Paw prints

Argentina 2007

Nadia and I dice with death in the hills behind the town of El Calafate. Some might say I was being melodramatic

A cow carcass, well chewed

Eaten by a puma? We came close to being puma food. Really

We were very, very close to being eaten alive — eaten alive by a puma. Or at least, that’s how I remember it. And I’ve got a good memory.

We wanted to shake off the drowsiness from a lazy morning by going for a walk. We headed out to Cerro Calafate, the peak behind town.

We followed a dirt-track for an hour until we decided to go off-road. We climbed over a rickety wire fence and made our way up through the scrub.

It was cold, but bearable. There was no wind. The visibility was as good as it gets: we could see across Lago Argentino to the mountains and almost — almost — glimpse the glaciers.

Nadia thought that if we reached the top we’d be able to see the Torres del Paine. But each time we thought we’d reached the top higher ground came into view.

We’d been walking for more than two hours; the sun was low in the sky. Just one more rise and we’d head back to town. Just one more rise.

Look at that, I said. I pointed at the snow next to my feet. That’s a large paw print, isn’t it? Nadia agreed. Bigger than that of a dog. We looked around nervously. Nothing. The paw prints led the same way we were walking.

Town was so far away now. So far. But just one more rise. We kept walking.

What’s that? Nadia asked.

I looked at the hill ahead. It’s a hill, I said.

No, that, she pointed. I followed her finger.

Oh, that. I squinted. It was the mangled body of a dead cow. We exchanged nervous glances.

It had clearly been eaten. A severed leg lay ten metres from rest of the animal.

Do you think there are pumas in these hills? Nadia asked. I didn’t know. Do you think pumas eat people? I asked. Nadia didn’t know.

The immediate, unanimous, decision was to head back. We spent half our time looking backwards.

Was that rock on the horizon a moment ago? Did it just move?

We both feigned nonchalance.

About an hour later we saw two men going up into the hills to drink. The idea of pumas seemed a little ridiculous now. We relaxed. We walked in to town and back to the hostel.

This might be a silly question, Nadia said to the girl on reception, but are there pumas in the hills?

Oh yes, she said, quite a few.