The Xingu River runs almost exactly South to North, through the centre of Brazil. Its headwaters lie in the State of Mato Grosso, as does the whole of the Xingu Indigenous Park (PIX). The park is divided from the lower part of the river by a series of rocky rapids, covering roughly 400 kilometres, making navigation between the two parts of the river perilous, and only possible in a small boat. The border between Mato Grosso and Pará, the State to the North, lies in this area.
Much lower down river (to the North) lies Altamira, the only town of any size along the entire length of the river, with a population over 85,000. Between Altamira and the Amazon River, the Xingu makes a sweeping bend to the South, East, then back North again, called the Volta Grande (Great Return). This includes a series of rapids and cascades, reducing the level of the river by 90 metres, to more or less the level of the Amazon. The Volta Grande is totally un-navigable, so we will have to transport the boat by land to bypass this stretch.
There is a proposal to build a huge hydroelectric dam at Belo Monte, on the Eastern stretch of the Volta Grande. I will talk more about this in another section.
Below the Volta Grande, the river widens out into what is more or less a lake, stretching a further 180 kilometres to Pôrto de Moz, which lies at the mouth of the river where it meets the Amazon.
The vegetation changes substantially along the length of the river. The headwaters lie in an area known as cerrados, which typically looks like scrubby vegetation with areas of grass. Unfortunately, the headwaters of the Xingu have lost most of their natural vegetation, having been settled for more than two hundred years for cattle ranching. More recently, soya and maize monocultures have destroyed the remaining natural vegetaqtion, turning huge areas into featureless, barren wastes. The only continuous areas of any substantial size where the cerrados vegetation survives lie within protected areas, mainly in reserves occupied by the Xavante and Bakairi Indians.
The south of the PIX is also cerrados, with large open areas of land. As the river flows north the vegetation becomes increasingly dense, quickly turning into what is commonly referred to as rainforest. Scientfically, this is properly known as moist tropical forest; although this term is widely used by scientists, it has no formal definition; it refers to low altitude forests with an annual rainfall of at least 650mm, and no sustained rain-free period.
There are several sub-ecosystems which describe specific types of forest; igapô is seasonally flooded forest on low-lying valley areas, which can have poor and sandy or sometimes nutrient rich soils. Most of the forest is, however, terra firme, lying on land which lies above the flood level of the river. This varies from very dense forest with a closed canopy to more open forest with a rich understorey of lianas, which typically occurs on higher areas. For more details about vegetation and fauna in these areas see:
© Patrick Cunningham
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