Rio Cristalino Lodge,

Matto Grosso


It’s a long way from Warwick Parkway Station in the West Midlands to Rio Cristalino Jungle lodge at the Northern edge of the huge Central Brazilian State of Matto Grosso.  And it takes a three-day journey to get you there – to what is now the Southern edge of the vast Amazon Rainforest.

About three weeks later than originally planned – and the day before yesterday – after a goodbye kiss – I stepped onto the National Express bus at Warwick Parkway at 9.30 a.m bound for Heathrow.  In the afternoon, I flew with Iberia from London to Madrid; then five past midnight yesterday morning was the start of 10 hour Iberia flight from Madrid to Sao Paulo in Southern Brazil, scene of Lewis Hamilton’s thrilling Formula 1 title win just over four weeks ago.

It was a sunny morning in Sao Paulo and I was safely re-united with my luggage with a long wait for an afternoon flight to Cuiaba, the capital of Matto Grosso. So I decided (as this was originally a birdwatching trip, now turned into part conservation report for the Blog) to push my laden trolley in the direction of the nearest trees.

South America is full of birds (nearly 3,000 different species out of a World total of about 10,000) and the trees fringing the airport car park were home to some of the commoner ones; great kiskadees, big flycatchers with black and white stripey heads and bright yellow breasts and stunning fork-tailed flycatchers trailing their 12-inch long black tail streamers over the shining roofs of the cars. Twenty or thirty black vultures wheeled lazily overhead.

Brazil is really big!!  When I got back inside the terminal, I checked my flight times and noted that it was just an hours flying time from Sao Paulo to Cuiaba.  Wrong!!! When our Tam flight was still powering along at 33,000 feet well after an hour into the flight and the food and drinks trolley was being trundled down the centre aisle, I realised something was amiss here.  Cuiaba is, of course, in another time zone, some 1,000 miles (distances to be verified in a future Rio Cristalino blog) to the North West of Sao Paulo and the actual flying time is nearer three hours.   (Perhaps it’s time for my editor Rob to give us a map so we’ve all got some idea of where we are).[Rob: Done, click here]

After bits of natural forest separating Sao Paulo’s posh swimming pool studded residential suburbs, there’s not a lot to see till you get to Cuiaba but vast, flat, agriculturally intensive plains and wide winding muddy rivers. This, of course, is the legacy of nearly 500 years of Portuguese colonisation. Portugal established its first permanent Brazilian settlements in 1532, one of them close to the now huge city of Sao Paulo.

Cuiaba has an intimate, busy little airport and so many tower blocks thrusting up a few kilometers beyond the single runway that it makes Birmingham look like a village.  But the fruiting cecropia trees attracting pale vented pigeons and blue-grey tanagers and the head high grasses tell you you’re in the tropics.  This is reputed to be the hottest place in Brazil!

So after a restless night in the hospitable Diplomata Hotel (overlooking the airport runway) yet another hour and a half’s flight (this time just East of North) to Alta Floresta.

There is a close relationship between propellor aeroplanes and virgin rainforest. You always seem to switch away from jet propulsion the closer you get to the forest.  And on this flight the landscape did finally start to change – still vast acreages of commercial crops but with blocks of native forest left (albeit some of it dying, degraded or damaged), many of them linked by narrower connecting strips allowing mammals (like monkeys) and birds (like the vast South American antbird tribe) neither of which will cross open ground, to travel through the forest canopy or the understorey in search of food or genetically healthy mates.

And so to my reception committee at tiny Alta Floresta airport. I emerged into a crowded forecourt, gratefully re-united with my bags again, to be met by a smiling American who introduced himself as Bill Walker, extending his hand as he explained he was going to be my minder and interpreter for the next fortnight.  Beside him was a slender, striking, 6 foot, darkeyed Brazilian girl who was going to take me through my booking-in procedures at the Floresta Amazonica Hotel (of which more later) in Alta Floresta.  This was my gateway to Rio Cristalino Jungle Lodge.

So about 3.30 this afternoon, I climbed into a pick-up truck with Bill and our driver and we threaded our way through spread out, low rise Alta Floresta (only founded in 1975), finally headed for the Brazilian countryside. The tarmac soon ran out and we were on red soil Amazon roads.  On either side, coarse bright green grasslands were grazed by white beef cattle.  But this was no agricultural desert.  Scrubby grassland with scattered trees  and ponds and marshes constantly broke up the pastoral monotony and on the watersheds not too far distant patches of forest hundreds of square meters in extent gradually came into view.

Suddenly, in the middle of a conversation about Rio Cristalino’s magnificent conservation intiatives (of which more scattered throughout these blogs) BIll  made an astonishing announcement.  We had been passing farm entrances all along the route with the names of the farm owners displayed on the gates.

‘Nearly all these farms were up for sale last time I travelled this road. But all the for sale notices have disappeared.  They were all put on the market because the State Government issued a decree recently that only 30% of the land area of any one farm in the Amazon region of Matto Grosso could be used for pasture or cropping and the remaining seventy per cent must retain its forest cover or be allowed to re-forest! This was the State Government’s response to increasing pressure to preserve the Amazon forests’.

What a revelation to a conservationist!  On the face of it that could mean thousands, hundreds of thousands of hectares of gradually regenerating  forest from the plant, insect and animal banks in the blocks of natural forest remaining close to the farms on the watersheds and the unbroken primary forest just a few kilometers to the north.

Questions raced through my mind.  Would there be active reforestation schemes? Who would monitor the new law? How strictly would it be enforced? But most amazing of all was the actual initiative of the state Government!

But this was all left as a lot of loose ends (which will plainly take months and years to unfold) as our driver suddenly ground to a halt and pointed to a little colony of six burrowing owls, standing long-legged on the top of their little earth piles in broad daylight, staring at us with unwinking yellow eyes.  And overhead, a raucous racket as two huge scarlet macaws flew past reminding us that even this degraded landscape still held its wildlife wonders.

The eco-tourism industry does amazing things these days. The owners of Rio Cristalino Lodge have an agreement with a local farmer whose land lies between Alta Floresta and the Rio Cristalino that visiting birdwatchers can visit a grove of Mauritia Palms where lives a gorgeous bird called the Point-Tailed Palmcreeper.

So a few minutes later we pulled into the farm compound, shook hands with all the family who were sitting in the shade, headed out towards the palms, despite all our technology failed to find the bird and returned to the compound.

And there, walking towards us on curved arms and legs, its body just suspended above the ground, was a charming, doe-eyed two-toed sloth which had recently been rescued from the middle of the road and was to be returned to the safety of the forest in due course.  As it approached us, the farmer picked it up, carried it back across the compound, laid it gently down, whereon it instantly made towards us again.  Got a bad reputation sloths – for slothfulness and rather complex and long-drawn out toilet arrangements – but, close to, the charm shone through. And so I bent down to stroke its long silky coat.  It looked up soulfully. An unforgettable moment.

Then more red road, a right turn onto another arrow straight track and a couple of kilometers down the road a horizon-full of dark green trees – the unspoilt rainforest with its myriad wonders was minutes away.

And now, I have to stop the blog for the time being as a tropical storm builds and threatens the electronic equipment.

In tomorow’s blog I hope to finally describe my arrival at the Lodge.

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