070L c Elizabeth WilloughbyAlligators and tarantulas on the Transpantanal
by Elizabeth Willoughby

Contrary to my country of origin (Canada) and current residence (Germany), December is one of the hottest months in Brazil. This is exactly what HB and I were counting on as we planned our winter vacation. And there we were on Christmas Eve, sitting in a small rented sedan with no air conditioning, in the pitch dark, beside the lone hotel that had a sign out front which read "closed for the holidays" in Portuguese.

We were at the end of the Transpantaneira road in the middle of Brazil's Matto Grosso state, home to the world's biggest wetland, the Pantanal. It was stinking hot with flying insects swarming the car so opening windows wasn't possible. HB was calculating at what intervals we could run the engine (hence a fan) and still have enough gas to return in the morning to Poconé, the closest town, 145 kilometres away.

Although that doesn't sound very far, the Transpantaneira is not an easy drive. It is a raised dirt road running through the wetland, pot holed, bumpy and interspersed with wooden bridges in various states of disrepair. Below the bridges and beyond the road's sloping edges await all manner of resolute predators: hungry glow-in-the-dark-eyed alligators, slimy constricting snakes, saber-tooth piranhas, hairy man-eating tarantulas and wild flesh-eating pigs, ...kinda. And birds.

That afternoon we had just enjoyed watching the wildlife and giggled excitedly, teeter-tottering over the decrepit bridges during the drive, in daylight, on the way to the hotel, which was recommended to us by the locals at the start of the Transpantaneira road. "Ho-ho-ho! Here we go!"

We spot something black creeping across the road, and get out to investigate. It is a tarantula. HB grabs a stick. The spider stands on its back four legs and spreads its front four legs into a fan to make itself look as large and intimidating as possible, which I find rather effective. It grabs the stick. HB raises it an inch above ground. When the spider lets go, I hear it land with a thud. We return to the car, drive around it and continue on. An alligator waddles onto the road and crosses to the other side. I am pleased that it didn't happen upon us while we were playing with the tarantula. Looking out the window, we see it catching up with a herd of alligators. Christmas Eve alligator party.

As the afternoon passes, the waning daylight makes me uneasy. I do not want to fall off a bridge and become alligator feed.
"Jeeze, do you think that bridge will hold us?"
"If the bridges get any worse– wait, is that even possible?"
"How many cars does it take to break through a dilapidated bridge?"
"Where is this hotel?"

090 c Elizabeth Willoughby

We reach the hotel just after sunset and spot the unexpected sign. We have two-litres of drinking water, no accommodations and an unwillingness to make the return trip in the dark, so we park by the hotel and make the calculations. Too hot to sleep, HB periodically starts the car to run the fan to trick ourselves into thinking that we are getting cooled despite the sweat trickling down our bodies. This is the first sunrise in my life that I eagerly await, for hours. Then we head back up the road to where we started the day before.

On the up side, the early morning wildlife scene is different from afternoon and sunset, so we do get three distinct views of the Matto Grosso wildlife, even though our insides are cooked to medium rare.

A fact or two:

The Pantanal is a 230,000-square-kilometre wetland area in South America that reaches into Brazil mostly, but also into Bolivia and Paraguay. Through this flood plain, Brazil has built a raised dirt road called the Transpantaneira, with 118 small wooden bridges that traverse marshes and connect the road from Poconé to Porto Jofre. Seasonal flooding up to three metres makes farming impossible here, and has a predictably decomposing effect on the bridges, yet also brings nutrients to the soil and creates rich feeding ground for wildlife. Once the waters have receded, the wildlife restricted to the leftover ponds is what makes the Pantanal interesting to visit — it's like driving through an aviary and the predatory animal section of a zoo at the same time, without cages.

There's nothing like a great adventure travel story — one that's fun, thrilling and full of the unknown. If that's what you want, check out my WorldGuide Tales from the Road pages. This blog is about the stories a travel writer can't sell. The misadventures. The plans gone awry, luck run amuck. Sometimes with my partner, HB, sometimes with friends, and sometimes I manage to mess things up without any help at all. These are the stories that make your friends laugh and call you a knucklehead. These are the stories you really remember.

Images and article ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2015

This article was originally published at

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