildlife trips and the photographs they had netted, opportunities lost and dreams that had not yet been realised I raised the topic of Jaguars – an animal I had considered almost impossible to capture on film and had given up any hope of seeing them in the wild.
By the time we sat down for dinner on this warm, clear dry quiet night my passion for Jaguars had been rekindled. The story they told of a South American Cowboy, with a Jeep, old 4x4 and a boat on a trailer who would show me Jaguars, was hard to believe. Whilst I was excited at the discussion, I was also skeptical that such a dream could become a reality. The look in my eyes and the tone in my voice must have given me away. They were talking of 7 jaguar sightings in 6 days. And although they were quick to clarify that this experience of so many sightings in such a short time was quite unique, my excitement at the possibility was rekindled.
I was however quick to temper my anticipation. I had been disappointed by descriptions of other wildlife experiences, many of which had taken me to varying locations around the globe that had ultimately not been fruitful. One of the crew, seeing the disbelief in my eyes quietly left the discussion, disappearing only to return with his computer. The following 10 minutes was spent viewing in disbelief the images they had taken whilst filming the documentary. With this South American Cowboy’s contact details burning a hole in my journal, I was eager to make contact with him on my return home.
It did not take much correspondence for a trip to be organized, I think after two emails I had book Julinho and sent money to secure the dates. Basically the four questions I asked him in an email were – 1. What time of the year is the best time for sightings? 2. How long will I need to visit to give me the best chance to photograph them? 3. Where do I fly into? and 4. How much it will cost?
This was all organised within a couple of weeks. Then followed the agonizing 8-month wait to discover if all that I had been told and shown would unfold the way I hoped. In my communication with Julinho over the ensuing 8 months he would constantly reassure me that there would be no problem, however it was wildlife and there are not guarantees. The statement ‘this is wildlife and there are no guarantees’ is a great ‘out’ if the experience did not ultimately meet expectations.
After a long wait the time had come. The trip from Australia was long and indirect – 8 flights in all.
I distinctly remember disembarking from the jet ad walking across the tarmac to the building in Cuiaba - the end of the road. Julinho had assured me the weather would be mild and dry. So far, we were not off to a great start - it was very warm, very wet and uncomfortably sticky. Collecting baggage was a low-key affair. After so many flights I was simply hoping my gear would turn up. I had taken no chances and my 10kg of camera gear had somehow been distributed in my hand luggage. Clothes were replaceable, my camera gear was not.
Luggage in hand, I then scanned the waiting crowd, eager to spot the Cowboy – our guide for the next 2 weeks. This should be straightforward – just look for the guy in cowboy gear – boots, jeans, heavy cotton shirt and of course the trademark cowboy hat. Instead this guy was in a white T-shirt, board shorts and thongs. I was beginning to ask questions.
By now it was late and we had been on the go for a long time. Our focus was to check into the hotel, catch some sleep and prepare for a day of driving. The next morning was an early start and I wanted to make a good impression - that we were punctual and reliable - two qualities which always supported the likelihood of building positive relations and therefore successful wildlife outcomes.
Out in the foyer, my confidence was reestablished. There in the driveway was a well-loved warhorse, a short wheel base TOYOTA with a roof rack stacked with supplies. Into view came ‘The Cowboy’. Julinho was ready for action - resplendent in boots, jeans, rolled up cowboy shirtsleeves with a hat and a cowboy belt completing the picture. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see him touting pistol holster!
As with all my wildlife trips I had set some goals. After all, if I was going to dream I was going to dream big. I had identified the potential wildlife I hoped to photograph on this journey. In descending order of importance they were Jaguars, Giant River Otters, Caiman and Hyacinth Macaws. I had not even given thought to include Capibaras in the equation – an animal that had often amused me during countless zoo visits. Picture an over sized guinea pig with the dubious title of being the largest of all living rodents!
By the end of the drive down to our destination, I had seen thee of the five on my list. The two remaining? Not surprisingly - Jaguars and Giant River Otters. I had almost convinced myself that despite my goal, and the long years of dreaming of this experience, that Jaguars would ultimately allude me. Only burning expectation and the preparedness to invest energy and time kept me hopeful that this trip would yield results.
It would be a few days before my stress was put to rest. We had 10 days with Julinho, 8 of which were to be spent on the river. Most trips he runs are 3-4 days long. I know from experience that good and even great photographic opportunities can take time so I had arranged for the longest possible stay given my leave break. In the first 4 days we had seen copious numbers of Caiman and Capibaras. I was amazed at the size of the Caiman, and was only partly reassured by the guarantees Julinho gave that they posed no threat to us - they were fish eaters after all. Unconvinced, I made it my business not to go into the water.
The Capibaras on the other hand were confident in the water. Strong swimmers, we would come around many a bend to find groups of all ages not only swimming across the river but up river. A common behaviour they displayed was to descend under the water and disappear as we went past. Others we would find perched on a floating mass of debris eating what was on offer on the temporary raft.
After 4 days, no Jaguars. The weather had been wet - in fact one day was very, very wet and also unseasonably cool. Julinho knows the animals so well. He said we would be wasting time and fuel looking for them in such conditions. However these days were not a waste and were in fact very productive. The bird life was prolific both in variety and volume. Large birds of all types. I find photographing birds frustrating at the best of times – yet here they would almost srike a pose.
My enthusiasm was kept high because as we continued our Jaguar quest, we had two particularly memorable and amazing Giant River Otter experiences. So much so that even Julinho could not believe our success. From our correspondence over the preceding months he would constantly point out success with Jaguars was far higher than Giant River Otters, with almost all otter sightings delivering a glimpse at best and usually only of their head. On the first day we had seen one for quite some time including it sitting on a log whilst eating a fish.
As it transpired this sighting would only be the appetizer. Before we had seen our first Jaguar I had seen several otters. Julinho commented that one should expect to see five Jaguars for each otter. Not only had we seen several we had also experienced two unbelievable encounters. One encounter lasted over an hour with two adults and one sub adult. The first thing you notice before you spot otters is the strong fish or ammonia smell. On this occasion we had come across a den recently habitated - the opening clear of debris. It did not take long to realise the den was occupied. Over the next hour we watched them enter the den, sliding out of it and down the embankment to the water to successfully hunt for their staple diet of fish. They would then consume the fish whilst sitting on a log, playing and diving off the log and engaging socially amongst themselves. We also had the privilege of watching them maintain their den, clearing the entrance to make a platform just above the waterline. All of this enthralling activity was taking place approx 10 metres from our boat. The experience was comparable to any professional documentary one could expect to seen on wildlife.
This is not where it ended. Julinho has an uncanny ability to pick things up from a distance. Our next major encounter with Giant River Otters turned out to be three adults and a very young pup moving dens. With a sense of urgency they would swim in a tight group up river. With the pup in the adults’ mouth it would lye limp with its eyes closed. When the adult would tire of carrying the pup it would stop and the three adults would form a tight group and then carefully pass the pup to another adult before continuing the journey. We had a clear view and followed them up river for approx 30 minutes until they arrived at the new den. There was one point where they stopped for a rest on a sandy bank. Once the pup was released onto the sand it started squealing. It was difficult to know whether the squealing was the pup’s way of expressing its displeasure with its parents at the length and conditions of the trip – the adults frequently diving under the water forcing the pup to hold its breath - or the insecurity of no longer being held and therefore the squealing was the equivalent to seeking reassurance. Either was it was a truly amazing experience that one could not dare to dream of.
With only 4 planned days on the river we still had not seen a Jaguar. Whilst I had had some precious wildlife experiences with the otters, the goal of the trip was Jaguars, and no matter how much I played it down leading up to the trip, I was still anxious and that anxiety was rising. Julinho’s reassurance was that when the weather broke and the rain stopped the clouds would burn away, the temperature would rise and the Jaguars would appear. How right he was.
Over the next three days we saw 8 Jaguars! Reports from the National Geographic Channel film crew I had met in India, together with Julinho had been that there are times when you can watch a Jaguar for hours. This was something I had not experienced with elusive cats such as Leopards or Tigers. Our first real sighting – to this day I do not know how Julinho spotted it - but it lasted 8 hours. Much of the time the Jaguar spent sitting in the shade. Then, when the heat of the day was gone it was on the move. Scowering the riverbank we moved with it. When it would stop so did we. It was a side tributary of the river and slow flowing. Julinho, careful not to disturb the animal, had the boat’s paddle out keeping pace with the big cat.
Finally I could go home having not only seen a Jaguar, but also photographed one at length.
From then on we had numerous sightings, mostly short glimpses or longer ones without a clear view. As with all wildlife viewing one cannot predict what is around the corner. We could spend many hours – in fact all day - out on the river in the sun traveling up and down, with little but sunburn to show for it. Several hours can pass without a sighting and just when you think nothing will happen for the remainder of the day, around the corner your patience and tenacity is rewarded - two Jaguars sitting on a bank together. This was unbelievable. I had two Jaguars in one viewfinder, something I could only dream of. We followed these Jaguars up and down the riverbank. We had also seen a third on the opposite bank and were convinced if we waited long and patiently we might see them cross the river.
On Julinho’s website it shows pictures of a Jaguar crossing the river with only the head visible. Of course you hope to see this yourself but you know it doesn’t happen often. It does make for good advertising thought! Yet not only did we see one cross the river, we saw a second one follow it. The first was waiting on the bank for the second and once together they jumped up the steep embankment and disappeared. We had fleeting glimpses of them back and forth, calling out to the Jaguar that was already on the bank. Three Jaguars in one sighting.
We sat in our boat on the river basking in the cooler afternoon sun, the orange glow of the light complimenting our satisfaction of what we had just experienced. At one point as we reflected on our success, I thought I heard a Jaguar call twice from the bank behind us, where the two had come from. This reflection time meant we let down our guard…. suddenly in front of us, looking for a way up the steep bank, another Jaguar was in view, unannounced and just as quickly disappearing into the jungle. I suspect this was a fourth Jaguar that had crossed without us noticing and had to search for a way up the steep bank.
This was not the last of it. By the end of the trip we had seen another river crossing.
Whilst the area is remote, there are other boats with tourist searching for the Jaguars. These boats are bigger with more people in them. They also have to travel up river every morning and down river every afternoon as their accommodation is outside the park. Julinho operates a small venture, usually with one or two clients. Our group was two - myself and Graham my stepfather who at age 75 was the engine lifter when we were gliding over water hyacinth preventing the motor being clogged. Julinho camps up river on a small plot of private land. We camped in the family’s front yard, and used their facilities. They were friendly, very welcoming and interested in our venture. This location is a decided advantage compared to other operators.
There is no question - this experience surpassed immeasurably my expectations, not least of which where wildlife viewings were concerned. From the Jaguars to the Otters to animals you expect not to see, such as the Howler Monkeys that serenade dawn and dusk, elusive and usually seen fleetingly as a black lump in the trees. If you’re fortunate, as we were, you might experience them close to the water’s edge.
As with all wildlife viewing there is a degree of stress that comes with attempting to achieve the high expectations we set. Julinho’s website and stories from the National Geographic Channel film crew set very high expectations. Whilst one enters these agreements with expectations and the knowledge that it may not eventuate as you would like, Julinho came up with the goods. We had a wildlife experience that could not be bettered. All the people we met who were associated with Julinho’s operation were friendly and knowledgeable.
I could not believe Julinho’s knowledge and understanding of the animals let alone his uncanny talent at wildlife spotting. There is no doubt I will be back. Drinking from Julinho’s cup of Jaguars to quench my thirst has only made me parched for more.