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Touring the Pantanal with the world’s most hardcore guide

Jonny Indiano in the Pantanal © Craig FastI bequeath the title of ‘World’s Most Hardcore Tour Guide’ to Jonny Indiano, the man who introduced me to the flora and fauna of the Pantanal over three extraordinary days.

Jonny lives, breathes and sweats the Pantanal. His tribe have lived here for thousands of years and what he doesn’t know about the world’s largest wetlands isn’t worth knowing. His stocky body sports only a necklace of caiman teeth, a tattoo and baggy denim shorts with a large knife tucked into the waistband. Rarely does he wear shoes, preferring to feel the dirt, sludge and vegetation of the Pantanal between his toes.

Day 1: Jeep safari and boat trip
Our first encounter with Pantanal wildlife was a series of Kodak moments with two caiman. Jonny encouraged us to sit on a log within one metre of these big-mouthed, many-toothed reptiles, which can reach up to two-and-a-half metres in length, while he clicked away with our cameras, ordering us to smile. Later that day, he used us as sheepdogs to herd a water cobra in the best direction for a photo shoot (see video) and manoeuvred the boat through cappuccino water to within inches of a gurning caiman, threateningly poised on the river bank. Barefoot, he led us across beds of dry, spiked reeds in search of anaconda.

Jonny Indiano in the Pantanal © Craig FastThe only time we saw him lose his cool was through sheer excitement – he spotted a rare Giant Otter devouring a Spectacled Caiman on the banks of a lake and loped through copses of palm trees inhabited by Capybara (the world’s largest rodent), urging us to follow quickly and silently. We watched this horrible spectacle from a distance of just a few metres, hearing every crunch of bone and tear of flesh. The otter had a large gash above its eye – it had just battled a caiman – and kept up a grotesque yowling throughout its meal. Jonny had only seen this twice in his life.

Day 2: Nature trek and piranha fishing
When Jonny turned up to guide us on the nature trek wearing plastic flip flops, we knew he hadn’t been overly precautious when he’d told us to wear proper shoes.

He seemed to instinctively know where the animals were. Within minutes of the trek he tracked down some rare Black Howler Monkeys, climbed a nearby tree and imitated the monkeys’ call. A great chattering and squalling responded from above. In the excitement, one monkey shat on my arm. (The dung was warm, and smelled surprisingly pleasant: woody and nutty, if you must know.) Jonny unsheathed his Bowie knife and scraped the dung from my skin. Not a scrap of it remained, so close was the shave. Then he wiped the knife clean on my trousers, which pleased me less.

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Overland Traveller copyright © Emma Field 2010