One of the more common questions I am asked whenever I give a talk on wildlife conservation is which is my favourite place to visit. The quick and easy answer is…… my most recent destination.
Every trip has its particular highlights.
In December I realized a dream by flying to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in Chile, where I began a memorable journey around Patagonia. This included five days and nights at Estancia Laguna Amarga, a huge ranch outside Torres Del Paine National Park.
The famous ‘Towers’ or Torres Del Paine
Apart from the picturesque landscapes and myriad wildlife – Patagonian foxes, Andean condors, guanacos – my objective was to photograph pumas. We call them cougars in Canada and they are known as mountain lions in the U.S. They are the same species although the ones in Patagonia are larger. That probably has something to do with the fact they aren’t competing down there with bears and wolves for prey.
My American guide Rex Bryngelson (PatagoniaPhoto.com) has been a resident of Chile for more than twenty years. He and the local tracker he hired, Roberto Donas, exceeded all my expectations.
Punta Arenas to Laguna Amarga by Car
It’s about five hours by car from Punta Arenas to the ranch and having spent the first night at a hotel in downtown Punta Arenas we left for the ranch. Passing the Straits of Magellan we stopped to photograph Chilean flamingoes and a family of Patagonian grey foxes. The four kits were curious and made for some interesting photo subjects but when their mother arrived back from a hunt they immediately ran to her to nurse.
A family of Patagonian Foxes
We were in no hurry which I believe is the best way to enjoy wildlife. In Puerto Natales we stopped for wood fire oven cooked pizza and to fill up with water and gas. By the time we arrived at Estancia Laguna Amarga it was afternoon. Since it was summer time in the southern hemisphere there was about seventeen hours of daylight – the sun rose around 530am and set at 10:00 p.m. – so we had lots of time to look for pumas.
From that evening onwards we had good fortune. Every day Roberto was able to get us into position to photograph pumas.
We stayed in the ranch’s ‘bunkhouse’ and were provided with three meals a day. Breakfast was usually a sandwich, juice, fruit which we ate at the back of Roberto’s SUV around 430am. We drank coffee while he scoured the mountains with his high powered binoculars.
Two other trackers were out and about with their respective clients and they and Roberto communicated via radios, reporting puma sightings. Every day we saw pumas.
Four Beautiful Cubs
One morning was spent photographing a mother with her four cubs. We kept a respectful distance and the family carried on as if we were invisible. The cubs played. The mother tried to rest. Three Andean condors soared through the valley looking down at the scene. We would return later that afternoon, when the pumas are more active, to an unbelievable experience.
Jorge, one of the trackers, keeps a catalogue of the pumas and has given them names. “Hermanita” is coming!” he said over the radio. This huge cat wandered around and behind the mother and cubs sending the cubs into a panic. They scattered. Two of them ran towards us as if for protection!
I managed a few shots as they came past us but then re-focused on the impending encounter between the two adult females. Then Rex called out, “Paul, look to your left.” Two cubs were seated next to me no more than ten feet away.
Hermanita walked around scratching the ground, peeing and otherwise marking the territory as her own. The mother lay down and acted subserviently all the while. Eventually peace was restored.
That was certainly a highlight from those days and nights in Patagonia but the most exciting was to happen on the final night.
A Hunt On the Last Night
As we drove away from Estancia Laguna Amarga I joked that, being a lucky photographer, we were going to see a hunt that night. Roberto and Rex just smiled. At the side of another lake Roberto peered through the binoculars. Bingo. He spotted a young adult female puma laying down on a ridge. We had to hike about three kilometres to get up and around her position so as not to spook her.
When she noticed us she started walking slowly closer and closer but veered off to go over a nearby hill. Roberto pointed a path to follow to get into a better position. As a herd of guanacos came up towards us the puma lay in wait on the hill. I often imagine the shot that I want and must admit that, on this occasion, I was shaking in anticipation.
When the unsuspecting guanacos got close suddenly the puma attacked. She sprinted down the hill and as the herd changed direction to avoid going over a cliff she also changed, coming right past us. One of the young guanacos stumbled and that proved to be a fatal mistake.
On the hunt
We watched and photographed the next twenty five minutes as the puma killed her prey, dragged it to some bushes and began her feast. Nature in its most primitive form. That’s when Rex told me this was only the second time in 20 years he has seen a successful hunt.
So, to answer the question, Patagonia is my favourite place. But that could change……….