Pumas, Cougars, Mountain Lions, Catamount, whatever it is known by, and as numerous as they are throughout their range from the Yukon to the tip of South America, these cats have proven to be a most elusive creature to locate, and have frustrated many a determined wildlife photographer and filmmaker in their quest to capture images of them on the wild.
My solo quest for such images started purely by chance, when I was flicking through the channelsand suddenly caught the opening seconds a National Geographic wildlife documentary. The film that played out across the screen was titled "Puma Lion of the Andes" shot by the veteran English cameraman Hugh Miles. I sat captivated, in total awe and somewhat inspired by the scenes rolling across the screen that night, only seconds into the film, I knew my unstable life to date, was about to take another radical turn.
I was a budding wildlife photographer and I needed a challenge, this one was perfect. I made a huge decision there and then. I put my apartment in Chelsea London up for sale, and just over eight week later I set off for South America. I was bursting with enthusiasm and so were the rivets of my recently purchased Land Rover Defender 110, which I had jammed full of cameras and camping equipment, not to mention books,cd's, and a few other home comforts for the year I planned to spend in Patagonia. I booked my passage on a 60,000 ton container ship, departing Southampton on England’s south coast, destination Buenos Aires, Argentina. A glorious 22 days later after stops in Bilbao, 2 ports on the west coast of Africa, Paranagua Brazil, we glided into the River Plate and docked shortly after in the city that has more beautiful women per sq mile than anywhere else on earth, just an opinion, I was glad to be here for a few days to clear customs, and dance the Tango, move over Al Pacino !!!
Since that first rapidly put together journey I have made six further expeditions to Torres del Paine National Park, and spent 3 years in total camped out in this vast wilderness photographing the fauna, flora and landscapes of this rock and ice bound Garden of Eden. One image that I was determined to capture ( that has eluded all that have tried ) was of Puma feeding at night at close quarters. It was always going to be a tall order to fill, but one I was determined to get. During my 5 trips to Torres I have had many close encounters with these elusive apex predators, but I knew that the right opportunity would eventually present itself, the big question was, would I have the courage to capture it and more importantly live to tell the tale ?
Late one afternoon on my way back to camp, I decided to cut through a large patch of Mata Negra, a stiff abrasive shrub that grows in sporadic clumps in certain areas of the park, which I came to realize early on in my walks, would be an ideal place for Pumas to lay in wait for prey, as well as a great place to hide the carcass. I had only walked a matter of a few yards when I literally tripped on the carcass of a large Guanaco(llama guanacoe)a member of the South American Camel family, that a Puma had killed only a very short time prior to my arrival.I was to put it mildly ecstatic, the carcass was still warm and barely covered with shrubs. I knew the cat or cats would be back for a major feed under the cover of darkness,so I headed for camp to pack food and drink reasoning I could be in for a long long night. I may have been dicing with death to try and capture the image but why starve to death waiting on a mountainside all night. My biggest dilema would be the possibly unhealthy decision on my proximity to the carcass, I had a 600mm f4 Nikon and flash but to fill the frame as best I could, I would have to get in there like Flynn and intrude on this midnight feast.
Back at the kill nothing was moving, least of all the 230 Lbs of Guanaco, but the butterflies in my stomach were at their zenith of activity as I settled 18ft away from the kill and set up my tripod to support the huge 600mm. I kept telling myself that the cat would be far more interested in the kill than me, but strangely enough a few statistics about the speed and distance a Mountain Lion can cover in a little over a second from being stationary came to mind, topped off with the onset of darkness descending over the vast Patagonian landscape, I was begining to find it somewhat hard to appreciate the fresh coffee and homemade cake I had in my hands.
Patagonia is one of the windiest places on earth but that night not even the tiniest breeze was on the wing, you could have heard a mouse sneeze. The hours passed like days, dusk came, and at that moment I knew somewhere up above me on the slopes, maybe much closer than I knew, limbs would soon be stiring, a back would arch and 2 powerful front legs would be splayed out, a head armed with a powerful set of jaws would open to yawn and shake of the stupor of it's afternoon sleep and this apex predator was to all intents and purpose, very ready for action, the thought chilled me to the bone !!. Inevitably night descended and engulfed me like a blanket, but with it came the stark realisation I was entering a world where control of my destiny was slowly being ceded and I was entering the secret nightime world of the Puma. I tried to settle my mind and thought of surfing perfect barrels along a deserted stretch of the Peruvian coast, as I had done as a 16 year old boy, fresh out of school in London, but it was hard to focus on anything other than what I knew was out there and coming my way to feed at some point. A couple of hours later the sky began to glow as the ethereal milky light of a rising full moon filled the sky, and shed a little light on the situation. A fox barked in the distance which meant only one thing, a Puma was in the area. My throat dried up instantly as if a Weetabix brick had just lodged itself in there. I checked my equipment, I would get possibly only one shot at this. Using the vision friendly light from the full moon I peered intensely all over the hill hoping to spot the direction it would appear from, preying it would not be from directly behind me.
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the head and shoulders of a beautiful female as she stopped on the edge of a clearing in the Matta Negra bushes. I cannot describe the mixture of fear and emotion pumping through me at that moment, my eyes welled up with fluid and I was not sureif it was because I wanted to cry due to the emotion of this very very rare moment I was about to witness, or because I was terrified at the prospect of being torn to shreds on this beautiful moonlit Patagonian mountainside. Slowly the cat strode towards the kill and began sniffing the carcass,while behind me the moon was rising over the summit of the mountain at my back bathing the whole scene in an almost football stadium glow,it was now or never. Opportunities simply did not get much better than this.I winced as the Pumas canines sank into the ribcage and cracked a number of bones with the greatest of ease,the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I began to wonder if 18ft ( 6mtr ) away and no blind was such a great idea, but I was not about to move anything more than the forefinger on my right hand to squeeze the shutter release at that particular moment in time.
The burst of flash did it`s job and the film moved a frame,I had the shot, but in the followingsecond I continued to peer into the eyepiece half expecting an 160lb bundle of muscle, tooth and claw to come leaping across the paltry moonlit gap separating us,and slice and dice me for it’s 2nd course. Instead I was on the receiving end of an "if looks could kill stare" for a couple of seconds before the cat returned to feeding. The relief was audible in the form of weighty sigh and I felt all my muscles relax and my blood flow return to normal. I stayed put for half an hour and shot off another couple of frames, then decided it was to time to leave the party, I did not want to overstay my imaginary welcome and push my luck anymore than I had that night. I slowly packed my gear in silence, and carefully backed away, never taking my eyes off of her for a second, the only thing audible was snapping of the Guanaco’s ribs as her canines went through those like I would tooth picks, and the deeper grinding sound reaching my ears as she turned her attention’s to the more substantial hip bone.
About 20 minutes later I arrived in camp for a glass of fine Chilean red wine I had saved for this special occasion. That night with my camp bathed in the light of a full moon and the glow of a fire, brought to life before my return by my kind and considerate friends Jose and Hugo, two of the park rangers, I sat warming my tired aching body that had been on the go for almost 24 hours.
I was truly privileged and deeply humbled to witness and photograph a very very rare encounter for any cameraman, a nocturnal glimpse into the life of the elusive Patagonian Puma, a face to face encounter I will never forget, least of all the fire in those eyes.