Thursday, July 4, 2013

Animals in the Deep South (Patagonian Edition)

At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the far south of Chile.  We were heading into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands, going to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine.
We were going tower hunting.

The first time I visited the Torres del Paine, we came in summer, when the guanacos were spreading out across the park, and half the animals seemed to be babies.  We drove through herds of ‘em - mothers, babies, fathers, uncles, brothers and sisters, stepping daintily from behind tussocks of spike-eared grass to pace regally along side of our car.

They posed, profile rampant, with noble carriage and enormous long lashed eyes – such carriage as only a camelid can sustain.

Babies pranced, facing into the wind, kicking up their heels in the spring sunshine.

We promised ourselves that we’d only stop to photograph a herd, then only for a baby, then for a baby suckling, a baby nuzzling, a baby galloping across a hill.

In an hour we traveled two kilometers, and forced ourselves to become more selective.  We’d stop only for a noble profile, held high in disdain and hauteur against a setting sun – and we stopped again, almost immediately.

Our criteria narrowed further.  New species only, and on cue, a silver tipped Patagonian fox strolled up to the road, sat down and yawned.  Five minutes later he stood up again and trotted away, a long plumed tail sweeping raindrops from the bushes.

Do the animals have a contract with the park service?  To pose for so many hours a day, and in return – no radio collars, no annual predation by scientists that dope and weigh and measure and draw blood and leave them lying woozy and cotton mouthed in the grass?
            A park guide told us that we had a fifty percent chance of seeing a puma.  There were four of us; we reckoned we should see two of them.
            I admit that our statistics were more optimistic than scientific. We never did see a mountain lion – that coup was saved for this second time around, when  Mr Tabubil shouted out from his perch in the driver’s seat–
            “Hey!” he yelled, swinging us around a hummock and down toward one of the innumerable long lakes.  “What’s about the size of a lion, with a long tail – running really low to the ground?  Running really fast?”
I stared at him from the back next to the baby seat, thick with envy.
            “That WAS a lion.” I said at last.  “A puma.”
            “Really?” He threw us around a hairpin bend. “It was fast.”
            And that was that.
            Lions there were, apparently, but in April we were too late for babies. The herds had grown up, and split up, or split for warmer pastures. We saw guanacos, distantly, in small grazing herds, but  they were too far away to be seen clear, and their proud profiles were shrunk to tufts and tussocks of brown grass, diminished by the terrible immensity of bad poetry rising up behind them.

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