Renias and I stepped off the aircraft in Punta Arenas, the capital city of the area near the tip of Chile’s southernmost Patagonia region, into a bracing 1ºC. As I got to the top of the stairs to disembark the aeroplane, a baggage handler offered, ‘Welcome to a warm day in Punta Arenas!’ and Renias stared at him disbelievingly, already shivering in his flimsy fleece. Punta Arenas is situated on the Strait of Magellan connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and is often used as a base for excursions to Antarctica.
The next day we drove onto a concession that neighbors the famous Torres del Paine National Park. As we drove, we noticed a few vulture-like large birds called Andean condors sitting on the ground ahead in the distance. Their presence, together with that of birds called caracara of the falcon family, was a possible indication of a fresh carcass nearby. Primarily a scavenger like our African vultures, the Andean condor is considered the largest flying land bird in the world, when combining its weight and wingspan, and it has incredible longevity, reaching up to 70 years of age in some cases.
We stopped the vehicle and went to investigate what the condors were feeding on and this took us down a relatively steep slope in the direction of the national park. Our guide, Cristobal Sanchez, looked through his binoculars and said there was a dead sheep and that it was probably killed by a puma. I scanned the landscape with my binoculars and was struck by the similarity of the vegetation to the Karoo, the only exception being that Patagonia has more snow-capped mountains and lakes. We walked up to the sheep’s carcass and saw bits of wool scattered around the kill on the stubby black shrubs that are common to the area.
Renias and I immediately began searching for tracks, hoping to find one of a puma (mountain lion) but the ground was still frozen solid, as was the spilled sheep’s blood, even though it was already 10 am. I had been excited at the prospect of finding and following a puma’s trail, but once we were on the ground it became blatantly clear that it was going to be a very challenging tracking proposition.
The bite marks on the sheep’s neck and evidence of a predator feeding from between the hind legs were clear. The evidence clearly indicated that a large carnivore had killed, or had certainly fed on, that sheep. Even though the puma had likely spent quite some time feeding at the site, we could not make out a single track. Cristobal wanted to keep walking because he felt he had a sense of where the puma might have gone. I asked him to give us some time to explore the area but I sensed his disenchantment of what I’m sure he saw as complete inexperience on our part. The previous evening some of the guides had questioned Renias and I as to how we planned to track in such stony and difficult conditions and my answer was just that we were ‘going to try’. Not a very encouraging response!
‘Here’s a track, Buti,’ Renias said to me, after having scouted the immediate area around the sheep’s carcass for a good few minutes. It was probably the faintest track I’d ever seen and I really had to use my imagination to try to see what Renias was seeing. I could make out two reasonably clear toe impressions, but the rest of the track was exceedingly obscure. Cristobal also looked at the track and I waited for him to challenge us but he simply said, ‘Good,’ which made we wonder if he could even see the track.
That morning, Cristobal was supposed to be orientating us and showing us some of the areas where the Awasi guides believed the pumas were frequenting, but I asked him whether we could follow the track we had found instead. He was under instruction from his boss and I got the sense he didn’t want to disobey him or veer too far off the plans for the day. Following the tracks meant we would be disrupting the plans for the day, but I knew we needed to take full advantage of the opportunity, and being agile in our thought processes and developing optionality in our approach made us good trackers. And that day, in those tracking conditions, represented the chance we needed to take.
With a slight show of indignation, Cristobal agreed to follow us as we tracked the puma. The tracks were not heading in the direction he’d predicted but I agreed with Renias, not only because of where the track was pointing, but I also surmised that as the pumas had been persecuted in that area, they would in all likelihood want to return to the safety of the national park during the day, after having killed a sheep in a place it must have known was dangerous.
We continued on our track and walked along a natural path in a westerly direction, down a slope towards a large river called Las Chinas, which forms the boundary with the national park. ‘There will be a natural crossing point across the river that the pumas will use,’ said Renias to Cristobal. Cristobal agreed and pointed directly ahead. Renias then looked back at me and smiled knowingly. ‘I will find it, mfo,’ he said. Further along the trail, I noticed a tiny piece of bloodied wool on the ground that I showed to Renias. He gave me a satisfied grin and agreed we were definitely in the right area as the wool must have dropped from the muzzle of the puma after having fed on the sheep, or perhaps it stopped to preen and clean itself and the residual piece of wool had dropped on the ground. We couldn’t be certain but the wool was clear evidence that we were still on the puma’s trail.
An icy wind started to blow, which launched an assault on my nose, ears, and feet, and I had to stop every few metres and do a few star jumps to try to warm up. ‘My nose is throbbing,’ I stammered to Renias in Shangaan and he replied, ‘Because it’s too big, mfo. Mine is small that’s why I’m fine,’ demonstrating his sense of humour even under the toughest of conditions. We had never experienced temperatures that cold and it was beginning to take its toll on our energy levels. I had lost all feeling in my feet and hands, and I rued the fact that I hadn’t purchased proper gear when we were in Punta Arenas, something Cristobal had strongly suggested we do.
I looked up at the three towers of Torres del Paine and immediately had renewed respect for mountaineers and for people who’ve taught themselves to endure the extreme cold. Cristobal must’ve seen me looking at the mountain and told me it was minus 15ºC at its peak! He could see we were taking strain and kindly offered us each a chocolate bar that we devoured and then immediately asked for another. I don’t think he was convinced about tracking the puma. In his mind we were wasting his time following imaginary puma tracks!
We proceeded for another fifteen minutes and Renias then spotted another equally faint track on the ground. I started to feel excited that we were close to finding the puma. Renias always displays a subtle change in his body language, which I don’t think he’s even aware of, when he thinks we are close to finding an animal we’re tracking. He starts to move a little quicker, he speaks faster, he looks up more often and there’s generally positive energy about him. Whether it was my own intuition or I was unconsciously reading Renias’s energy, I felt we were close.
I looked back to where we had found the sheep’s carcass and it was clear the puma was heading back towards its place of refuge in the Torres del Paine National Park. The only question was how far we were behind it. In Africa, we can tell the age of a carcass by the state and colour of the flesh and the flies and associated smell, but because the sheep’s flesh and blood were already frozen, we couldn’t judge how old the kill was. But the puma had eaten less than 20 percent of the carcass, so we could deduce it had been killed very early that morning.
Eventually, we got to a high point above the Las Chinas River and had a good view of the water channel below. Cristobal then told us that the crossing point he knew of was slightly further upstream, as Renias predicted, and that we should go and check it. As we were about to turn and find a route down to the water’s edge, we noticed something moving along the opposite bank of the river. ‘Puma!’ exclaimed Cristobal. Renias and I scrambled for our binoculars but my hands had lost some fine motor control from the cold so it took me a good minute or so to line up my binoculars with the animal. And indeed it was a puma – a young male striding along the opposite riverbank totally unaware of our presence and doing exactly as it would have had we not been there. I never believed that we would even track a puma in Chile let alone be successful in finding and seeing one and Renias turned to me, gave me a high-five, and said, ‘I told you, mfo!’
Read more stories like this one in our latest book called Changing a Leopard’s Spots available in most leading South African bookstores. Alex and Renias also deliver keynote presentations on the power of diversity and wildlife tracking.