Pumas in Patagonia

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Over Easter I travelled to Patagonia again; this time to join a photographic tour group with the objective of photographing pumas. It’s the first time I’ve signed up for one of these and while they don’t come cheap, I have to admit that I absolutely loved it, simply being able to absolutely focus on photography, with no one wanting to move on after five minutes or even an hour. I also need to say that I was very fortunate that our group was just the right combination of people. While we were obviously all photographic geeks, there was no geeking out over equipment, we all had what we had and we just got on with our “job” of photographing pumas and the magnificent landscapes of Torres del Paine.

I flew into Punta Arenas in Chile’s south on the Saturday and met up with my friends Helen and Phil, who were also joining the tour. We stayed at Casa Innata Hostel, which was conveniently located, and I recommend it highly and warmly to anyone looking for accommodation in Punta Arenas. It’s clean, cosy and the people are lovely. I arrived just in time for dinner at Fogão de Lolo, where we had some fabulous steak and caught up on all the stories they had to share from their travels through southern Chile.

The next morning I had to be up early to get ready for checking out before I was picked up for a sea kayaking excursion on the Straits of Magellan. When the bus finally arrived we drove out to Bahia Agua Fresca, outside of Punta Arenas, where we got into our semi-dry suits and kayaks and started paddling. We paddle along the coast, but I am surprised that we are paddling with the wind, rather than in the other direction. We paddle through enormous kelp and occasionally spot dolphins cavorting in the waters. By the time we have to turn around the wind has picked up and we now have to paddle against the wind, which makes for hard work. But we get there and after a wonderful afternoon tea we head back to Punta Arenas, where it is immediately time to switch hotels to the one which has been booked for the phototour. It is a big disappointment to go from the cosy and comfortable hostel to an impersonal and ugly hotel, overheated and with staff who couldn’t care less. We meet in the evening with the rest of the group (eight of us all up and one tour leader and a guide) and go out for dinner.

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We leave the hotel at 8am to start the drive to Torres del Paine, stopping briefly in Puerto Natales for coffee and supplies. Then the unmissable shapes of the Torres come into sight and I am so happy to be back again in this astounding mountain scenery. We stay at Pehoe Lodge for the next few days and will drive from there each morning and afternoon to wherever the pumas have been sighted by the trackers. After lunch we drive in for our first foray and after hiking along a path we get our first sighting of a puma. It really is just a “3-pixel puma” – as Phil likes to call it – but she’s there. Eventually she moves and we get to see her a bit more where she is close enough to get some photos. The winner of the day, however, is the armadillo we sight as we walk in. I’ve never seen one of those before and I really like their cute face and “armoured” body.

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On Tuesday we start the day by photographing a spectacular sunrise at a vantage point. Afterwards we go looking for Hermanita, the female puma we saw yesterday, but while we can see her from far away, she remains stationary and seems reluctant to move. Only after we return in the afternoon does she make a move, but then she comes quite close to where we are and puts on a bit of a show for us, yawning and rolling on her back with her paws up in the air.

On Wednesday we seek out another vantage point for photographing the sunrise and although we think that we’ve missed the best time, we do get our reward setting up in very windy conditions when the colours come over the Torres and the sun rises. The light is less red this morning and more golden and this creates wonderful conditions for photography a little later when we come upon some rheas (ostrich-like flightless birds) and a group of guanacos. The rheas are nicely front lit with golden light, whereas the guanacos are beautifully backlit with golden halos and some guanacos are rolling around in the dust. Give me backlight any day!

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In the afternoon we hear that a different puma has been sighted, but that it will involve a bit of a hike and scramble. Some of us decide not to go, but the majority of us goes. With the kind of equipment that we are carrying, a longer walk and a scramble makes for quite a bit of exercise. Our cameras weigh a lot and so do our tripods, but our hike up is worth it at least for the views. We do spot the male cat, who appears to have been in a few fights, given the scarring around one of his eyes. At one point I think there are two pumas lying hidden behind the rock, but the tracker assures me it’s just one. With the light fading we have to start moving back and just as we’ve walked away from the spot we were sitting, the puma has moved up into a cave and it becomes clear that there were after all two pumas there, as he moves towards the female to start mating. It is most frustrating that at this point I completely run out of ISO and focal length to photograph it, but hey, that’s life.

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Thursday dawns with fresh snow on the mountains around us and it is significantly colder. It is also blowing a gale and while setting up for sunrise shots, I manage to get my tripod blown over, luckily without camera attached. Lessons learned to not only take your camera off your tripod, but also put it flat down on the ground before you walk away!

We find Hermanita enjoying the carcass of a guanaco, which she’s been feeding from for a few days now. She then gets up and starts stalking a sentry guanaco. She lies silently in the grass, watching the guanaco and getting ready to go for it, despite that the distance is really too large to make it a successful attack a probability. And then all of a sudden it’s as if she gets bored with it and instead rolls on her back with her paws up, rolls over again, jumps up and dashed away in the opposite direction. We follow her projected path along the fence line and eventually track her down to the road, which she crosses leisurely and then climbs up in between the rocks. Our presence on the road is then noticeable by too many people who stop and also have a look and we decide to go for lunch and give her a break.

That afternoon we find a young cub near the road further on. He seems to be waiting for his mother, who is out hunting, and seems a bit spooked by our presence and nervously tries to get away from us, so in order not to spook him further, we quietly move off and let him be. Instead we get a chance at some sunset shots.

Friday may be the 1st of April, but it’s a ripper of a day! We start out with wonderful colours during sunrise from hill behind the lodge. It is another bitterly cold morning and we warm up in the bus as we drive to the Sarmiento gate where we wait for news on puma sightings. We try to get warm again by walking around a bit, photographing birds, until we get word that Hermanita has been sighted high up. This requires a drive to pick up 4WD vehicles and then a challenging drive up the mountains until we get close to where she is. From there we walk up and see her asleep near a cave. We quietly set up our tripods and cameras and watch her sleep until she wakes up, contemplates the “circus” (us) and eventually gets up and starts moving along the mountain. We all scramble to follow her and think we’ve lost her when she disappears out of sight behind rocks, until we came around a corner and catch sight of her again. She is sitting down maybe 30 meters from us, observing us benignly and then tucking herself into sleep again. She certainly has a sense of humour: while her little spot is perfectly out of the wind and cosy, where we are sitting we are at the mercy of the wind and as we wait for her to move again, we get very, very cold. The trackers get some lunch to us there, which we devour like wolves. Eventually she stirs again to do an extensive cleaning session and then starts moving downhill. Again we scramble with all our gear to follow her.

At one point she peeks her head over a large slab of rock that sits between us and her, and looks at us, then moves into a crouch. I don’t realise at this point in time that I’m a bit in front of the line we have formed and fire away with my camera until I have a tingling sensation in my spine that I’m being preyed upon by a rather large predator. Now I know what my ancient ancestors must have felt like! As soon as I step back into the line, she drops the behaviour and settles nicely on the rock, as if she was only joking with me, but it certainly didn’t feel like joking. The photos were worth it, but even more so the humbling epiphany that I was nothing more than a bit of food to contemplate. That feeling I will not forget easily.

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When she moves again, we follow her, giving her space. Her loping, yet muscular gait makes her move effortlessly across the terrain, while we huff and puff with all our equipment. Every now and then she stops and looks back to us, as if waiting for us to catch up, before she moves again. Eventually she moves up on some dark rocks, her light brown coat beautifully in contrast. There she watches over the rim for quite a while, contemplating the universe in front of her, until she looks back to us one more time, decides we are obviously not going to follow her anymore, and disappears from sight as she slips over the rim. And with that, she is gone, capping off a beautiful day perfectly.

We have one more day for puma sightings and although we sit diligently near a recent guanaco kill, Hermanita leaves us waiting and does not make an appearance. But after yesterday’s magical afternoon, no one seems to mind at all as we sit relatively sheltered form the cold wind, with views of the Torres. Afterwards I calculate that we spent a total of eight hours waiting. A wildlife photographer has to be patient!

Sunday is our last day and the day we drive back to Punta Arenas. Nature gives us one last beautiful sunrise with lots of glorious pink colours on the peaks. On the way back we are scheduled to visit a location where we can photograph condors flying by. It takes a bit of time and effort to get there, but after lunch we head to the cliff and from there try to photograph the condors. I was expecting more birds and am having a hard time focusing on the birds, but eventually I manage to get a few in focus.

All in all it has been a fantastic trip and I loved being able to just focus on photography and nothing else. And although it was focused on wildlife (pumas), it was wonderful to also get some proper landscape photography in again – which is how my photography started, but which had fallen a bit by the wayside of late.

Greenland Time

Cloud formation above fjord

It has taken me a few days to figure out how to write this post. Every time I thought of the days in Greenland, I realised I couldn’t quite tell them apart, despite the notes I took. Time spent in Greenland is different, for me at least, than time spent elsewhere. I’ve said this in my first post after the trip, but there is a timelessness to these places and time doesn’t move in a conventional way. Perhaps this has to do with being on a holiday as well and being totally relaxed by then, yet it wasn’t like this in Iceland, so I can’t quite account for it that way.

Rocks and glacier

Time drifted and I could easily have spent hours in the one spot just watching and quietly waiting for something, not even knowing what I was waiting for. Or drifting gently in a kayak, at peace with the world. We did a lot of that; we had five kayaking sessions in Greenland and at least three of those were around big ice. These inner reaches of Scoresby Sund are magical and to be able to paddle around ice behemoths was incredible. It also reduces your sense of self to very small proportions. One is nothing but a gnat in those surroundings, easily crushed by anything, particularly a big iceberg that decides to randomly topple at some point. Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams how the Inuit on a day-to-day basis have more fear, because “they accept fully what is violent and tragic in nature. It is a fear tied to their knowledge that sudden, cataclysmic events are as much a part of life, of really living, as are the moments when one pauses to look at something beautiful”. It’s something you start to understand paddling around big icebergs and I found it a surprising relief to realise how insignificant one is and yet how alive at the same time.

Moody fjord

The morning after the party we are all a bit dusty and head for a walk in the hope that we will feel better once we are in the fresh air. There is a sizeable hill to climb, but we run out of time and then there is only time to make a dash for it, so I leave that to the mountain goats and sit with Valerie, nursing my creaky knees, to wait for the return of the summit group. As we sit talking quietly, we suddenly see an Arctic hare appear. It hops past and then, all of a sudden, suddenly gets up on its hind legs, sticks its front paws in the air and walks like that in an almost psychedelic dance before it drops on all fours again. Valerie and I look at the hare and then at each other and burst out laughing. She has never seen a hare do anything like this and it is impossible to erase from our minds what we have seen. If we hadn’t seen it together, no one would believe us, but it undeniably happened. Sadly I had no camera ready to photograph it and even if I had, it only lasted a few seconds.

It certainly is the day for interesting animal encounters. In the afternoon we do a kayak session around the Bear Islands. During the paddle a curious seal pops up out of the water and is mesmerised by Mark, who is equally taken with the seal. They check each other out for quite a while, until too many others intrude on this very special moment and the seal decides to move on.

National flower of Greenland

On our second morning in Scoresby Sund we have travelled further into the fjord and are surrounded by spectacular icebergs. While most of the passengers get into the zodiacs for a close up look at musk oxen, the kayakers get to paddle around the icebergs first before we beach our kayaks on the shore and walk towards some musk oxen that are far off. We do get to see them through binoculars, but not close up. That privilege is for those who took the longer walk and managed to get close to a group of the animals. They can be temperamental animals, so they need to be approached with caution. We later learn that even those who only came for the short walk were lucky enough to see them close up as they cruised along the coast in a zodiac and came upon a couple of individuals standing near the water’s edge.

Musk oxen skull

When we get back to the ship, the barbecue has been fired up on the back deck and lunch is in the open air with a most spectacular scenery around us. The music plays and once the food has been cleared away inevitably it turns into a dance party again. The idea for the afternoon was to cruise through the fjord system, but later in the afternoon John decides that it is too good an opportunity for a zodiac cruise. While the “beautiful people” get on the zodiacs, the kayakers get another chance to paddle amongst the breathtaking icebergs.

Boarding the zodiac

The third day we are still in this icy wonderland and we kayak again in the morning, dwarfed by large icebergs, which occasionally threaten to tumble. In a single kayak I thoroughly enjoy the moment and I wish it could go on for much longer. But as we have to travel quite a distance to our next spot, it can only be a short paddle, much to everyone’s regret.

Kayaking crew

The afternoon at Denmark Island offers a choice between a walk and kayaking. Definitely a paddle for me and once more in a single kayak I cruise along a rocky shore while viewing magnificent mountains on the other side of the fjord and a large glacier. Eventually we paddle to where the zodiacs are beached and explore a few ruins before we prepare for our polar plunge.

Contrasting colours

After much debate the prevailing strategy is for immediate submersion. Laurens is the first one in and if the tall Dutchman can go under without hitting anything, I can too, and so I follow in his footsteps and run into the frigid waters of Scoresby Sund, diving in head first. I have been dreading it all afternoon, this plunge into waters of 1 degree Celsius, but when the moment comes it actually feels amazing and I feel so invigorated coming out of the water that I don’t even rush to put my clothes on. The hot shower afterwards feels wonderful and the Talisker never tasted better, particularly with real glacier ice. Happy days.