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After 30 years of longing for a puma sighting, Christopher Wilmot-Sitwell cannot believe his luck when four show up.
It was almost 30 years ago that I first visited Patagonia. The wild landscape in both Chile and Argentina is both daunting and beguiling; it might be my favourite part of South America. The first time that I visited Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile, I made the crossing by road. Every hour or so, a little estancia, usually marked out on the horizon miles in advance by a little cluster of poplars, interrupted the long road trip from Argentina and into Chile. These early settlers must have been made of strong and independent stuff. With neighbours a day’s ride away and markets a lot further than that, self-sufficiency was the name of the game for sheep and cattle ranchers as depicted in Hudson’s ‘Far Away and Long Ago’.
Explora’s new lodge in Patagonia National Park has just such an estancia location. Less dramatically modern than its sister lodges, the set-up is very much that of a retro estancia – a cluster of buildings marked out by a belt of poplars. With the sorts of creature comforts that the early pioneers could not have dreamt of it offers farming life as seen through the eyes of conservationist Doug Tompkins but adapted by the pragmatism of world class lodge operators. With just thirteen rooms and no other hotel or lodge in the park, on many days you will have the wilderness to yourself, not dissimilar to Torres Del Paine Park of 40 years ago. I had just two human encounters in three days of mountain biking and trekking – and I was there in peak season of December on a Chilean National Holiday weekend – impressive.
My days in Patagonia National Park were extremely well spent and gave me some spectacular and rather demanding walking. The reward was more than 30 different bird species, including many near perfect condor sightings with views as good as anywhere in Chile. I also had some exhilarating mountain biking down dirt tracks and mountain paths. But as we ended a ten-hour walk on my final afternoon, I must admit I had hoped to see a few Patagonian pumas. Not only are they well protected in this park but their primary prey – guanaco – are abundant.
When I first visited Torres del Paine in the late 1990s, the great BBC wildlife filmmaker, Hugh Miles, had just released his film ‘Puma-Lion of the Andes’. Guides who had worked with him told me how hard it had been to get these elusive creatures on film, so my disappointment of yet another ‘blank’ day was tempered by that reality.
In any case, I had some bad blisters to think about. I sat down to readjust my walking boots and drain the last water from my water bottle, ready for the off. Puma would have to wait for another day – and, in any case, it would make a good excuse for a return visit. Suddenly, my guide, Inaki, gasped. Some 100 feet below us, in a riverine meadow, was the figure of a puma, sauntering casually across open ground towards a thicket. This was clearly a fully grown adult in its prime. Inaki said that a female with cubs had been seen in this area only five or six months previously. Surprisingly, she had been with a male as well as her young cubs (the male usually leaves soon after his mate has given birth).
This female was far less camouflaged than I had expected. For a large cat so notoriously difficult to see, her grey sheen stood out very clearly against the bright green grass. She was magnificent and completely at ease. For five minutes we just watched, silent. I didn’t even try to film her; such was the feast I was enjoying through my binoculars. I bought them years ago for exactly this reason and they deserved to be used.
Just as she got to the thicket, she stopped and looked straight at us, before slinking into the undergrowth. I was thrilled. What a sighting on my last day in Patagonia! Inaki and I beamed at each other, then scoured the thicket with our binoculars just in case she re-emerged.
The puma in Patagonia National Park had been a delightful highlight at the end of a very special day in one of the world’s last great wildernesses. The lodge was just an hour away and, to be honest, I had been thinking about the hot shower and the pisco sour to be found therein – and not necessarily in that order.
Then, from a completely different part of the thicket, out she came again. But no, this was a much smaller cat, swiftly followed by another…and then another. Cubs. If she had been relaxed, these young cubs were doubly so. They chased each other in and out of the bushes and batted each other with their paws. Two were very bumptious with each other, the third was quieter and more subdued and soon disappeared back into the thicket. Then the mother leapt out at the bumptious pair and chased them in a small circle, all of them falling into a happy heap. The play and the chasing went on for a full hour, sometimes with all three cubs, sometimes with one or two.
The walk back to the lodge in the fading light was like walking on air. Those aches and blisters were gone. We radioed in to explain our later than expected return – and to get those pisco sours on the go. The shower could wait; there were bragging rights to be had at the bar.
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