The Essence of Life

The Essence of Life

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Alligators in the Sky

An alligator afloat...where?

Besides being very tasty, alligators (and for the matter, crocodiles) are fascinating animals. They are successful predators, extremely adaptable, can survive for months without food, but can feed on almost any form of animal protein or tissue, and have an envious characteristic: the older the males get, the more fertile and sexual active they are.

All my alligators experience runs around one or another of the smaller species of the Brazilian jacaré or Cayman as it is known elsewhere. The largest Brazilian alligator, the jacaré-açu (the Tupi Indian name means “big lizard”), is only found in the Amazon River system, and can reach up to six meters (around 18 feet) in length, comparable to the Nile and Salt-water crocodiles.

I remember when I was around five years old and an alligator was caught on a “wait-hook” on a lake in our farm. A “wait-hook” is a sort of a trap, quite illegal nowadays (at least in Brasil), made of a large hook or spoon cast to a good two feet steel leader, a swivel, and then a length of strong line tied to a flexible tree limb or branch. The flexible branch is a necessary measure to avoid snapping the line. “Wait-hooks” are generally used for large nocturnal fish but the odd alligator may eventually find them.

I must tell you that I only saw that alligator by mid morning, after it had been gutted and the excellent tail meat taken away, but the large open mouth and the fresh in my mind Tarzan comic books were enough to inspire a great degree of respect for the animal.

Mr. Candinho, the same gentleman that several years later would shoot a rather large anaconda that had my father by his hand, wanted to show us the alligator teeth or perhaps he just wanted to retrieve the spoon still hooked to the powerful mouth. As he fingered around the large head the alligator, as if alive, snapped its jaws shut and took a bite out of one of Mr. Candinho’s fingers. It may not have been as traumatic a loss as Captain Hook’s but, pardon the pun, a hook cost a portion of his finger.

That experience was enough to make me understand that alligators may be easy to kill but are quite hard to die.

Several years later, along with my cousin Marco Aurélio, I went on my first alligator hunt, in the swamps of my family farm – Fazenda Taboa – and as we did not have a boat we had to improvise. We got a tractor rear wheel inner tube, filled it with air and put a wooden plank over it for a seat, and used a long pole for propulsion and steering along with our feet.

Unhappily or not, except for an unsuccessful shot at a passing duck, we never had the opportunity to fight and defeat any monstrous lizard. The two might hunters probably scared then away or most likely the alligators were too busy laughing of the two quixotes.

In June of 1987, after I returned from six months in the United States as an exchange student I went on a two week fishing trip to Mato Grosso, in the fringes of the Brazilian Legal Amazon. We stayed at the São Jorge Preto farm that belonged to my uncles Amaury and Marcelinho. We drove in two Chevrolet pick-ups, my father, my brother Rodolfo, Mr. Jaime in one and Uncle Amaury, “Zé da Brucelose” and me on the other. From our home town we drove to Barra do Garça, on the banks of the Araguaia River, and from there to the farm, in the São José do Xingu municipality, better known as “Bang” or “São José do Bang Bang”. You can figure why.

The trip itself took around 34 hours driving, the last 400 kilometers (250 miles) accounting for over ten hours, and to get to the farm we totaled five burst tires between the two trucks.

North Mato Gross is frontier country as wild as or even more wild than remote parts of Alaska, Canada or Africa. During summer or the rain season, from October to March, the roads are impassable and even the bush planes may face problem as the dirt runways started to soften. During winter, or the dry season, roads are drivable but an unpredictable dry fog may ground anything that does not have a GPS, satellite navigation or common sense.

When you go there, prepare yourself, for the closest gas stations may be anything from a three hours drive to a day or so. Of course, you could call a plane as long as your radio worked, you could afford it and the plane could find where you are.

This trip was a totally new experience for me, demanding sometimes (having to manage my father away from mother), but mostly exciting.

We fished the Comandante Fontoura, a slow flowing, dark water river, with the luxuriant tropical jungle suffocating its margins. As it was too hot during the day, we generally started fishing around 4PM and kept going to midnight or latter. Those nights floating on this river provided some of the most fascinating moments I had in the outdoors.

The tropical sky is incomparable in the amount of stars and the clear and cool winter nights, so far away from any city or pollution let those starts shine with such power against the dark night that they looked like diamonds under a powerful spotlight. The milk way or Via Láctea, as we say in Brasil, floated in the night sky just like the river we floated in cut the heartlands of Brasil and several times I wondered where we were floating, on the river or on the sky.

But suddenly I would be brought back to the earth, or better saying to the river, as the long shadows of the alligators would silent swim among the stars under our boat with slow strokes from their powerful tails.

Only in Africa, on safari, I saw a sky that could perhaps compare to Brasil, deep darkness and brilliant starts with the Southern Cross to guide me around.

I shot one alligator during that trip and my father cooked it while we were still there. I absolutely love the taste and consistency of alligator meat, it reminds me of lobster.

Also, during this trip I had one of the biggest scares of my life. One day my father decided to go out only with my brother and me. We packed the bare essentials and would have lunch on whatever we fished. That was a very poor day and the only fish we caught was a rather large black piranha. We made a fire on a clearing and cooked it the indian way, on a grill made of green branches above hot coals. We were either very hungry or the piranha was delicious, probably both, but my father didn’t eat even a small piece.

After the meal we continued fishing and were as unlucky as before and finally late night we, actually my father, decided it was time to go back to camp, and as he pulled the starting cord on the outboard motor he did not notice that it was in gear. When the engine started it sent the boat swirling around and my father lost his balance, and went overboard, hitting his kidney on the board on his way to the water.

I am still not sure how my, at the time, little and skinny brother and I hauled our father back into the boat but all the jungle creatures, alligators, anacondas, piranhas, mermaids, were very polite and did not disturb us on the process.

The following year I went to college and many years would go by before I could play with alligators again. But as it happened, that was so far the last time I was in the outdoors with my father and brothers.

We went to fish the Crixá-Mirim River in northern Goiás state, and due to work I was there only for the weekend but wanted to have at least one alligator (many times my stomach rules me).

On the first night in camp we went out for alligator, three in a six meters (18 feet) aluminum boat, waiting for the search light to reflect on their eyes just above water. Jesus, our farm manager, got excited and took a shot at the first gator he saw, which swam away He probably missed completely as 12 gauge buckshot is more than enough gun for even quite large lizards but as I could not be sure about it we followed it and I killed the only three foot long animal with a head shot from my .38 revolver.

As that alligator was too small to feed all the eight or ten people in camp then we went after another one and I was to shoot first this time.

The .38 Special hard cast wad cutter bullet is the most efficient alligator medicine I ever used. When the flat point hits the animal’s skull it shatters the bone plates to pieces and the shock kills the animal immediately. I never saw an alligator move after being hit by it in the head, except for starting to think slowly.

Now, you must remember that it is not because you killed an alligator that it is dead. Even with the brains blown out you must be careful in handling the animal and danger can come from either end, mouth or tail.

I have never been comfortable with a loaded long gun, be it a shotgun or rifle, on a small boat. There are no racks or any place to hold it properly and its always banging around, getting wet and its muzzle pointing at something or worse, someone. The nice thing about a pistol is that I can keep it holstered and safe until the boat gets within a few feet of the alligator and I always know exactly where the muzzle is pointing when I am handling it.

Shortly after, we found a larger alligator and it was almost too easy. I steered the boat towards it, cut the engine, and shot at its head no more that a couple yards away. The dinner-to-be never moved a scale, and I hooked it as it started to sink.

I had several more encounters with alligators, most quite uneventful to tell you about; a boat in the night, three people in it, one shot, one alligator. But the closest I ever came to any harm was with 12 inches long alligator. That was one of three babe alligators that someone captured and left for some days in a tank in our farm to show to children.

When I brought my children to visit the small animals they were quite shy and tried to hide under some vegetation in the tank. As I did not want my children to be disappointed I grabbed one of the little alligators and he slipped through my grip and bit my opposite hand. My pride was hurt more than my hand but I carried the elongated semicircular marks in the skin for a couple weeks.


Note: This story is one of the chapters of my book "A Wild Beast at Heart" (ISBN-13: 978-1424147212), still available at Amazon.com.

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