John Costello – From Crocs to Caiman and Leopards to Jaguars

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Its 5:30 here on the banks of Rio Cuiaba, which, with the Sao Lourenco river combine courses, continuing across the Paraguay floodplain in a braided fashion to enter the Paraguay River, north of Corumbá. The river forms part of the southern boundary between Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul states, these in turn housing the Pantanal-Matogrossense National Park, the world’s largest freshwater wetland and one of the best places in the world for bird and Jaguar spotting.

The Pantanal is a vast expanse of wetlands straddling the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia and without question is the best place in the whole of South America from where to spot wild animals, and in addition, being split across two states, Mato Grosso (the northern Pantanal) and Mato Grosso do Sul (the southern Pantanal), the Pantanal allows one to explore and view Caiman (Caiman yacare), Anaconda, Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris), Ocelot, Marmoset, Howler Monkey, Giant Otter (Pteroneura brasiliensis), Tapir (Tapirus terrestris) Peccary, Marsh Deer (Blastocerus dichotomus), the Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhyncus hyacinthinus) (a bird endangered due to smuggling), and in addition is the home of the largest population of Jaguar (Panthera onca) on earth.

I was watching the sunrise, all the while feeling a mild sense of disorientation as just a few days before I had been standing in a reserve on another continent, and on the banks of the Rafuji River which flows on the western side of the Selous Reserve in Tanzania, once again laden with camera gear.

Fred Steynberg, an friend of mine who runs wonderful guided fishing tours to exotic destinations around the world had invited me to join him there so as to investigate the potential of catching giant tiger fish on fly in the central section of the river where it runs through the reserve, and that is what we were about to do.

The tiger fishing had been strange, in that on the first two days we caught numerous small fish of around the kilo mark, the chartreuse Clouser minnow fly that Fred was using outfishing the various lures that I was exploring with, but then for reasons known only to tiger fish, they simply disappeared and we never saw them again, so we changed tactics and went and explored the Selous Game Reserve instead, and in a blur of time and aircraft, I spent yesterday watching South American jaguars swimming across anther large fast flowing river, while Fred continued his way up the Rafuji to where he is establishing a fishing and photographing camp at Stieglers Gorge.

The sunrise was beautiful, changing colour to the less explosive colours of the day, as now, on board the high speed six meter aluminum john boats used to explore the waterways of this area we were chasing off to find what excitement the day held.

The bird life is prolific, from tiny kingfishers to the stately long legged jabaru stork, and a variety of others to the extent that my non-birding head battled to keep up with all the names being bandied and thrown around by the others, all birdwatchers, that I was in the company of.

Whilst in the Selous I could have done with a lion translating app on my phone when the Nissan 4X4 that we were in, stalled less than a couple of meters from a lioness sprawled in the middle of the dirt track that we were following, while her battle scared redmaned mate lay a short distance away, sneering at the canned tourists across the road from him. An interesting experience as one of the battery cables had come loose, not only preventing us starting the motor, but also preventing us from closing the windows. The lion and I ended up eyeballing each other for almost thirty minutes, both of us sneering at one another while his mate lay between us, rhythmically snoring. Not sure as how long we could have kept this up for had another vehicle not come along and given us a push start…… Now I was experiencing something similar with two jaguars on the banks of a river, one standing almost chest deep in the water and digging into the mud in search of crabs whilst the other prowled the shoreline.

Game viewing in the Pantanal is similar to what happens in a lot of the reserves in Africa, with tourists being taken around by guides in off-road vehicles, only in this case our off road vehicles were 6 meter aluminum john boats carrying three passengers and a driver. Fast and comfortable, they wold taken off across the water to where ever a radio reported sighting had been made.

Abundance of high tech camo clothing, combined with the multitude of large lensed cameras worn and carried by the passengers of the boats as they scream down the rivers and creeks had me initially cowering with the thought of being in the midst of a marine invasion, and the staccato sound of camera shutters in rapid drive was intimidating, to say the least, whenever something interesting was spotted.

Now I come from a background of film when each image was carefully and individually taken, so tend to try and be picky and not waste frames, but having the Fuji XH-1 fitted with the 100-400 lens and 10 assorted hi-speed SD cards to play with and wanting to test the capabilities of the outfit, I succumbed to temptation and on the odd occasion, blazed away at frame rates of 14 frames per second, and I now find myself paying for my indulgence with all the sorting and discarding of hundreds of duplicated images that is taking place.

The XH-1 and 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR lens combo is a beaut, initially from the fact that it is virtually silent in operation prompting my companions to ask why I was not photographing, and then from its sheer speed of operation.

I carried two camera’s, one being my favourite XT1 fitted with the F2.8 16-55 mm lens for the closer work, the other being the XH-1 fitted with the 100-400 IOS lens, and this is the outfit which hung from my shoulder all day and used for everything, from close ups of birds and flowers to jaguars hiding in the shade in the heavy vegetation, shooting from stationary boats rocking in the wake of other passing boats, from flat water and everything in-between. This combination was so versatile that I hardly used the shorter lens combination but it was there if needed.

I probably cheated a bit by making sure that I maintained a high shutter speed to help the IOS when the going got rough, but what the heck, I wanted the images to be as good as possible and that they are. Crisp edge to edge sharpness and colours that glowed in the late afternoon and evening light, and colours rendered truthfully in the hot clear light of day.

The best part of it though is the ease in which the outfit functioned and how well the controls, with one exception, functioned.

I found the auto focus quick and accurate, and it served well except for those odd moments when trying to capture a subject such as a bird partially obscured by tree leaves, or the head of a submerged jaguar just peeping out from a bank of water hyacinth. It’s not a problem to use manual spot focus to the fix the problem, but trying to set the selector switch on the left side of the camera to Manual and then having to move my hand to the front of the lens to turn the manual focus ring sometimes took more time than I had at that moment, so the odd shot was lost.

It would be wonderful if Fuji were to figure out how to position a separate selector switch close to the manual focus ring so as to allow instant selection from manual to auto focus, and I’m sure that this may happen someday.

When using the long lens combo, I would consider the varying camera to subject distances and conditions that I would be shooting under, so would choose an f-stop that allowed me the optimum depth field for the subject chosen, and then adjust the shutter speed accordingly, using the exposure compensation button in conjunction with the rear command dial and EVF display. Despite having, on occasion, to push the ISO close to 3200 to grab the odd image of a jaguar hidden in the deep forest shade, I can discern no noise on the images.

With so many lovely birds to choose from I decided to try capturing images of them in flight. This would be opportunistic though, with my grabbing images as they took off in flight while not really set up for them, but I am happy to say that I was able to succeed to an extent by simply setting the front focus switch to ( C ) and snap shooting as the bird flew. I admit to missing a lot of images as I was continuing to use the 100-400 lens and so was not able to track as well as I wished, but again the results were adequately satisfactory.

(While I’m thinking about it, fitting high quality UV filters to lenses when working in areas where water or dirt could splash onto the front of the lens is a good idea as this allows you to clean it off with whatever soft cloth may be handy, without worrying about destroying the lens and wasting time hunting the correct cleaning devise.)

There are a number of elements that can make or break a trip, and what made this South American trip such a pleasure is the highly professional manner in which Catia Zela De Za and her company, EcologicaTur, organized all aspects of the entire journey. Having travelled 38 odd countries, Catia, a most delightful lady, runs a one-lady show which she guides herself, and trust me when I say that she knows her stuff in every respect. She and the river guides that she provided put us onto all the best spots allowing us to return home with wonderful memories and sightings of normally difficult to find and photograph bird and animal species.

….. and all the while, whilst luxuriating in the semi-wild of the Pantanal, Fred was deep in the wilds of the Stiegler Gorge, putting the finishing touches to the camp that he is establishing there, and in between times catching giant tiger fish on fly, but that is a tale for another day.


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