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Published: January 19th 2019
Actually, it was not one, but two Pumas. But I get ahead of myself…
I started Thursday morning feeling better after a night’s sleep, but still not hopeful for the day ahead. We had breakfast and as I was grabbing something from my bag at the entrance to the reception/restaurant building when a staff member interrupted me. I managed to overcome my foul mood and be respectful despite myself. I’m glad I did as she was to be our guide for the tour.
Her name was Mayi (pronounced like “magic” but without the “c”) and it turns out she had given up her day off to run the tour. And what a difference a guide makes! Mayi made the excursion a much more enjoyable experience than our Pingo trek. In fairness to Nico, some of this was because there were only three of us on the excursion, but she really did go above and beyond to make sure we had a fantastic day.
As we walked up to the van, she asked what we were interested in and was responsive to the fact that, even though the tour is called “Fauna”, my interest was in photography and not
just animals. Dad and Cathy were also flexible so Mayi was able to tailor the tour for us. This didn’t mean it just became a photography tour, but Mayi knew what to see and when so we deviated from the planned route and for the most part avoided any crowds.
We started off by heading away from the national park. This was because we were going to enter the park from a different entrance and have some nice views of the Paine Massif first. As we drove around the south side of Toro Lake, Mayi said this land was, to her, the heart of Patagonia. It was dry, windswept valleys surrounded by towering mountains. As we crested one hill, I had to get them to stop the van as the panorama before us was begging to be captured. I returned to the van feeling much better about the day ahead.
We continued driving and Mayi was a fountain of information with answers to every question we asked – about Torres del Paine, about Patagonia, about Chile and even about herself. She really was one of the best tour guides I have ever had.
Our next stop was
Sophie and Dad
Torres del Paine
another photo opportunity. This time it was a view of the Paine Massif from a different angle, with a very blue lake in front. The lookout spot was very popular and I’m sure the photos I took are far from unique. But it was a nice view and gave Dad and I the opportunity to get photos of each other with the Paine Massif in the background.
Along the route to the next designated stop were a number of unplanned stops. Fortunately, these were for wildlife photography opportunities rather than any kind of unpleasantness. We saw many of the native guanacos, relatives of llamas and alpacas, and the vicunas I saw up in Peru on my last visit to South America. We also saw birds of various types, but my bird knowledge is limited so forgive me if I get the names wrong. I know we saw some condors flying, but we also saw some caracaras nesting and some lesser rheas, a smaller version of the emu and ostrich (although I am unsure of the relation, if any).
Our destination was the Cascada del Rio Paine, a waterfall which although not large, it is quite impressive due to
the Paine Massif in the background. Mayi had timed our arrival perfectly (surely on purpose!) as I was able to set up my tripod in a good location and take photographs without people disturbing me. No sooner had I finished with taking long exposures than a busload of tourists arrived. That was our queue to leave! Of course, the others had long since returned to the van and were waiting for me to indulge my photographic tendencies.
We continued on. Although we had been entering and exiting the national park during our journey, our next stop was at one of the major park entrances. Here we had a toilet stop before embarking on the “short” trek for the excursion. I use quotation marks because although it was only 6.5km, for various reasons it seemed much longer.
The trek began with a reasonably steep walk up a hill. Unlike the previous days tour, Mayi said to me to go ahead at my own pace and she would stay with the rest of the group. This would allow me to take as many photos as I liked. It was definitely a pleasant change to the day before. We also saw
a few condors riding the thermals above us, but they were difficult to photograph in the clear blue sky.
With the steep section out of the way, we embarked on a more reasonable incline. I was out ahead when I saw movement on the ridgeline ahead. Foolishly, I turned around to get the attention of the rest of the group before trying to take a photo myself. The South American grey fox disappeared behind a boulder before I could capture it. I waited, however and was rewarded as it continued its way along the ridge. Although the others saw it, I think I was the only one to photograph it and my credentials as a wildlife spotter were on the rise!
I tended to be out the front more often than not as we continued a gentle climb through the arid hills. I was looking out at every rock formation I could see in the hopes of seeing the ultimate example of wildlife here in Torres del Paine… a puma! Of course, I saw none, but we did encounter many guanacos. They have an interesting feature in their groups where some would stand on high points looking out
Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine
for pumas. However, due to the inactivity of these sentinels, my hopes for spotting a puma were not high.
It was as we started descending into a valley that we encountered a French trekker heading in the opposite direction. She was clearly rattled by what she had just encountered. According to her, about 300 metres back she had been walking along by herself when she spotted not one, but two pumas up at a nearby rock face. She continued on her way, relieved at surviving her encounter, but we moved ahead as quietly as we could, excited at the prospect of seeing two pumas ahead.
As we went, we all looked around and there were numerous false sightings by all of us. Just as I was beginning to think either the pumas had moved on or the lady had also had false sightings, Mayi stopped us and pointed at a rock face behind us. There, trying to sleep on a ledge in the sun was a real, live puma! It may not have been the two we were hoping for, but even one was a real bonus!
We stood there snapping away as the poor cat was
Torres del Paine
trying to get some sleep. As luck would have it, Mayi’s camera battery died just as she tried to take photos so she asked if she could take a photo with mine. Of course I agreed, and I was impressed as she edged towards the cat, slowly and quietly, to get a closer shot. When she returned and gave me the camera back (note: She has received the photos she took with my camera and none of the photos on the blog were taken by her) she suggested I could also go up closer, as long as I moved slowly and quietly.
Shortly after I had returned to the group, the puma got up and walked along the rock face. It was then that we realised there was a second puma there after all! Another round of snaps ensued, and another pair of trekkers appeared on the track. Mayi headed down to tell them to keep quiet and brought them along to also see the pumas. When we had taken all the photos we could, we continued on our way.
The track descended into a valley and then began climbing again. The wind also picked up as we
started a steep climb up to a cave at the top of the hill. I think some of the gusts were the strongest I’ve ever experienced and I was impressed at my new Jaracu hat’s ability to stay on! Dad was not so lucky with his hat and one time I had to go for a bit of a rock climb to rescue it.
At the top of the hill was a cave with some ancient cave paintings. They were really well preserved due to the dry climate and Mayi gave us an excellent description of the history of the place while we were there. Of course, the view was spectacular and I was able to get good photos from there before we continued on. We also found a nest of chicks, although I’m not sure what type of bird. We did capture (photographically) the mother’s return to feed her babies.
The last part of the trek was all downhill and the view on the other side of the ridge was also spectacular, with the bluest lake I have ever seen. As we finished the trek there was a large bus group beginning the trek so I couldn’t
help but be amazed, and thankful, at Mayi’s ability to time our trek to encounter almost no one on the length of the trek! She had really excelled at her timing, using her knowledge to give us the best experience.
We were picked up at the end of the track and headed off to a campsite out of the wind where we could eat our very late lunch in relative peace. The campsite also had another great view of the Paine Massif over a blue/grey lake this time. I went off to take the photos of the massif and discovered that I had broken my record of the number of photos taken in a day. I’m not sure what the previous record was exactly, but it is now 1,047! I was 10 photos short of filling up my memory card.
We headed back to Patagonia Camp and I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the photos I’d taken. Although the excursion was supposed to be one of the earlier finishes, we were back much later than the previous day. We all had an amazing day and I cannot thank Mayi enough for her wonderful efforts.
Torres del Paine
final full day at Patagonia Camp, dad and I had decided we would go horse-riding. Although it is an external excursion and not included in our original booking, we were keen because dad hadn’t ridden a horse since before he was twenty-one, and I had never done so. So we booked a 4 hour ride and fortunately it was just the two of us! That’s one of the benefits of not being a hardcore hiker, I guess.
We arrived at the nearby horse-riding place at 10am. Our guide Sophie met us and quickly got into the basics of riding horses and what we were going to do. She wasn’t keen on me bringing the camera, not because it was going to distract me but because she thought I would drop it. I had my small, back-up camera and it has a wrist-strap so I was confident it would be okay. I placed it in my jacket pocket and we headed out to meet our horses.
The horse that she had originally picked for me (the rank beginner) she decided to give to dad when she found out he was 77. I was a bit concerned but once I
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got on my horse I actually found it wasn’t as scary as I had feared. According to Sophie, for someone who hadn’t ridden in over 50 years and someone who had never ridden, we were well-balanced and doing a pretty good job. I have to admit, I felt surprisingly comfortable in the saddle (except when it began trotting!).
We headed out along the trail and I was amazed at how well the horses navigated the path which became quite rocky in places. They were sure-footed and I never felt in danger. Not that I relaxed, however, but it was an enjoyable experience.
I managed to get a couple of photos from the back of the horse but carrying the camera did hinder me a little and was uncomfortable at times. So when we stopped for lunch at the end of the trail, I got Sophie to put the camera in her saddle-bags and I enjoyed the return trip even more.
The only slightly scary moment was when Sophie’s horse got spooked in a narrow section of trail. I was following her and became a bit concerned as her horse kept moving backwards towards me as she fought
to get it under control. Perhaps my naivete was useful because I convinced myself that Sophie knew what she was doing, and it would all be fine. She told me at the end of the ride she saw me be confident so she knew she didn’t have to worry about us and could put all her effort into getting her horse back under control. I’m just glad it all ended well.
For what it’s worth, Sophie seemed pleased with our efforts. She said she found the ride relaxing because she didn’t feel like she had to worry about us. I was pleased that my first horse-riding experience went well, and I didn’t totally suck at it. Even when the horse was keen to get going home, I was able to keep it under control as Sophie had told us to.
And that finished our stay at Patagonia Camp. It’s been a great start to the holiday and Antarctica now has a lot to live up to!
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