Torres del Paine, blog 10
Paul and I are up at a quarter past five this morning. We dress and finish what little packing there is to do then walk out the door of our distinctive dome for the last time into the chilly but clear morning. The boardwalk has a thick coating of frost which makes us tread very carefully on the way up to the communal domes. We set our luggage by the door of the reception room and continue to the dining dome. Wow, it is so slick walking down the slope to the communal domes that we both hang onto the handrail. Once inside we are greeted by Angie and Marcella who tell us that we will be leaving at six thirty instead of six fifteen.
Angie hands us our sack breakfast and Paul gives the friendly woman three envelopes containing tip money for guides, drivers, and the staff. We sit in the empty bar until it is time to leave then cautiously walk back up to the parking lot. Our driver helps us load our luggage in the trunk of his small sedan and after hugging our two guides goodbye, we climb into the back seat. Another young man gets into the front passenger seat and we leave Eco Camp behind. Eco Camp was a unique camp filled with friendly guides and staff and I would recommend it to anyone who is contemplating a visit to Torres del Paine.
We are a few minutes into our drive when the young man in front pokes his finger towards the driver’s window and quietly says, “puma”. Our driver immediately brings the car to a stop. Paul finds the cat first and then I see the ghostly form of the puma in the predawn gloom. Sadly, the young puma is limping badly on a back leg. The crippled feline soon disappears into the bushes and we continue our drive to the river. We congratulate our fellow passenger on spotting the puma in such low light conditions. I would say our puma tracking day is off to an excellent start!
When we arrive at the swollen river there is another couple already waiting by the river’s edge to board the motor boat which is in the process of trying to maneuver closer to the river bank. We gather our luggage, thank the driver and join the couple in waiting for the boat to dock. The crew finally wrangle the zodiac next to where we are waiting and we pass our luggage to the men who in turn give us life jackets to put on. A group of five backpackers arrive at this time and hand their large rain protected packs to the crew. One man helps the couple that were ahead of us clamber into the boat and then the backpackers rudely cut in front of Paul and I and board the boat. As Paul and I start to climb aboard one of the crew holds up his hand and shakes his head, but I protest that we were here before the backpackers. He looks at the boat then back at us and then allows us to get on. There is plenty of room for all of us but maybe he was concerned about too much weight.
The water is moving swiftly but it isn’t the raging river I had envisioned last night thank goodness. The boat has a huge motor which lets the craft move across the river easily. It only takes a few minutes to reach the other side and I am relaxed enough to take a few photos. We disembark, the crew hands the luggage to we passengers and then they reverse course to pick up more stranded people who have arrived while we were crossing the river. The road to the river has been blocked off to keep vehicles from driving down to the water’s edge and the leader of the backpackers offers to help us carry our luggage up the hill. He also wants to make sure that the people who are supposed to be meeting us are here. We accept his offer and this softens my attitude towards their earlier behavior.
Once we have reached the top of the hill where a cluster of buildings sit a young man and woman are standing there and ask if we are the Millers. We acknowledge that we certainly are. We thank the man who helped us as he hands over our luggage and returns to his group. Our guide introduces herself, Pelin, and she looks like all the other women we have been with from Eco Camp. I really do think they are cloning these ladies somewhere. The driver is Javier who is a big, jovial fellow. The duo grabs some of our luggage and lead us to a white, crew cab, pick up where Javier places our suitcases into a wooden box that sits in the pickup bed. After this is taken care of Pelin introduces us to the puma trackers who will work with us for the next two and a half days. Jose is the puma expert and Raphael and Braulio are his assistants. Paul and I are a bit taken aback that we have five people assigned to us.
Before we leave the parking area the towers, (which have a lot of snow on them this morning), are suddenly bathed in gorgeous early morning light. I hike up a short trail behind the small hotel so I can have an unobstructed view of the stunning display mother nature is putting on. Once I return, Paul and I get into the pickup with Javier and Pelin, while the three puma trackers load into their vehicle. As we drive away the light over the towers has changed colors again and Javier stops the pickup so I can take photos of the awesome sight.
As Javier continues driving, I nibble on the muffin that was included in our breakfast sack. Javier comes to a stop and I look through the windshield to see the trackers vehicle pulled off the road. Raphael and Braulio have exited the car and Pelin announces that we are walking with them on the Fauna Trail. Hmm, Paul and I just assumed that the trackers would try to find a puma and then would summon us if they got lucky and spotted a big cat near a trail. Jose and Javier will proceed to the Ranger station where they will wait for the five of us to arrive. The trackers have two-way radios so I guess they will contact Jose if they spy a puma and perhaps Jose will be looking for puma on the other side and will return the favor to us if he finds a mountain lion.
It is a beautiful morning for a hike and I am feeling better so I am ready to enjoy the Fauna Trail for the second time. Our two trackers spend a lot of time checking various places, mainly high rocky outcrops, with their binoculars then easily stride down the trail when “nobody is home”. Paul and I visit with Pelin as we stroll along and learn that she is from Istanbul, Turkey. We tell her how much we enjoyed Istanbul when we visited and I add that I particularly admire the way they treat the feral cats and stray dogs there. Pelin reacts to my statement with a proud smile and then states that she loves cats. I tell her I too love cats prompting her to ask if we have cats. I say yes, we have two house cats then I choke up a bit as I realize that isn’t the case anymore. Pelin informs us that she has two house cats also and asks about our cats. I tell her that we actually lost a cat while on this trip and Pelin genuinely expresses her sorrow at the news about Taz. In the next three days, Pelin and I tell each other cat stories, both sad and funny, while we are riding in the pickup. I even get to see photos of her beautiful cats. The ability to talk and share with another cat lover was just what I needed and I am very grateful that this young woman was our guide.
We reach the Ranger station and find Javier but not Jose. Pelin informs us that Jose is just up the road where he has seen a female puma and her cub. No way, truthfully Paul and I had very little expectation that we would actually see puma and when we caught a glimpse of one this morning, we were prepared to be happy with that! The two trackers get into the bed of Javier’s pickup and we drive a mile or so to where Jose is parked along the side of the road. We cross the road and join Jose who points to the top of a rugged cliff and tells us to look for the cougar’s head. Paul sees the ears and top of the head before I do but neither of us see the cub. Jose says we will wait as he believes the pumas will move soon. We all find a place to sit down and Pelin tells us that the female puma made a kill here four days ago which is why the duo are here. Our perky guide points out the picked-clean carcass halfway between the road and the rocky outcrop. Aha, so Jose hoped that the two cats would still be in the vicinity even though it appears that the guanaco carcass is picked clean. Pelin also tells us that this female had three cubs at one time but Jose assumes that the two that disappeared were killed by a male puma.
As we sit and stare at the cliff top occasionally the adult puma will raise her head higher and once, we see the leg of her youngster. After we have sat for ten minutes, mother and cub sit up then stand up giving us a lovely silhouetted view. I am grinning from ear to ear as I rapidly push the shutter button on my camera. Jose has a camera mounted on a tripod with a gargantuan lens and Pelin is making use of her nice camera too. Soon the two cougars begin playing and it is like watching two domestic kittens tussle.
Mother and cub eventually move along the ridge pausing to roughhouse now and then. Mom walks off the ridge but the cub leaps from the rocks and then the two begin racing down the hill. Midway down they stop and chase each other in circles. At one point during the duos’ hijinks the cub does something to his mom that causes me to say “you little stinker”, which makes Pelin laugh out loud. The pumas reach the carcass and sniff and lick around on the bony pile then continue walking to a bush that is growing close to the road several hundred yards from where we are. Mama disappears into the green bush and junior lays down in a spot that gives us a clear view of it. The cubs repose only lasts briefly as all the play with mom still hasn’t expended his energy. The youngster begins to poke around the area like a typical curious kitten. The pumas were fully aware we were watching them as many times during their play or when walking both would stop and glance our way. Now, the cub while exploring often stops and stares right at us with curiosity not fear. Puma in the park are very acclimated to humans our guide tells us and they are particularly used to Jose who spends so much time around them.
Eventually mom stands up and begins walking in the direction they came from. The little cub tries to entice mom into playing some more and nips at her heels, and Pelin calls the ornery kitten a little rascal making me laugh. Mom does play with her energetic cub a bit but she is intent on getting back to the top of her hideaway in the rocks. We happily watch the duo until they disappear from sight. Javier exclaims “If I die now, I will die happy” and we all laugh and agree with him. We had the good fortune to watch the two pumas for nearly an hour with hardly any other humans around. Two or three vehicles came by and slowed down and one stopped briefly but no one got out of their vehicles. You can’t ask for more than that!
Jose and his helpers drive back to the Ranger station while I am trying to take a photo of a condor flying far above us in the blue sky. When we arrive at the station Raphael and Braulio are standing a few hundred yards up the Fauna Trail beckoning to us. When we reach them, Raphael points to a group of tourists standing a quarter-mile away, all staring in the same direction. He says that the group saw a puma take cover in the bush below them and they are waiting for the big cat to reappear. We join the hikers in their vigil and stare down at the dense foliage where the puma is hiding. Jose arrives shortly, takes a quick look at where the puma is supposed to be lying, consults with his co-trackers and then speaks to Pelin. Jose doesn’t speak any English so Pelin translates telling us that Jose doesn’t think the cougar is in the bush any more. Jose’s’ reason for this deduction is that birds are flying in and out of the large bush which they wouldn’t do if a puma was hiding there.
Jose, who is very stoic, looks around and then begins walking down the trail away from the other spectators and the six of us follow him. He stops to scan an area with his bare eyes and hikes on. When he halts again, I begin checking the land around us with my binoculars and lo and behold I find the puma walking along the fence that divides private land from the Park. The wily cat is a good half mile from where the group of people saw her go into the brush and ten sets of eyes never saw the large cat leave. Pelin says that is why pumas are called ghost cats and evidently this female is especially furtive. As I am typing this, I now believe it was Pelin who had this same puma walking the Fauna Trail in front of her and not Angie. Oops. Our group follows the secretive cat for a little bit but we are so far behind her that it is a futile effort. Plus, the puma ducks under the fence and is now on private property keeping her out of our reach for sure. She was much to far away for any photo documentation. So, we haven’t even made it to mid-day and Paul and I have seen four pumas. Pinch me, I think I am dreaming!
We drive to the Laguna Azure for lunch and after eating Paul and I take a walk down to the Lagoon. We wander back to where we left Pelin and Javier and both have stretched out on the grass and appear to be napping. Paul and I decide that looks like a good idea since we will be here for another hour at least. The trackers assure us no pumas will be moving this time of day and we will wait until late afternoon to start looking for more big cats. I decide to stretch out on the grass too but Paul prefers to try to sleep in the truck. I have a short “cat nap” and when I wake up, I watch two Southern Crested Caracara’s as they walk around the picnic area looking for scraps.
When the others wake up Javier drives us down to the Ranger station so we can use the restroom. There are a herd of guanaco grazing just below the station and I ask if I can walk down to get closer to them to which Pelin says sure. Shortly after I reach the area where the herd is a young guanaco decides to check out the flock of Upland Geese that are nearby. The curious fellow walks cautiously towards the geese and stretches its neck towards one of the fowls. The goose scurries away which makes the curious guanaco walk bravely towards more geese who promptly retreat from the brazen chulengos, (baby guanaco). The guanaco acts like a puppy and begins to chase after the irritated geese who try to stay out of the silly things way. The playful guanaco finally manages to get a couple of the stodgy geese to take wing and this seems to satisfy the youngster who gallops back to the herd. Hilarious.
As I climb up the small hill to where the others are standing, I ask if they saw the chulengos chasing the geese. I should have known by the grins on their faces that they had witnessed the young guanacos’ shenanigans. As we are returning to the truck, I see something move in the grass a ways down the road so stop to take a look through my binoculars. Paul asks what I am looking at and I say I just saw something move but it has moved behind a bush. Soon the critter comes into view and reveals itself to be a skunk. Paul had high hopes that I had spotted another puma! We get into the truck and drive a quarter-mile to where the skunk is and watch as the fellow sniffs the ground and occasionally digs up a bug I assume and consumes it. We leave the furry fellow behind after a few minutes then go back to Laguna Azure to wake the trackers up as it is time to hunt for more puma.
It seems the five of us are going to hike the Laguna Azure trail this afternoon in our search for more puma. As they did this morning, Javier and Jose, will be waiting for us at the end of the trail. Despite the stiff wind the sunshine and warmth still make for a pleasant hike. There is a herd of horses, most lying flat soaking up the sun, on a field of green grass. No, they aren’t the wild horses that live in Paine but some ranchers’ horses that have “escaped” according to Pelin. Our guide informs us that the horses aren’t allowed to run free in the park but evidently it isn’t unusual to find them here.
We enjoy the beautiful scenery all over again as our trackers continue to glass the land looking for the beautiful pumas. There is a guanaco lying on a hill not far from the trail, who evidently believes if he keeps his head on the ground, we won’t see him. Once we pass by, I look back and sure enough the fellow has raised his head now that the danger is gone.
Jose and Javier are waiting for us as we finish our hike and Jose says we will go back to see if the mother and cub are still hanging around the devoured carcass. At first, we don’t see any sign of the two pumas but then someone sees the cub poking its head out of a large stand of bushes not far from the guanaco skeleton. The curious puma comes out of the bushes little by little and soon is lying in the open. After fifteen minutes, the cub walks to the pile of bones and begins licking and tugging on some of the hide that is still present. I am concerned because the mother is nowhere to be seen and this leaves the youngster very vulnerable to male pumas when she isn’t around to protect it.
As the five of us are enjoying the antics of the cub, Raphael speaks up and says that they haven’t named this cub yet. He then states “what do you think of calling her Nancy?” I am taken aback and don’t know what to say to that. I do tell him that I never had the energy that this little dynamo has! Jose, who must understand some English, speaks to Pelin. Pelin laughs and tells us that Jose said if the cub turns out to be a male, they can change the name to Nanco. Pelin had told us this morning that they think the cub is a female but until it is older, they won’t know for sure. I didn’t know it was so hard to tell the sex of a young puma.
Another fifteen minutes go by when suddenly the female pumas head appears above the top of the thicket. I don’t know if she called to her offspring but the little cub walks back into the brush and of course entices mom to play with her. Unlike this morning several people have stopped to enjoy the cougars with us. I have loaned Javier my binoculars since I am busy with my camera. A vehicle with a large family has stopped and come to stand by us and they to take turns looking through my binoculars admiring the golden cats. Another man with a camera and lens that rivals Jose’s has set up his tripod near us. I believe two or three more spectators are here too.
Sometimes we can see the two pumas playing in the thinner part of the brush and at times it is too thick to see them at all. I have lowered my camera at one point when all I can see is some yellow patches of fur. Big mistake as Mama leaps high into the air, well above the top of the bushes. There is a collective gasp from we humans as it is a spectacular display of athleticism. The duo come out into the open for a few minutes and then a group of motorcyclist come roaring up the road, the riders revving their bikes motors, as they slow down to pass by all the parked cars. The cougars lay their ears back and run full-out for the hill-top and the safety of the rocks. So long mama and Nancy!
I hear someone grumble that they shouldn’t allow those noisy things into the park and I kind of agree with them. The loud machines don’t jive with the beauty of our surroundings and it is obvious that at least pumas are scared to death of the rumbling bikes.
As we prepare to leave, Raphael walks over to Paul and tells him how nice it was to be with such patient people. Paul replies that we understand the necessity of patience when dealing with the unpredictability of wild life.
It is getting late in the day and we have to drive to our new camp, (River Camp), at the southern end of the park. We are staying in tents again which look similar to the domes in Eco Camp. However, they are much smaller as there is just room for the large bed that has two night stands on each side of it and another shelf along one side of the tent to put some of our luggage on. There are no lights and only a small electric heater that only works until midnight as that is when they turn the generator off.
Our tent is very close to the dining tent but a long way from the community bathroom which is not good news for me! Once we are settled into our tent, I go up to the bath house to shower. All is well until I prepare to rinse the conditioner out of my hair and the water gets icy cold. What! I end up splashing the frigid water on my hair a handful at a time because there is no way I can tolerate standing under the freezing spray of water, and I mean freezing. Yow!
Dinner is served at eight and the food was very tasty. Paul and I retire shortly after dinner as we must get up at four thirty in the morning so we can meet the puma trackers at dawn.
This day was so incredible that it almost feels like somebody scripted it. It truly was an unbelievably wonderful day! Nancy