|¨Swamp¨ is not exactly the most glamourous of words in the English language. As a verb it means to overwhelm with something unwanted. As a noun it conjures up images of unpassable terrain in which gangsters dump bodies, a huge pond inhabited by mutant creatures that feast on human flesh.
Although not technically a swamp, the Pantanal, as the world's biggest wetland area, certainly shares some of the main characteristics of one. It's wet, muddy and full of nature's nasties - alligators, anacondas and all manner of flying, biting and stinging insects.
I didn't want to go to the Pantanal. The guide book advised against visiting the region during the month of February as this was the height of the rainy season making travel treacherous and conditions generally miserable. On top of this, the BBC had just reported a serious outbreak of dengue fever in the Matto Grosso del Sul area of Brazil; exactly where we were heading to. Due to the unusual amount of rainfall followed by hot weather, the place was now deluged with disease carrying mosquitoes; mosquitos that would gorge themselves on my vintage A negative like teenagers on cheap plonk from the bottom shelf of the off-licence.
But, for the first time in nearly 6 months, D wanted to rebel against the gospel of St Lonely Planet and ignore the wise words of the BBC; we were booked on a bus to the Pantanal (or in my mind, on a bus to Hell).
Within 5 minutes of stepping off the bus, the bite on my forehead had swelled to cartoon proportions, making me look like an extra from Star Trek. I drowned myself in DEET, cursing as a spilled drop made a burn mark on my trousers. Despite the heat I was taking no chances, dressed like a devout muslim with not an inch of flesh on show.
Our lodge was situated right in the heart of the wetlands with our room, at the end of a long wooden shack, supported on stilts above the swamp. From our netted window we could see alligators lurking in the murky water below.
The noise of nature always confounds me. Like instruments in an orchestra each animal is capable of making the most beautiful of music, yet, as when an orchestra is tuning, when the animals all play at once the noise is unbearably unnerving. The first night I lay awake trying to identify the creator of each sound and the location of its origin; the rats in the ceiling, the frogs in the floorboards, the monsters at the foot of the bed - I didn't sleep a wink!
However, the whole purpose of our being in the Pantanal was to get close to the vast array of creatures that came to feed on the rich, fertile flooded lands that are replenished every year by the rainfall in the highlands of neighbouring Paraguay and Bolivia. A boat trip up river allowed us to observe huge alligators resting in clumps of vegetation being washed downstream. We spotted monkeys, capivaras (giant rodents), toucans, herons, storks and always, always mosquitoes.
If quick enough I could swat them against my skin, smearing blood, not knowing if it was mine or somebody elses and unsure of which would be worse. When horse-riding we passed through huge clouds of them, emerging on the other side with the horse's neck thick with them, black then red, and I selfishly thinking, ¨rather him than me¨.
We went for a jungle trek hoping to find anacondas, armidillos and even perhaps jaguars in their natural habitat. On the way there so many mosquitoes followed the truck that I was forced to wear my poncho even though it was swelteringly hot.
Our guide, Pepinho (which strangly means ¨cucumber¨ in Spanish) ran barefoot through the trees, rounding up big groups of racoon type creatures which ran into the branches above us. Stealthily, we pointed our zoom lenses upwards trying to get a snap of one of the terrified animals. Suddenly, the silence was broken. Ian, the Irish lad, yelped, ¨Jeez, the bugger's just bit me balls¨. We turned to see him perform some kind of strange jig but before a laugh was able to escape from our lips, we too were slapping ourselves in the places which ought not to be touched in public.
We were stood in a sea of tiny fire ants, who had made their way up our trouser legs and when reaching the top, frustrated that they could go not further, bit hard. We swiftly tucked our trousers into our socks, blocking off the point of entry, and then set about seeking revenge upon those still trapped inside. We must have looked like a bunch of mad morris dancers, slapping our legs and stamping our feet without any music playing. I don't know if any of you have ever had ants in your pants but I can tell you from my own experience that a tiny termite can bring tears to a grown woman's eye!
In the jungle we managed to spot a quite a few animals on our wish list although D did (much to my disapproval) pay a local man 5 reais to see an anaconda he had supposedly caught that morning and promised to set free as soon as we had gone.
Again I thought I had outsmarted the mosquitoes by covering myself from head to toe in loose clothing but I was later to discover that they had no problems biting through the one place the fabric lay flush against flesh - my backside! I was oblivious to the fact that my behind had become the dining area for the whole flying population of the Pantanal until D was giving me a helpful shove up into the jeep. The pain of a thousand pin-pricks hit me all at once and I was barely able to remain seated for the 3hr journey back to base.
After dark, and a couple of medicinal beers (can you believe that Skol is the favoured brew here!) we headed down to the water to watch the alligators feeding. Identifiable only by the way their eyes reflect, ruby red, in the torch light, the sheer number of them created a kind of night city scape across the swamp. We watched one, jaws clamped around the throat of a cow that must have become stranded earlier in the day.
The alligators weren't the only things were expected to find food in the depths of the water. The next day our group was assigned the task of catching lunch for the lodge. Though having never been fishing before, I am a great believer in the idea that if you are prepared to eat something then you should be prepared to kill it yourself. The thing was that I wasn't sure that I was prepared to eat what I was preparing to kill - Piranha!
The day before, the fishing group has failed to catch anything and so our expectations were very low. I hooked my lump of meat onto the end of my bamboo rod and let the bait sink into the water. Instantly I felt a little tug on the line. I pulled my hook out to find no fish and no bait either - I'd been robbed!
Pepinho called to me, ¨You're going to have to get into the water¨. Getting into a Piranha infested river was not my first choice of fun but, seeing as the mosquitos, ants and (did I forget to mention) ticks had pretty much sucked me dry, I thought the Piranhas would have very litle interest in me. In I got.
Hook, bait, sink, wait - In seconds the bamboo was arched to breaking point, I must have caught an alligator. I screamed, yanked my line out of the water and cast it back towards the bank. It caught in one of the brances overhead and there, dangling high above me, hook still in mouth, was a beautiful but viscious looking piranha. It looked at me and I felt the guilt rising in my stomach. If I could have reached it I would have thrown it back but then people started to gather and the guilt was swiftly replaced with pride. The fish was unhooked and bucketed and I waded back into the water. My final tally was 4 piranha and 1 catfish - not bad for a novice (D caught a couple as well). We ate the fish, fried, for lunch and though there was very little meat on them, the taste of success was good.
By the end of our four days in the Pantanal there was not a square inch of my body unbitten. It truely was an experience of a lifetime but was it a pleasurable one? Ask me when my final bite disappears - I'll probably say yes.