Corrientes

Duck tenderness

The distance between Carmelo in Uruguay and Salta in Argentina is about 1800 km by road so we usually divided the trip in three legs of roughly 600km each as to avoid driving too much in a day. The first stop is usually Curuzú Cuatiá in the province of Corrientes that we reach after crossing the border and a rather monotonous drive.

The second day takes us through a nice area known as the Iberá wetlands where bird life makes the trip very entertaining and interesting. Our second stop is found about 200 km towards the north-west, after crossing the mighty Paraná River in Presidencia Roque Sanz Peña, the second largest city of the Chaco Province. The main attraction of the city are its thermal waters but it also has a rather hidden treasure: a zoo of native animals. As the latter are difficult to see in the wild, the zoo helps preparing the observer for real life!

During one of the stop-overs we needed to kill time for a hotel room to be ready so we decided to defy the intense heat and spend some time at the zoo! We only learnt on arrival that mosquitoes were also on display and in large numbers! Luckily we had a strong repellent[1] otherwise the tour would have been abandoned!

Towards the end of the visit we walked passed a pond that was home to several duck species including domestic ducks. While watching the pond, we saw a few wild ducks known as sirirí cariblanco or white-faced whistling duck (Dendrocygna viduata), one of the handful of species that occurs both in South America and Africa, just like us! While making a comment about its world distribution we noticed one that had a “relationship” with a domestic duck.

As this was unusual, we watched as the whistling duck approached the much larger “friend” and placed its beak and part of its head behind the neck of the larger duck!

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The careful approach.

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Getting in place.

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Smugly in place.

At first we thought that it was looking for something there but it just kept its head there without moving for the whole time we were there and it was still in that position when we left them! The domestic duck, clearly used to this “treatment” did not move and accepted the wild duck indifferently!

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Closing the eyes!

 

 

[1] Repellents in South America can make the difference between misery and enjoyment and you need strong stuff to survive the various biting insects that wait for you there!

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Water cows

After our trip to the Iberá wetlands reported earlier in this blog, my mind remained on the fishing, as I almost could not remember when the last time I caught a fish worth lying about was!

A very simple armchair exploration showed me that the above-mentioned wetlands drained into the Paraná River, via the Corriente River. Further investigation revealed that in this area there is a town called Esquina in the Corrientes Province where people go fishing! I had heard about this place before but never gave it sufficient attention as it is closer to Buenos Aires than other fishing spots in the region and my belief is that large cities and fishing do not go together.

Arriving back to Esquina.

Esquina.

So, taking advantage of the need to travel from the Andes foothills to Carmelo, our town in Uruguay, I decided to explore the Esquina area with a view to go fishing there in the future.

Esquina, founded with the name of Santa Rita de la Esquina del río Corriente started its life in 1785 when fifteen families of which six were of Italian origin settled in the area. It is located on the left (eastern) margin of the Paraná River, about 670km North from Buenos Aires. Predominantly a cattle-rearing area it is also known for its watermelon production!

The city still maintains the air of a colonial town where its low houses -of Italian influence- are shaded by large trees. Esquina’s main attraction resides in its riverine location where it enjoys the calm waters of the Corriente River delta that connects to the Paraná -located further West- through a man-made channel.

Enough history and back to our trip!

The town can accommodate up to two thousand visitors. This large bed availability for a city of 26,000 people is explained by its hosting of street carnivals in January and February and the Fiesta Nacional del Pacú (National Pacú Festival), a fishing competition that attracts around 25,000 visitors, in May of each year. So, in view of this situation we did not book in advance and left the choice of accommodation to an in situ choice.

Casa del Puerto B&B.

Casa del Puerto B&B.

It did not take too much time to find a place to stay, the very nice “Casa del Puerto” that offers reasonable B&B and its lawns end at the river. Seeing the beauty of the riverfront, exploration turned into action and it was not long before a fishing trip was booked for the following day while we spent the rest of the afternoon walking about town and resting, after the rather long journey.

Fishing started at 07:00 hours when our guide José came to meet us at the hostel’s small jetty. All was taken care of and we agreed to fish in two stages, morning and afternoon with time in between to avoid the heat of lunchtime and have a siesta to recharge our batteries. We left with high hopes, as the setting was clearly fishing-friendly!

A channel in the delta of the Corriente River.

A channel in the delta of the Corriente River.

Despite the predictions by the hostel owner and our guide, fishing did not live up to our expectations and none of the “Big Three” Dorado, Surubí and Pacú were caught. To save you reading time, we did fish three “Palometas” (also called “Piranhas”) of the Serrasalmus genus (probably S. aureus) and one “Patí” (Luciopimelodus pati).

Our fishing efforts.

Our fishing efforts.

The bushsnob with a pati.

The bushsnob with a pati.

The bushsnob with a "palometa".

The bushsnob with a “palometa”.

The affair was rather disappointing and we remained with the doubt of whether it was a strike of bad luck or the area has too many fishing enthusiasts! Although we fear the latter, we will come back to find out and report accordingly.

Despite the poor fishing, boating through the various channels of the Corriente River delta was a beautiful experience. We saw many water birds and even managed to spot one capybara, a sign that they are either very shy or few as hunting goes on in the area.

And then, while cruising through the channels, we saw it! A large head bobbing in a channel ahead of us that, for a few seconds, brought us back to an African river! We were aware that hippos in South America are still confined to Colombian rivers and it was not a semi-submerged capybara or tapir head either! It was a humble cow swimming to move from island to island in search of greener -or different- pastures. Clearly, to be a successful cow in the area you need to be a good swimmer!

The water cow...

The water cow…

The cow in shallow water.

The cow in shallow water.

We watched and followed the “water cow” for a while and learnt from José that, although the animals are used to water, when floods come cattle still need to be evacuated to dry land to save them from drowning. Further, I could also appreciate the difficulties of rearing cattle in such an amphibian environment and pondered the difficulties of mustering the cattle and the need for good (water) horses as well!

Swimming to safety.

Swimming to safety.

ALmost on dry land.

Almost on dry land.

 

A Fishing Expedition

Playing a Dorado before bringing it in.

Playing a Dorado before bringing it in.

While in Kenya, we shared a few fishing trips with our friend Paul, a great fisherman and our undisputed “African Bush Mentor”. We fished together at Sasamua dam for trout, lake Naivasha for bass and lakes Victoria and Turkana for Nile Perch (and Crocodiles…)[1]. It was unavoidable that we would talk about our fishing dreams: sea fishing for Paul and fishing in Corrientes, Argentina for us, among other more whacky ideas.

Although I knew Paul from the beginning of our stay in Kenya, our friendship started when he invited me to spend some time in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve while he was doing research on Malignant Catarrh, a disease of cattle (particularly Maasai cattle) transmitted by wildebeest. I still remember clearly sitting at a knoll in the reserve waiting for a Wildebeest calf to rush to the site in order to get samples from the placenta! The trick was to be faster than the hyenas and other predators!

The idea of a fishing trip to the, to us almost mythical, Paso de la Patria in Corrientes slowly took shape while siting by campfires. Eventually we made the decision but it was regrettably postponed when Argentina and Britain decided to go to war for the Falklands/Malvinas Isles in 1982. I followed the short-lived war from the safety of Kenya alongside the British as there was a strong team of British Overseas Development Administration[2] veterinarians working at the Kenya Veterinary Research Institute in Muguga and I was collaborating with some of them.

I still remember one morning in early May 1982 when the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano was sunk by a British submarine. The following day a drawing of a sinking ship with the words “Belgrano” written under it appeared on a blackboard in the staff room. It clearly provoked someone who, a few days later, wrote “HMS Sheffield” under the same drawing, announcing the sinking of the British ship by the Argentinians! In retrospect, it was a very sad time.

Finally and thankfully the war ended and we resumed our fishing conversations that included the planning of the trip to Corrientes. Although the decision had been taken, the actual dates were repeatedly postponed because of working commitments on both our parts. Finally in late 1984 we started to get our act together and on 9 October I wrote to a couple of fishing operators found in an Argentinian fishing magazine asking for information on fishing in Paso de la Patria. We had learnt through experience that -at least for the first time- it was advisable to fish with someone who knew the rivers well.

Only one answer came back and it arrived rather fast, on 24 October. It was from Mr. Coco Barthe’s PIKIPÉ (the acronym of his company) who informed us that currently in January of each year -the time we could travel- there was a ban on Dorado, Pacu and Manguruyú[3] as this was their reproduction period. However, “catch and release’ was possible. As this is our normal practice it did not offer any problems. We read and re-read the letter! The fishing seemed to be excellent and the sizes of the Dorados caught could not be believed. Needless to say that this information was thrilling to us and, although we allowed for some fisherman’s exaggeration from Coco’s part, it still sounded amazing.

He also gave us useful details on accommodation and transport options as well as other fishing details. The key information for us were the costs involved. Thankfully (for us!) Argentina was at the time undergoing one of its recurrent economic crises so costs were affordable and we decided to go for it. January 1986 was fixed as “F Day” so we were committed!

Although today it seems almost incredible, at that time there were no available faxes or electronic communications so all arrangements were done through the Post Office and airmail letters between Nairobi and Paso de la Patria took about three weeks! Emergencies were dealt with by telegramme or telephone calls, the latter a rather expensive method reserved for extreme situations.

Several letters were exchanged from October 1984 until my last one of 4 Dec 85 when I announced our arrival at Corrientes on 6 Jan 1986 on Aerolíneas Argentinas AR 774 at 18:45. We had booked fishing time from the 8th to the 11th. This encompassed the services of a boat and a guide, with other related expenses such as petrol, lures, bait, etc. at an additional cost. Accommodation was arranged -by Coco- at what was then the only hostel in Paso de la Patria. It offered individual air-conditioned chalets under shady flamboyant trees. The place also offered meals at reasonable prices.

Suddenly we hit a serious snag! Carried away with our enthusiasm for the trip we somehow overlooked the fact that Paul was British and the latter had beaten Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas war. Although more than two years had elapsed since the end of the conflict, relations between the two countries were still tense and the granting of a Visa for a British national seemed difficult not to say impossible!

As we only realized this at the eleventh hour, we had a panic as this threatened to derail the whole project! While considering our options, we wrote to Coco to contact the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Argentina. This he did but the news was still bad: no Tourist Visas were being given to British nationals! There was a hope though: a Business Visa and Coco, of his own decision, wrote a letter to the Minister informing him that Paul was coming for a visit to discuss the possibility of bringing Kenyan clients to Argentina for tourism, fishing and hunting!

We also took action locally. The Latin American community in Nairobi was small and we all knew each other. Among our friends were Argentinian Diplomats, we met with them and they promised to help. Luckily, our two-pronged approach worked and we were told that Paul could get a Tourist Visa and there was no need to go for Coco’s white lies. If not the first, he was probably among the first British nationals entering Argentina after the war. We jumped this fence and we were ready to go!

Paul arrived in Uruguay after we had been there for a couple of weeks and, after spending a few days in Carmelo -our town- we met in Montevideo and from there we flew to Corrientes as planned. Coco was waiting to take us to our hostel in Paso de la Patria, about 45 km towards the Northeast. We travelled in his car, an enormous mustard-coloured Chevrolet “Chevy” with an equally large engine, showing some wear and tear and being rather noisy with a boot that required a laborious intervention with a large screwdriver to pop it open.

The following day -7/1/86- we needed to exchange money so Coco took us to the bank in Corrientes only to learn that bank employees were on strike. However, we managed to get some money to see us through for a few days and pay the hostel. We did have credit cards so we were not too concerned at the time. While travelling to the city with Coco, we asked him if it would be possible to go and watch wild animals somewhere. He agreed and promised that late in the afternoon he would take us for a boat ride on the Paraguay River, where we could see some interesting birds as well as animal’s footprints. Now, that was exciting!

Paso de la Patria in January is very, very hot! Nothing moves from about 12:00 to 16:00hs as the heat is just unbearable. We put on our air conditioner and decided to stay inside, away from the furnace. We never thought about Paul’s ideas. In an act only explained by the maxim “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” he decided to go for a walk! Luckily he was an intelligent Englishman and returned after only a few minutes, rather suffocated!

Eventually the time for the excursion came and we were picked-up by Coco and his teen son, towing a very large and magnificent boat with an enormous engine (150HP) placed on a large 4-wheeled trailer. Coco had borrowed the boat from a good friend. “We need a fast boat for the trip I have in mind” said Coco. Things were looking good, we thought, while sharing excited and satisfied looks and comments in anticipation. We all jumped on the Chevy and went to the river. This was our first real look at the mighty Paraná River that, in Paso de la Patria, is about four km wide. Its width and the strength of its rather clear water were the features that called our attention. There were sand banks, sandy beaches and islands all over.

The Paraguay river joined the Paraná in the Cerrito Island, a place we could see in the distance. That was the start of our adventure up the Paraguay. With the fading light, the river and its environs was a beautiful sight. Coco informed us that the water was very low and clean for the season and the fishing excellent.

While we were lost in contemplation we had glimpses of Coco maneuvering the Chevy into position and dextrously reversing the trailer into the river, something that could have taken me at least an hour to do. This drew our attention for a while and we also saw him unhooking the trailer from the car in order to immerse it sufficiently to release the launch.

Our attention went back to the river as we could see splashes and ripples created by fish all over the river and, to our surprise, an osprey fishing. Coco’s voice brought us back to the boat launching. We saw him standing with the water above its waist. He was clearly under great strain holding the trailer. His son was frantically trying to unfasten the boat. Somehow this took longer than anticipated or the teenager did not know exactly what to untie. Regardless, the end result was that Coco, the trailer and the boat were going deeper into the river while he kept shouting instructions to the increasingly ineffective and nervous youngster!

Eventually, successfully released, the boat floated free and, to the relief of all, the son brought it to the shore, smiling. We prepared to board our first Paraná adventure. But we were not there yet… The release of the boat meant that the weight of the trailer was solely on Coco. We could see the strain in his head and shoulder muscles and he muttered something like “I cannot hold this much longer” while moving to chest depth. “Hang on Coco” we shouted while running towards him. However, before we could reach him we witnessed the final and uneven battle between Coco and the mighty Paraná. Abruptly his body relaxed and we saw his empty hands above the water “Shit” he exclaimed, “the trailer is gone!” a rather obvious statement but something I would have also said!

Once we recovered from our disbelief, we felt pity for Coco and then tried to guess where the trailer had gone! We had just witnessed the loss of an expensive-looking trailer, probably forever! Coco was very brave about it, considering that probably more than our fishing trip’s revenue was “gone with the river” before the fishing even started and, without one word of lamentation, he prepared the boat and off we went.

Our itinerary took us across the Parana river towards Paraguay and we entered the Paraguay River. While the Paraná’s water was very clean, the smaller Paraguay was very flooded, running fast and muddy and full of floating plants and trees. Clearly the rains were in full swing up river. Into the Paraguay we went, always at very high speed, navigated by Coco who seemed to be enjoying the ride as much as we were and had clearly forgotten the trailer by then.

The boat was really fast and the ride exhilarating. Then, at about 100 metres we saw a humongous full tree coming towards us at speed. Our mild surprise at Coco not taking evasive action became an alarm call as the behemoth was almost upon us. Coco was unruffled and, before we could scream in pre-death desperation Coco avoided it at the last second swerving violently to the right only to resume our course. A nervous calm was restored when another fishing Osprey was sighted and pointed out by Coco. The next floating forest colossus that tried to kill us was avoided the same way so we relaxed a bit and endured the following ones in a much calmer way as the situation seemed normal. We did disembark to see some Puma footprints but the general feeling was of relief, as at least on the way back the trees would be travelling in our direction!

We were soon back in the Paraná and we travelled downriver for a while as Coco wanted us to see how, for a few km, the two rivers go side by side without mixing and with a clear line separating them in similar fashion to the White and Blue Niles near Khartoum. Back in Paso de la Patria Coco left the boat at the small harbour and took us to our hostel where we talked a lot about the lost trailer and the boat ride.

So that was the start of our river adventure in Paso de la Patria and the fishing would only begin the next day at 06:00hs!

As Paul and I scribbled some notes day by day, I will start each fishing day with these in Bold and then add my own recollections.

Day 1. 8/1/86. Trolling above rocks. 8+ kg, 15+ kg, 3 of 5-6 kg, 4 of 5-7 kg. 115 HP Mercury engine. Moreno. After a good night’s sleep (aided by the air condition again) we were up and about at 05:00hs, excitedly waiting for the start of the actual fishing. As the hostel was actually on the river, we walked to the harbour to meet our guide. Coco and son were also there with a grappling hook, trying to retrieve the sunken trailer. Our guide presented himself as “Moreno” and he was indeed dark skinned. He was quiet but friendly so we were happy with him and looking forward to sharing the boat with him for the next few days. He explained that today we would be going for large Dorados and this would mean mainly trolling over rocks where water moves fast and Dorado wait for their prey.


The Paraná River has a number of game fish that attract fishing lovers from all over the world. The Dorado is the King of the river as it is a very strong fish that, when hooked, fights to the bitter end with spectacular jumps and runs that very often result in the fish going away. Apart from the Dorado, the Surubí (Pseudoplatystoma corruscans) is also sought, as it is a very large fish attaining up to 80kg although these are now rare. When hooked they resist by swimming away and, because of its weight, they are difficult to reel in until it tires. Finally, there is a third fish, the Pacú, who takes dough and or fruits. It can also reach a large size and it offers a good fight as, being a wide-bodied fish, it swims sideways, making its recovery very difficult.


We left Coco throwing his hook and headed for our eagerly anticipated fishing trip. From previous experience we knew that trolling can be tedious so we prepared for a long wait after we put two rods in the water. Moreno manoeuvred the boat through fast running water, trying to get our lures to pass where the Dorados were poised for ambush. This was risky and we had a couple of snags. The first strike happened after 30 minutes and during the course of the morning we experienced the best fishing I have ever had. We caught about ten Dorado, a couple of which were above the 12-14 kg mark and the largest -as usual caught by my wife- that struggled bravely for a while to bring it in! We all fished as we took turns but none of us was left wanting!

A good fish caught by my wife.

A good fish caught by my wife.

By lunchtime the sun was too strong and, despite our willingness to continue, we returned to the shade of the hostel for a cool shower, a light lunch and a siesta. This time we managed to persuade Paul to lie down. At about 16:30hs it was time to go to the river again but there was no sign of Paul. We decided to call him and he gave a feeble reply. After a while he came out of his bungalow and said “Good morning!” in his cheerful way. We burst out laughing at his confusion but, at the same time, we knew that he had rested well as this is a common mistake one makes after a good siesta! We congratulated him for having achieved this despite his Anglo Saxon origins!

The shorter trolling of the afternoon complemented the morning’s success and rounded up an excellent day that ended up dining with Coco at a local Parrillada (BBQ place) sitting “al fresco” to enjoy the fresh evening air while partaking of typical roasted beef and insides. We praised the fishing to Coco’s delight while Coco informed us that the trailer was still under water!

The largest Dorado I have fished.

The largest Dorado I have fished.

Day 2. 9/1/86. AM Itatí trolling, 6+kg (tumour) eaten, 12+kg, 7+kg, 7+kg, Basilica, shopping, grilled fish on island, swimming, finger chewing. PM hit the Sábalo, initially with lures, then anchored upstream letting bait drift down. Six Dorado 5-7 kg. The excellent fishing we had the day before had lowered our anxiety level. However, Moreno still wanted us to enjoy the day so he took us up the river towards Itatí, an area well known for its submerged rocky formations where Dorado and Surubí are found. The fishing was similar to the previous day but we caught less fish. In my enthusiasm for a picture my finger inadvertently ended up in the mouth of one. As these fish have a reflex that causes them to clamp their jaws shut when touched, my finger suffered the consequences of a “Dorado chew” and it was kept in its toothy mouth until it decided to open its mouth; attempting to pull my finger out would have ended badly! We noticed that one of the Dorado caught had a large tumour on its side and it was chosen to be barbecued.

Itati small

Satisfied with the fishing, at about 11:00 we docked at Itatí to buy salt and lemon for our lunch. A small village, Itatí is well known because of its Basílica to the Virgin Mary that attracts great displays of devoutness to the wooden image of the Virgin. The walls of the Basilica are literally covered both inside and outside with ex-votos or votive offerings. Its small size and its design are apparently unique for the region. It can hold up to nine thousand people and its 88 metre high dome is the highest in South America and it can be seen from a long distance away.

Later on we visited the local market where Paul bought traditional trinkets and we got a mate made of Ilex paraguayensis, the wood from the bush that produces yerba mate, the typical drink of the region and a bombilla[4] with the effigy of the Itatí virgin on it.

Itatí done, we boated to a lone sand bank/island where the Dorado was quickly barbequed by Moreno with only salt and lemon. It was a good fish, its usually dry white meat quite juicy and even tasty to me (I must confess that fish is not my dish!). While the fish was cooked we bathed and swam to keep fresh. With lunch finished, it was time to go back to the hostel to recover.

In the afternoon, as the river was low and very clean and the sun rays were at the right angle, fish could actually be seen near the surface, something that I had not thought possible. There were huge shoals of thousands of fish. They were the herbivorous Sábalo (Prochilodus lineatus) Moreno informed us. They are the natural prey for the Dorado. It was almost at the same time that we all said that the situation somehow reminded us of the wildebeest vs. predators in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve!

The idea was to fish a few Sábalo in order to use them for bait and let the chunks of silvery flesh drift down with the current waiting for the Dorado to find them. The issue was the catching of the Sábalo. No problem said Moreno as he was preparing a single hook with a weight that he threw into the river and retrieved by pulling it strongly. By the second pull he foul-hooked the first fish to Paul’s horror “He is foul-hooking them” he said with a derogatory tone. “That is the way” I replied. “Very unsporting” came Paul’s reply.

Soon we had a couple of fish in the boat and fillets were distributed among the three of us. We threw them and let them drift for about 60 metres. As soon as we stopped the line from going out, we could feel the gentle pulls of small fish nibbling the bait. “These are the small fish, be attentive as the Dorado will hit next”. He had not finished the sentence when each of us had a Dorado running with our fillets! Although we had many bites and lots of fun, the result were just a handful of Dorado as lots of them took the food away and left us with an empty hook. We liked this way of fishing and agreed with Moreno to repeat it the following day.

Another Dorado caught with Sabalo bait.

Another Dorado caught with Sabalo bait.

Day 3. 10/1/86. AM Back to Sábalos. Shoal feeding. Catch several (6) Sábalo by foul hooking. 1 Sábalo of 3+kg. Dorado – 8. PM 3 more Sábalos. Dorado feeding well, another 12-15 Dorado 2.5 – 8+ kg. Many fish lost. Amazing fishing. Amazing sunset. Cicadas. Back early because of wind. (I added: Fantastic Dorado hunting and feast over Sábalo). As agreed, we went straight for Sábalo fishing. I was surprised to see Paul being the first attempting to foul-hook Sábalo but refrained from make a rude comment as he was enjoying it like a child! The climax for him came when he got a rather large fish of about 3 kg that gave him an almost a harder fight than a larger Dorado. While we fished for bait, we witnessed a spectacle that delayed our fishing for a long while.

They have a large mouth.

They have a large mouth.

The Sábalo shoals were, again, all over the place, shining silver as they rolled in the clear water. There were thousands of them feeding on the clay riverbanks. At frequent intervals you could see and/or hear splashes: Dorado attacks! They seemed to be cruising among the shoals and striking at the Sábalo. Paying closer attention we could actually see the dynamics of the hunt on the surface but we could not agree if they were hunting in packs or whenever a Sábalo was caught several Dorado congregated to feed. This was the only time I have ever witnessed this amazing event, despite having returned to fish there several times by now!

Regarding the fishing, the fun continued and it was increased when we decided to change to very light gear. This meant that we needed to play the fish for a long time before they were sufficiently tired to bring them in. It also resulted in fish swimming in all directions, passing under the boat, jumping behind you only to return the moment you turned around. Fishing people bumped into each other and several times we nearly pushed each other into the water as a result of our excited movements. Soon we were exhausted and decided to call it a morning. We all agreed that it was great fun even when it resulted in substantial loss of equipment! We thanked Moreno profusely for his guidance.

The afternoon outing started with a very loud Cicada choir that, according to Moreno, indicated the brewing of a storm. We repeated the same fishing approach and witnessed more Dorado kills. Even Moreno was impressed in his quiet way! Then the wind picked up and while Nature was putting together a most beautiful sunset it was time to return as a heavy storm was indeed brewing. We managed to get back just before a small tornado hit Paso de la Patria with the usual consequences of broken branches and other light damage.

The condition of the lures after a day fishing!

The condition of the lures after a day fishing!

Day 4. AM Topadoras in the river. Dionisio Romero (“Moreno”). Went 56km up river, past Itatí. Tried for Surubí and hooked one Dorado 4kg – lost (JJC). Then tried Pacú no luck. 11:30 Went for big Dorado from Itatí stones. Hooked Dorado (big) and the steel trace gave in but recovered although damaged. The storm calmed down at dawn and all we were ready to go. As we had had sufficient Dorado fishing by then, we focused our interest in attempting to catch Surubí and Pacú while travelling around. An outstanding feature of travelling upriver was the densely forested river margin in Paraguay and the amazing noise that Black Howler Monkeys make early in the morning.

We travelled many km to get to places where our target fish could be caught but failed to find them. On our way back we tried the Itatí stones again and hooked some large Dorado that we could not get out. In the afternoon we accepted an invitation from Moreno to cross into Paraguay to visit the shops, as it was cheap there. Not knowing really what to expect, we accepted.

After boating along the Paraguay River for a distance we entered into a tributary and docked near a large wooden building on stilts. It looked as a makeshift contraption and we looked at each other anticipating time wasted. We climbed the stairs and entered. Our surprise was huge at finding all the electronic equipment you could dream existed and wished to buy as well as all the alcohol and cigarette makes and amounts you wanted. Although we wasted time as we did not buy anything, it was an amazing find in the middle of nowhere. Clearly smuggling was involved!

We had come to the end of our fishing trip and we had a final meeting with Coco to whom we needed to explain that we could not pay in cash for the fishing as our travellers cheques from Kenya could not be cashed in Argentina but that we could pay him with a credit card. He mentioned that he did not have the means yet to accept credit cards so we agreed that we would send him the payment once we were back in Kenya. This was the coronation of Coco’s bad luck with us: he lost the trailer and, at the end of our safari, did not get any money from us! However, he continued to be a friendly and helpful host.

So, the following day it was time to catch our plane from Corrientes to Buenos Aires and he was there to pick us up. Unknown to us, the time for departure had been anticipated. At first we did not think much when we saw a plane approaching the Corrientes airport while parking Coco’s car. The truth became clear when we arrived and the plane was taxing its way to the departure area and, when we were explaining the situation to the check in desk we heard the engine noise and it was gone.

We were told that there was some hope for us as the plane stopped in Resistencia before continuing to Buenos Aires. We rushed our farewells to Coco and took a taxi to Resistencia, faster and safer than the Chevy! Despite our mad rush, it was a “deja vu” in Resistencia and we had to book another later flight from Resistencia. Not a great problem really. While at the airport we met an Australian lady tourist visiting family in Asunción that had not been allowed on her plane, as she did not have a Visa for Paraguay. As she was having communication problems we assisted her and, in the process, ended up inviting her for lunch! Naturally we went to a BBQ place in Resistencia where we went through the normal carnivorous diet of the region to her horror!

Eventually we walked with her to the Paraguayan Consulate where she got the Visa and placed her on a bus to Asunción. We were still in time to get to the airport and, this time without snags, leave for Buenos Aires with the best fishing memories ever!

The record of Dorado: 30.7kg!

The record of Dorado: 30.7kg!

 

[1] Some of these trips deserve a separate account that will come, eventually.

[2] Now the Department for International Development.

[3] Salminus maxillosus, Piaractus mesopotamicus and Paulicea luetkeni respectively.

[4] Mate is the main traditional drink from this region of South America. The dry ground up leaves of the yerba mate plant (Ilex paraguayensis) are placed into a container and hot water poured on it. The infusion is then sucked up through the bombilla, a metal drinking straw with a bulbous strainer at the end.

Riding my fears

The Senior Editor (daughter) certifying in person that what is written is real...

The Senior Editor (daughter) certifying in person that what is written is true…

One of the activities offered at Rincon del Socorro, during our visit to the Iberá Wetlands, was horse riding. Unlike all other members of the team that eagerly awaited the day, I dismissed it without thinking and made an alternative plan with our guide Mingo. I do not like horses or rather I am scared of them! The worse part is that they detect my fear from a mile away!

I have no doubts that it all started when, as a baby, a cousin placed me on a horse. I have a pictorial record of the event and my face while enduring the experience is telling! I am sure that although I cannot remember the event, it left a mark that I am not able to overcome without expensive intense psychiatric therapy! As avoiding horses is an easier solution, this is the path I have chosen after -as an adult- I became aware of this “trauma”.

Dodging horses during my four-year stint as a practitioner in Uruguay, a country where these beasts are revered and left to die of natural causes to reward their loyalty was, to put it mildly, difficult! So I tried to overcome my dreads and did what I could. Most of this involved referring the cases over to other colleagues!

To actually sit on a horse is an even more terrifying experience for me as I become rigid with fear and tend to fall off the horse at the first unexpected movement. I studied veterinary medicine with Álvaro, the second of nine brothers who owned a cattle ranch in the centre of Uruguay. They were a horse-loving family and each brother had a few riding horses as a lot of the tasks were carried out on horseback. The few times I visited the ranch it involved joining the routine cattle work. While I like working with cattle on foot, I had difficulties joining the necessary horse-dependent preliminary preparations inherent to cattle work.

My first time on a horse started early in the morning with the saddling of the beasts. As all were aware of my limitations I was given the tamest horse. In retrospect, as the mare’s name was Tarántula (the local name for a hairy spider!) I should have politely refused the offer but I did not! I received “riding instructions” from all and I was declared “ready to go”! I mounted and sat on the horse and followed the others, or rather Tarántula followed the others. It all went well while we walked towards the field where the rather lively Aberdeen Angus cows and calves were. The task was to separate them, as we needed to vaccinate the calves.

We entered the field and, before I knew what to do, Tarántula started moving faster and trotting in anticipation. I discovered too late that the mare was tame but not stupid… She had clearly identified a “separable” cow-calf pair and went straight towards it to perform the task. I followed (I had no option!) and managed to stay on during the trotting-galloping-trotting that took place and began to feel proud of myself as we were succeeding. My elation came too early! The moment Tarántula got between the pair and the mother lost contact with the calf it veered back to join its offspring. Tarántula reacted swiftly by swerving to the left to avoid their reunion in a great move for her equine brain. Although my more advanced brain understood a millisecond earlier what the horse was attempting, time was not enough to adjust my body to hers! What happened next lasted at most a couple of seconds: I went over the side head-first and hit the ground, luckily absorbing some of the knock with my arms. In the process I destroyed my watch and got badly knocked. To make matters worse my foot went through the stirrup and I became trapped. Flashes of western movies seen in earlier life of cowboys being dragged all over fields and disintegrating in the process assaulted me. Luckily, the mare did not watch the same movies and, confused and I am sure amused, she stopped in her tracks and looked at me in surprise, not understanding what had happened to the rather rigid human she had been carrying!

My working companions’ help with my condition was severely delayed by hilarity and rude remarks. Eventually I was released and, enduring all imaginable jokes, I abandoned the exercise to lick my wounds while, after tying the horse on a tree, I decided to watch and admire my friends’ riding skills!

Although funny in retrospect, this experience has remained in my mind all my life and it was the reason for making alternative plans for the Iberá horse-riding proposition! However, human folly has no limits and, when time arrived and after thinking about it, for the sake of teamwork (and under silent and subtle peer pressure…) I decided to join the equine adventurers not without obtaining assurances beforehand from the organizer that the mounts were tame almost to a stupid level.

I hasten to inform you that I did not fall and I feel so proud about it that I fail to find the right words to describe this feeling. In fact, with the exception of a couple of hitches, I enjoyed the trial.

The Bushsnob being optimistic about the challenge. Picture by Mariana Terra.

A rigid Bushsnob being optimistic about the challenge. Picture by Mariana Terra.

The first challenge came when we needed to cross a rather deep river that implied a brisk descent, water fording and a steep climb up the other side! I got my feet and legs water-logged as all my attention and extremities were holding on to avoid a worse fate. After that success I felt physically soggy but spiritually high. This glorious feeling lasted for a few minutes until the horse skidded on the muddy ground and my heart missed a beat. Luckily the four legs quickly recovered their verticality and I continued my triumphant parade all the way through the obstacle course and back to the ranch.

The Bushsnob being looked after by a member of the team.

The Bushsnob being looked after by a member of the team.

The ride took us through areas of tall grass, difficult to walk through, that opened up in a large flooded area where lots of water birds were present. An interesting sight was a lone Marsh Deer (Blastocerus dichotomus), the largest deer species from South America.

The good news is that I quite enjoyed the ride as it was far more comfortable than anticipated and the fact that I managed to stay on the horse made it 100% better than earlier experiences! The bad news is that, after this success, I may try again!

Tarántula Terminator

Picture by Mariana Terra.

Picture by Mariana Terra.

During our first walk around the Rincón del Socorro ranch we came across a large wasp dragging a spider. Although we have seen this several times both in Africa and Latin America, it was the first time we witnessed a confrontation of such large and colourful adversaries. The wasp was about six centimetres long and the spider even larger!

Picture by Mariana Terra.

Picture by Mariana Terra.

Before our arrival a Tarántula Hawk (a wasp of the Pompillidae family) caught a large Tarántula (Grammostola sp.) and was dragging it through the grass. The wasp stings the spider in order to paralyze it and later it lays an egg on it so that its offspring can feed on the inert -but living- arachnid. Apparently (see link below) the young wasp eats the spider’s non-vital organs first so that the paralyzed spider remain as a supply of fresh food for some time.

The Spider compared with a -muddy- foot...

The Spider compared with a -muddy- foot…

The female wasp (males do not hunt) was determined to keep hold of her prey, and clearly looking for her burrow or a place to bury the spider.

Life is, albeit rarely, also dangerous for the wasp as she deals with dangerous prey as sometimes she fails and becomes the prey instead of the predator. Even if she wins the battle, she is still very vulnerable while she drags her prey across rough terrain; she is earth bound and reluctant to abandon it.

If you are interested in more details I recommend you to consult the following link:

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150109-the-wasp-that-scares-tarantulas

A lucky strike at the Brilliant Waters

View of swamp

We visited the Esteros de Iberá (Yverá in its original Guaraní denomination)[1] a few years back and the idea of returning stayed with us. Taking advantage of the visit of our children during the 2015 season’s holidays we booked a three-night stay at Rincón del Socorro. I quote from their web site (http://rincondelsocorro.com/):

Rincón del Socorro has 12.000 hectares and is located in the Iberá Wetlands. It has been historically managed as a cattle ranch until 1999 when it was bought by The Conservation Land Trust (CLT), who now dedicates to care for its environment through a group of biologists and veterinarians who develop different restoration and reintroduction programs of species. As a touristic establishment, we provide to our guests a close understanding to the local ecosystem, appreciating the importance each different natural environments and conservation it has“.

The CLT was created in 1992 by Douglas Tompkins to protect wild lands, primarily in Chile and Argentina. It was blatantly obvious that a large investment has taken place not only in the refurbishment of the ranch but also in the general area of the wetlands. The hostel at Rincón del Socorro is managed by a private concession that employs about 40 people, including the guides. We were very fortunate to get “Mingo” as ours as he proved to be a great companion who patiently explained most of the questions we asked and who had no problems in admitting not knowing an answer on the few occasions that he did not.

RdS view cropped

Rincon del Socorro: parking and reception areas.

To reach the place required a long journey of about 750 km from Carmelo, our hometown in Uruguay. Bookings were made about one month before the visit and being this a wet summer I immediately got “cold feet” about the very likely possibility of a rains during our visit planned for 2-5 January. However, there was not much I could do but hope that the usual luck that accompanies us would be with us again.

My concerns were not lessened the day before as 2015 started with heavy rain! A rather desperate last minute check to the weather forecast showed “suns” so hope was somehow maintained. The lucky strike started when getting up very early on the 2nd of January where clear skies greeted us. This magnificent weather stayed with us and we had four beautifully -and even relatively cool- sunny days that enabled us to enjoy the trip to the full and the playing cards and dice we brought with us in case of rain were not remembered. Amazingly, it started raining after we got back to Carmelo and it continued to pour until the 8 January!

During our stay we joined all available activities: animal watching walks and drives, boat trips to lake Iberá as well as a -rather painful to me- horseback ride. All these activities combined allowed us -with the advice of Mingo- to understand the different ecological areas that are found in the wetlands that I will try to briefly describe to you.

A general view of the Ibera wetlands. Capybara coin: Rincon del Socorro; Armadillo: Ibera lagoon.

A general view of the Ibera wetlands. Capybara coin: Rincon del Socorro; Armadillo: Ibera lagoon.

The Iberá Provincial Reserve is a protected area in the northwest of Corrientes Province, northeastern Argentina. The entire area is in the shape of a funnel, with the conical mouth towards the northeast and the stem pointing towards the southwest, ending in the Corriente River. Established on 15 April 1983, with an area of about 13,000 km2 it contains a mix of habitats that I will briefly describe to put the place in context. More information is available in the web, of course.

The lagoons, up to a depth of five metres, and the floating islands are an important feature. The latter are composed of floating organic material where giant bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus) (Totora in Spanish) predominates among others such as yellow laurel (Nectandra angustifolia). These islands determine the shape of the open water while the water circulates underneath towards the Corriente River (the funnel’s stem). The latter with its sandy banks maintains a constant and slow flow that will eventually flow into the mighty Paraná River. Its very wet and sandy banks do not allow for the growth of large vegetation.

A Yacare (Caiman yacare) on a floating island at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

A Yacare (Caiman yacare) on a floating island at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

There are large areas of swamps and reeds, particularly towards the northeast where the water has filled depressions and accumulated over time, creating large flooded grasslands and reed beds mainly formed by piripiri (Cyperus giganteus) a kind of papyrus and giant bulrush that rarely dry out. In other areas grass fields made up predominantly of red grass (Andropogon lateralis) predominate and walking on it reveals small depressions filled with water. These micro lagoons enable the development of truly small aquatic systems. Finally, there is another grassland system in the sand hills of North and West Iberá where scattered patches of forest and/or little round blue lagoons interrupt the grasslands known locally as “espartillares”.

A Capybara in its private bathtub.

A Capybara in its private bathtub. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

Palms occur in the form of groves of the small Dwarf Yatay Palm (Butia paraguayensis) that grow in the higher parts of the area as well as Caranday Wax Palm (Copernicia alba) that grow in sand and clay. As these palms are water tolerant they can survive floods and form dense forests that occupy areas where most land and aquatic plants do not survive.

There are patches of wet forest that have a limited lifespan as conditions are not ideal for the growth of the common forest trees such as queen palm (Syagrus romanzoffiana), the gum tree (Sebastiania brasiliensis), the ombú tree (Phytolacca dioica), the pacara earpod tree (Enterolobium contortisiliquum), and the lapacho tree (Tabebuia spp.). Drier areas are populated by Ñandubay trees (Prosopis affinis), with their medium height and flattish canopies creating dry forests in the savannah.

A group of Southern Screamers at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio de Castro.

A group of Southern Screamers at the Ibera lagoon. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

The place is also an animal paradise with many interesting and rather unique species. Abundant southern screamers (Chauna torquata) were spotted while living up to their names and screaming in alarm at our approach while the rheas (Rhea americana) grazed undisturbed.

Rhea and chicks feeding. Picture by Mariana Terra.

Rhea and chicks feeding. Picture by Mariana Terra.

The estimated number of bird species identified in the wetlands is nearly 400 and therefore there are too many to mention. However, the pair of Jabiru storks (Jabiru mycteria) nesting near the ranch were simply spectacular.

A pair of Jabiru Storks on their nest. Picture by Mariana Terra.

A pair of Jabiru Storks on their nest. Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off... Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off… Picture by Mariana Terra.

Taking off and in flight. All three pictures by Mariana Terra.

Taking off and in flight (below). Both pictures by Mariana Terra.

Mariana jabiru flying 2On the other end of the size spectrum (tiny), but not less impressive were the various humming birds as well as the aptly named Strange-tailed Tyrant (Alectrurus risora), spotted too far to capture it on film but that can be seen in: http://www.pbase.com/james_lowen/image/88253519.

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

Close-up of the Glittering-Bellied Hummingbird.

Close-up of the Glittering-Bellied Hummingbird.

A Glittering-bellied Emerald Hummingbird (left) and probably a female Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbird at a feeder in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini.

Blue-Tufted Starthroat Hummingbirds (perched, left and in flight top right) and a Glittering-Bellied Emerald Hummingbird (flying, right). All Hummingbird pictures by Mariana Terra..

The mammals spotted were mostly rodents. Capybaras (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris) being very abundant both in the swamps as well as in the small lakes we visited. It was interesting to notice that while the latter were rather brown in colour, the ones inhabiting the swamps and grasslands had a reddish tinge as if henna would have been applied to them.

Female Capybara feeding her babies.

Female Capybara feeding her babies. Picture by Julio A. de Castro.

Plains Vizcacha (Lagostomus maximus) were also present in numbers, mainly grazing around their burrows and it was very entertaining to see them carrying various objects to their burrows. They are the largest of the Genus and they build elaborate burrows that house successive colonies for generations.

A family of Plains Vizcacha out in the evening.

A family of Plains Vizcacha out in the evening.

Grey (Lycalopex gymnocercus) and Crab Eating foxes (Cerdocyon thous) were seen daily and three Hog-nosed Skunks (Conepatus chinga), a mother and two babies, were seen daily at the ranch’s park, stamping their forelegs in warning when we got too close, failing to get good pictures as they appeared only at dusk. We also saw a family of Black Howler Monkeys (Alouatta caraya) but did not see the rare Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) or the re-introduced Giant Anteater (Mymecophaga tridactyla). However, our disappointment was somehow lessened by enjoying the sight of a Screaming Hairy Armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) standing in its burrow and three Nine-banded Armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) walking in the meadows.

Rincon del Socorro: guest accommodation area.

Rincon del Socorro: guest accommodation area.

We were accommodated at the refurbished ranch facilities. The rooms were very comfortable and they were up to the high standards we have enjoyed. All activities and meals were included in the price. The latter were good and the service did not make us wait. We were all very satisfied except for our son who in his early twenties, who during dinner on the first day got small portions of food and only his British education kept him from making the remarks I would have made being in his place! He also stoically tolerated our jokes. He was pleased at breakfast as it was a buffet and he could serve himself the portion size he wanted!

The respite given by the good breakfast ended at lunch where he received the smallest portions again! After that, anticipation regarding his portion size for dinner grew as the day went on and, yes, we were not disappointed as he again got the smaller portion. This made us all laugh loud to the surprise of the other guests and waitresses who did not understand the reason for such a mirth! As the situation repeated itself at all meals, it soon became an expected event and we did not laugh anymore but felt sorry for our son and even contributed from our portions to enlarge his! Well, his mother did anyway…

Finally, during our last dinner it was the time for us to get the surprise as he was somehow rewarded when he was presented with the largest -by far- cheesecake portion of all. He did not leave one crumb as he ate it with a smile in his face!

[1] Iberá means Brilliant Waters.