At 11:15 am one of the last remaining trains in Brazil pulls out of Luz Station in Sao Paulo. Its destination, which will take over 39 hours to reach, is the small swamp town of Corumba on the Brazil Bolivia border.
I had first read about this train in a newspaper while traveling down the coast. Everything about it captured my imagination and sense of adventure. Going deep inland to the furthermost corners of the Brazilian jungle, experiencing what few had experienced; this is the kind of travel I had yearned for and opportunity was knocking.
The journey spans almost the entire width of Brazil and is known throughout the country as the Death Train. It was this name that made me veer west in my travel plans. At first I had thought the name had been earned for the fact that by the time the destination is reached you would probably feel, look, and smell like a corpse. Even though this assumption was not far off the mark the real reason was far more sinister.
It originally earned its nick-name due to its history for transporting victims of yellow fever however in more recent times it had become an artery for drug smuggling between the two countries; both theft and violence on board were common.
Unfortunately my journey held none of the expected excitement apart from an over-curious “cobra” who boarded at one of the village stations and was promptly decapitated by a group of locals wielding machetes.
This occurred directly after the 24th hour.
We had just entered the area known as the Pantanal; a swampland the size of Texas and one of the world’s largest.
It was also at this time that I realized my first order on the day upon arrival would be to purchase “mossie” repellent. The train had become infested and as we were only, for the majority of the time, traveling as fast as the mosquitoes, they stayed and feasted.
This was not about to change.
We traveled so slowly through the jungle that you could get off for a walk and hop back on again if you so desired; I did not have this desire after seeing the size of the snake and knowing he had friends.
Once the train entered the Pantanal it was as if we had begun journeying down a long green tunnel. On either side we were walled in by thick vegetation that grew up and over the engines entourage; rendering my window seat view-less and awesome because of it.
The entire journey was completed either in a wooden chair or standing on my feet to escape its confines. The heat and humidity was intense, suffocating. Compounded by the encroaching jungle allowing not a wisp of cool air or a breeze of any sort to lessen the discomfort.
The Death Train was living up to its name.
Nothing changed for almost 15 hours. At around 1:00am on the second night of the journey we, at last, pulled into the Corumba station. It was at this point that the annoyance of the feasting mosquitoes turned into a nightmare.
For most of the year the Pantanal is an impenetrable deluge. In that brief window when it is not submerged, an oasis teaming with life springs up and an adventure of the rarest kind makes itself available to you.
Getting in takes a guide, a jeep, and the will to go way off the beaten track.
You will sleep in a hammock, dine with your hands, bathe in the river alongside alligators and piranha, and generally perform most bodily functions out in the open. The alternative being a confrontation with all sorts of creatures that you will ultimately lose to. They will not understand your needs and not be impressed with your presumption that their territory is one that does not require an invitation.
The Pantanal is located in the state of Mato Grosso du Sul in south western Brasil.
After arriving in Corumba in the wee hours, the realization that I am now in the middle of the jungle fully set in. It is pitch dark; silent. The beauty of the sky filled with stars is evident but so is the fact that at ground level I am navigating this new terrain by way of my four remaining senses.
A single light bulb swings about a hundred yards away but there is no breeze. The air is heavy with humidity. I start to imagine the bugs all getting together; planning an attack on the latest arrival trespassing their domain.
The dim light sways; beckoning me towards it. Across the dirt road, over a drain, and into a bog; thick and wet with mud. The weight of my backpack sinking me further down with each step. By the middle I began to consider various outcomes; none were good.
Snakes, spiders, gators…
Flip flops were not meant for this kind of trek. They provide little support, no protection, tend to adhere to mud and discard your foot without a second thought. At this point I am being served to mosquitoes on a silver platter. Wearing shorts, a t-shirt, sweating like a man already riddled with malaria and on top of it all….shoeless!
Throughout the journey I had managed to remain as clean as I could have expected but this was about to change. My feet slipped on the plank I was using to cross a particularly menacing patch. Down like a lead balloon to get my first taste of the Pantanal I had come so far to see.
I did what we would all do.
I looked around in the darkness to make sure no-one had seen my performance although in retrospect that was more instinctual than practical. I could barely see my feet before and now that they were camouflaged in bog sludge they had become invisible to me.
I collected myself and headed towards the light; the mud drying almost instantly in the heat.
At this point you may be inwardly screaming. Why not just take the road?
I could not see it.
It was so black that my only beacon was the single dull bulb. My option was to head directly towards it or grope around the dirt until dawn. I completely understood the psychology of insects that fly headlong towards the zappers blue light.
When me and my mud cloaked feet emerged from the quagmire the reward made it all worthwhile. The bulb that had swung for no apparent reason dimly lit the sign for Hostel Corumba.
My adventure in the Pantanal was about to begin.