I grew up in Middle England. Wild, tropical adventure did not exactly sit on my doorstep. Still, the parks and playing fields of Birmingham played host to a child’s vivid imagination, and many an Indiana Jones enactment was carried out through slow-paced suburban backdrops. You see, I was an obsessive. An adventure obsessive, whose diet of Mr. Jones’ adventures, documentaries on extreme wildlife, and regularly devoured books about the jungle fueled a passion that continues to this day.
But it was a frustrating wait. I was lucky to travel growing up — extensively so — but tame family holidays to the Vendee and the Swedish Archipelago only served to further my desire to discover how the real world compared to the wild world of my media-driven imagination.
So when I was let loose on the world — or, rather, when I got to the age and achieved adequate self-means to take off — I hoovered experiences left, right, and center. Into the adventure lab I went to test, analyze, and report back to my childhood self whether the wild world was all it was cracked up to be.
And so the journeys began. Island hopping through the South China Sea. The Trans-Siberian express. Trekking the Gobi. Getting lost in the Sudan. Falling in love with the desolation of Namibia. And many, many more (oh, lucky me). But one area always stood out in my mind, always gave me a tingle when I thought about it.
A few years ago, with a sense of giddiness I went into the depths of the Pantanal. An area of swamps and jungle in the center of Brazil that matches the Amazon for diversity of flora and fauna, it remains a well-kept secret compared to the vast area dominated by the wondrous and winding river. Why the Pantanal? Clearly, I liked that it was less traveled, but what I was really excited about were the things I might come across and experiences I would have. You see, the Pantanal is home to some pretty special species that are endemic to that area only and don’t even make an appearance in the mighty Amazon.
Here be anaconda, here be piranha. Here be caiman, here be killer bees. Here be stories to tell mates over pints.
I was traveling with two friends. We had researched our trip using old guidebooks in our university library, a charming touch which proved largely useless given how dated the information was. So instead we had conversations with locals in Rio who had been through the area. We grabbed bus timetables to get ourselves out there, then made our way to a ranch where a distant cousin of a waitress we met in Rio was working. Traveling by opportunity was what we loved to do. It helped that, unlike most travelers with scarce vacation time, we had six months to make mistakes and not worry about making the most of every spare minute.
For three weeks we went deep in, staying in remote areas and camping out in the vast fields and swamplands — always a monkey’s scream from the edge of the jungle canopy.
The Pantanal delivered. It really did. Moment after moment was thrown at me. Riding by horseback through open savannah before heading down narrow paths surrounded by trees full of killer bees was a highlight, as was spending a number of nights in an old stable with a massive boa constrictor for company. Oh, and being chased. By crocodiles. And feeling for — and finding — anaconda under our toes, fishing for and then eating piranha.
I caught live tarantulas. I outswam an alligator. I dove into waterfalls. I flirted with the chief’s daughter.
I lapped it up, I reveled in it, I feasted on wild experiences that I can still recall today like they happened only hours ago. I was living in my fantasy world. Caution, fear, real world concerns — they had no place here.
It was all my wildest wildlife dreams rolled into one — and proof that our travel world does not need to be CGI’d and airbrushed for the cameras. My childhood belief that the wild world was only the result of special effects and stage-managed situations for the movies was dispelled in the most intoxicating and memorable of ways. Yes, Hollywood will still manufacture spectacular wildlife effects because, well, sometimes that’s easier. But if you want real, movie-inspired adventure, you can live it. I found it in the Pantanal and continue to search for it on all my travels.