As you know most of my blogs are about our wildlife experiences. This time round I am not only going to write about Pumas, but I will also relate a personal experience of ours that centres around the joys of travel and of what can go wrong… if you’d like to enjoy a good laugh at our expense I urge you to read about our adventure to Torres del Paine!
Our Antarctica expedition was departing from Punta Arenas which gave us the perfect opportunity to visit the Chilean National Park, Torres Del Paine. We have long since wanted to visit this park as it is one of the best places in the world to see a Puma, Puma concolor, a cat that neither Chris nor I have seen before. Our time was short, just 4 days, but we thought we would give it a go anyway.
We have numerous friends who have had great success seeing the cat here so our preparation for the trip focused on obtaining info from various people. Via Skype we had our friend Jorge showing us on the Park map the best areas to spend our time looking, and info was exchanged as to what behaviour to look for. Info on how to get to the Park seemed irrelevant at the time and a 3 hour drive from Punta Arenas was casually mentioned.
We were due to land at 6.30pm in Punta Arenas and with the long Chilean summers days we felt we would have enough time to arrive before darkness. Our flight was delayed, only landing at 8pm, and so began the start of our problems…
Europcar was very keen to tell us that our hire car was brand new and had only 42km’s on the odometer. They were however not so keen to tell us that they had no road map for us to use but assured us that Torres del Paine was on the one road out of Punta Arenas and was very easy to find.
By 10.30pm we reached Puerto Natales which was the last fuel stop before the park and darkness was quickly approaching. Jorge was very specific that we must fuel up here and that we must purchase a fuel container to take extra fuel into the park with us, as none was available from this point on. We reasoned with ourselves that we were sure we would be fine with our fuel and that there was no time to shop around; we needed the time to get to our lodge before it closed.
We set off into the now dark night and a little way out of town passed a tiny non-descript brown sign saying “ADM Torres del Paine”. We sailed past it as every sign along the way was a huge bright green affair that tourists like us could not miss. Surely that would not be the sign for a turn off to a major park. We again reassured ourselves that there was only one straight road to the park.
When I mention the dark night, I mean, severely dark night. It was new moon and we really could not see much more than what our headlights in front where illuminating. By midnight we realised something must have gone wrong with our directions and were vindicated a short while later when the road starting taking us through fields of farmland.
By this stage we knew we were too late to make our lodge but we still wanted to try get there and hopefully find someone awake. We were both pretty angry at Europcar by this stage as obviously it was their fault for not supplying a map, not our bad preparation! Chris threw the car into reverse and in his angry haste he totally misjudged the road.
I need to mention here that the road was flanked on either side by two very steep ditches, we guess to help deal with heavy rains. This feature was bad news for us as Chris had put us directly into the steep ditch, facing 90 degrees to the road and our brand new car now resembled a rocket launcher, headlights pointing straight into the heavens above!
It was a terrible, terrible feeling and I remember sitting in the car in the moments after this happened not saying a word. I was having visions of sleeping in the field alongside us…
The front wheels were barely touching the road so we couldn’t get any traction to move forwards out of the ditch. The only option was to reverse, which we did, horribly scratching the back bumper. At least we now had two front wheels on the road and two back wheels on the other side of the ditch. There was only one option left; floor the car, scratch the under carriage and the bumper again, and get ourselves back on the road. After a huge amount of revving and other frightening noises, Chris managed to get us back on the road, and we now headed in what we hoped was the right direction.
This time round we took the small brown sign only to find that the road then split in three different directions, not the one straight road everybody had said!!
We decided on the middle one but still had no idea where in the world we were going. Pretty soon we found ourselves on a very windy and steep road. Chevron barriers started appearing on the corners and we started to wonder if we were in the Park. We then saw a number of “steep incline” signs with a lorry depicted on it. I kept saying to Chris that this must be the main road because why else would there be signs with lorries on them?
I thought that was a fair assumption until we came across a sign saying “cafeteria”. Well, we were over the moon because we now knew we were in the park at least!
At 2am we came across lights from a hotel located in the park… I can’t tell you what a welcome sight that was. It was of course firmly shut for the night but its carpark did give us the option to park here and sleep in the car. Both Chris & I lay on the front seats pretending to be warm and comfortable, in the 2 degrees Celsius , until the pre-dawn started lighting up our surroundings.
We could not have parked under a more spectacular view. The mountainous “towers” of Torres del Paine bared down upon us and the view completely took my breath away. It was now 4am and the soft pinks of the mountain were just starting to show.
We were freezing cold and we couldn’t sleep so we thought it would be a great idea to just go on a game drive. And why not, we were right in the heart of the best location for pumas!
After taking in a splendid sunrise we began our search for pumas, trying to make use of our African Bush Skills! Chris noticed 2 Karra karra (birds of prey) behaving oddly and while looking at them through the bins he spotted our first puma. It was almost completely camouflaged as it sat amongst the rocks of an outcrop. I couldn’t believe that in such a short time we had gotten so fortunate.
Torres del Paine is famous for hiking trails in the park and the beauty of this is that one has a chance to encounter pumas whilst walking on the trails.
There was a walking trail very close to where the puma was sitting so rather than taking our time and looking at the cat through the binoculars we placed our bets on finding it on the trail.
It was not to be and by the time we reached the area on foot the puma had hidden itself away.
Sunrise at this time of the year is just after 5am and sunset at about 10.30pm. As the pumas are active during the cooler hours it meant our days were very long. That afternoon we were just finishing a 6 kilometre walk at about 8pm when a herd of about 15 guanacos (the puma prey) started alarm calling. I so often say that nature talks to you all the time, you just have to be aware of the signs they give you.
The alarm call of a guanaco is unmistakable and their body language too as they all turned and looked at a focused spot. This went on for a good 5 minutes until we saw the magnificent sight of a female puma striding out from her hiding place. She was one of two very well-known sisters that are often seen, and the added advantage is that she is used to the presence of people and is extremely relaxed.
She barely glanced at us as she marked her territory and investigated smells a mere 20 meters from us. As she went about her business we followed at a short distance. As she moved different herds of guanacos would alarm call and we got to witness some fantastic body language. We were with her for a good 30 minutes. This close encounter was something we had wished very hard for but certainly not expected, and we felt very privileged indeed.
We drove away back to our lodge (which we had now found!) feeling elated but the evening was not over yet…
Around the next bend Chris spotted another female puma with two large cubs. They were far away from us but we still got a great view of the three of them walking off in the distance. Wow… five pumas in one day!
I now take you back to where you all get to laugh at Chris & Monique again! The wrong turn and the subsequent extra 100 km’s we drove was about to cost us dearly. The fuel that we thought would last for our trip was obviously not going to be sufficient and a plan B was needed.
Back at the lodge Chris enquired at reception if any fuel was available, but remember our Spanish is nil and Juan’s English at reception was not much better than our Spanish. Oh, and add to this we were totally exhausted from traveling over to Chile and then spending a sleepless night in the car followed by a full day of puma searching! This all sounds like a recipe for disaster and it was.
Chris was lead to the workshop and when the fuel was brought out it looked very much like diesel. Bearing in mind we needed 93 petrol Chris said that he needed “Petrol”.
Juan’s answer was: “Si, Petroleum”
Chris thought he smelt diesel so he said: “Is that Diesel?”
Juan’s response: “No, Petroleum”
So Chris says: “oh Petrol?”
Juan: “Si, Petroleum”
…and the fuel went in…
The next morning the car was very slow to start but we did eventually get it going and we went on our game drive. After a spectacularly beautiful 10 km hike we headed back to the lodge. This time the car was even more reluctant to start and at this point we started to feel rather worried.
The funny thing was I began to give Chris a really hard time about his driving. I told him he was using the wrong gears and gave him a lot of grief; the car was seriously under-performing!
We knew the whole time in the back of our minds that the wrong fuel could have gone in but we really did not want to admit to this massive problem, until it became reality that is…
The car finally gave in when we started out on our afternoon drive. We had by that stage driven an impressive 95km, and it was then discovered during another broken conversation with Juan that in Chile Petroleum actually means Diesel, apparently the only country in South America that calls it by that name…oh boy!
With the help of the hotel staff we drained the fuel tank and put in the correct fuel hoping that we could eventually pull this through the system.
Unfortunately the car battery died after the many hundreds of times trying to turn the ignition.
At this point Chris had to make the dreaded phone call the Eurpocar and we were told the very unpleasant news that we were responsible for the error and that the insurance would not cover anything. Oh my goodness were they angry with us. Many times it was mentioned that the car only had 42km’s on it!!
We had to get back to Punta Arenas the next day to make the Antarctica Trip so we had no choice but to pay for the damages which hurts to mention it even now. It included: A new car to be delivered to us, a driver to take the person who delivered the car back 150km to Puerto Natales, a full tank of fuel at black market prices, a tow truck to retrieve the broken new car, and finally for the broken car to be fixed. Let’s just say that we now practically own a petrol/diesel car somewhere in Chile!
Anyway, as I said to Chris with so much travelling at some point the odds were going to be against us regarding a costly mistake.
There is always good news though. The fresh car meant that we could do one last drive the following morning. At first light we spotted two different pumas in two different areas. Both were fairly skittish so although we got good looks of them they did not remain in view for longer than a few minutes each.
We left the park having seen a total of seven different pumas and were absolutely ecstatic with our puma experience. But there was still more to come...
About 5 kilometres outside of the park we noticed a guanaco making a very distinctive alarm call and with all the body language telling us that it was looking at a puma. We piled out the car and low and behold there was a mating pair of puma walking alongside each other on the shoreline of a big lake.
I stayed on the ridge to spot the two animals from a higher point and Chris walked down to the shoreline to try and photograph them as they came towards him.
Although they were relaxed they were definitely aware of us and upon getting closer to Chris the female decided to walk back up the rocky ridge, and right towards where I was standing.
She obviously was not aware of me so I stood stock still hoping that she would approach. At 15 meters away she saw me but must have felt unthreatened as she continued her slow walk in my direction.
At 3 meters from me my heart was in my throat and my adrenalin was pumping. She was right there in front of me and I got to look into her beautiful green eyes and exquisitely magnificent face. She was a deep russet colour and I can liken her to a mixture between a caracal without the long ears and a small lioness. She looked at me for a brief moment as she passed me and then turned back down to where her male partner was on the shoreline.
The sighting had been so unexpected that I didn’t have a camera with me but I was glad of it. I got to connect with that special animal for just a moment and it’s a feeling I won’t forget for the rest of my life.
The pair continued walking past Chris and when I met up with him again the two of us sat gazing at the puma pair from afar as they walked off into the distance.
Everything that went wrong on this trip to Torres del Paine was most definitely worth it for a wildlife moment like the one we had just had.
Our next stop…Antarctica!