Monday 26 February 2024


There are so many horrors in the world right now that I badly need some mental medication and one way of recovering is to remember some of the inspiring natural beauty I've enjoyed around the world.

Having been privileged to visit some remarkable places during my sixty years making wildlife films, and even though concentrating behind a film camera, my basic happy-snapper clicks away when time allows.

Choosing the first place to visit in my 'Carlsberg Beauty' idea is easy because the Andes Mountains in Patagonia are so stunning, especially in the Torres del Paine National Park. I was lucky to camp here in the wilds with my assistant and good friend Donaldo Maciver on and off for more than two years. Donny was a gaucho from Argentina, well versed in the challenges of surviving in the wilds and a great companion, though n
ow most sadly departed. 


Our task was to try to make a first ever film on pumas for National Geographic television. Pumas are also called mountain lions or cougars in North America and the adventure with these big cats was as memorable as life gets, for even finding them was a relentless though rewarding challenge. 


Ruthlessly persecuted by the gauchos, these pumas were terrified of humans and during the first few weeks, they simply fled on even sensing our presence and despite being protected by law, the local gauchos infiltrated the National Park while we were filming and shot at least three pumas. So it took me four months to try to befriend and eventually win the trust of just one cat, this beautiful lady we called Penny.  After several more months of tense relationship building, she allowed me the privilege of following her around the mountains while she looked for prey.

I was writing a book about her adventures and as I’m not a good enough stills photographer, I asked my good friend and ace photographer, Laurie Campbell to join me in Chile and take some proper pictures of her. So these beautiful pics of Penny are Laurie’s work and though several of the pics of the park and scenery are mine, the good ones are Laurie's! We had a great few weeks out there together, trying to find the cats and do justice to this stunning place, so I should crack on and finish writing that book.

Mountain lions are notorious in the Americas for killing one or two people each year, so I hoped that when she looked at me like this, she wasn’t thinking ‘dinner’!

In fact, soon after I had finished my film in Torres del Paine National Park, a fisherman was killed down by the lake where I had been filming and if it had happened while I was there, I certainly wouldn’t have been following her around in the middle of the night!

On one occasion, I was filming her eating a kill when the moon became hidden behind thick clouds, and as there was no light for my special lens, I curled up in the heather to catch some sleep. But curiosity got the better of her and she crept up to sniff my head. She gave me a hell of a fright and I certainly didn’t risk that nightmare again, so sat on a stool instead!

The bond of trust we had between us was remarkable, for she was relaxed enough to allow me to follow her as she hunted and when resting in the sun,
 I was allowed to sit quietly by my camera just a few yards away. She would even curl up to sleep .

Even though pumas are the star attraction in the park, there are many more critters, some of which are on the big cats menu, the most notable being the guanaco, the direct ancestors of lamas and surprisingly perhaps, also related to the African camels before the continents separated.

They are formidable animals, tall and muscular and weigh twice that of pumas, so hanging onto them when and if they catch hold of one is a dangerous mission and can lead to injury. 

Success is hard earned and one in maybe eight attempts a winner but once achieved, they provide a meal for several days, or a lot less when Penny had two cubs to feed.

Worse still, she had competition from the numerous Andean Condors, so had to be careful to cover the carcass before dawn to hide it from preying eyes. I was lucky to film her scraping paw fulls of vegetation for twenty minutes or so while the cubs played rugby scrum wrestling until she had covered the carcass. They then took an interest in my huddled form and it was slightly alarming sitting there in the dark surrounded by three large cats looking intently at a slightly nervous me! They would leave as dawn approached and if she hadn't done a good enough job, the condors would devour several days of cat food in a few hours.

The ostrich like rhea is also on her menu, foxes too if they aren't quick enough when scavenging her kills, and foxes never missing an opportunity for a meal, they learnt to hang around camp for scraps. Taming them was easy, dog biscuits being very welcome, though little bits of cheese were so desirable that I had them eating off my knee.

They dug an earth close to our camp, their 'supermarket', so Laurie was able to set up a hide and photograph the charming little cubs.

All this was unfolding among this stunning scenery, come rain, snow or shine … or storms. These 'lenticular' clouds are whipped up by the cold from the largest glacier in South America, hidden just behind the 
mountains. They create wind ... and I mean WIND, so fierce that it has blown roofs off hotels, rolled Land Rovers and lifted water off lakes into the mountains. There is a famous saying ‘that if you want to see Patagonia, you just stand still and it will all blow past you’!

Missing Sue and our two children at home, I would always go home for important occasions, especially Christmas, so I was away from Penny for a few weeks. Then upon returning, and despite not seeing me for a while, she walked up and greeted me with a meow. It was unforgettable because that trust, even affection between human and wild animal is as good as life gets, especially if you’re a wildlife film-maker. 
      Even now, remembering that moment brings tears to my eyes.

And there’s a happy ending to this adventure, for our film was so admired by the local hotels and lodges in the National Park that on rainy days, they would show it to their guests. And when visiting six years later for a holiday with my soul mate Robin Pratt to celebrate my sixtieth birthday, I was recognised by the staff and my brief moment of fame resulted in gifts of food and wine. 

What kind folk the Chileans are, especially those in our  hosteria on this beautiful lakeside island, with views to die for.

I had known Robin since my teenage years at school, for he and his two sisters lived up in the remote hills of central Wales 
and their love of wildlife was an inspiration, so I spent memorable holidays with the family, walking the hills looking for red kites. 

They were very rare then, down to just a few pairs, so their recovery is a remarkable good news story.

Robin became RSPB warden on Ramsey Island and when not mending stone walls, we'd dive among the seals for lobsters and count choughs. Robin met and married Judy and they raised three daughters on Ramsey, farming red deer on the island until school dictated a move to the mainland, and in case you're wondering where this story is going, he started breeding guanacos in Wales and it became the largest such farm in Europe. His visit to Chile with me to study the Park's guanacos helped him to understand their complex behaviour and his herd grew to about two hundred and fifty, providing some of the finest wool scarves in the world. Guanaco fleece is wonderfully warm - and they need it!

And there's another happy ending to our filming because I'm told by our friends in Chile that, because of the film, it didn’t take long for the estancia owners to realise that tourists were worth more dollars than sheep, so stopped killing the pumas and provided 'home stays' on their estancias so their tourists could enjoy watching wildlife, with pumas the star attraction. Since then, all the wildlife has flourished, there’s many more pumas now and they’ve become so tame that large film crews can stand among the big cats and are ignored, even with drones flying over the cats heads.

The resulting films of these beautiful big cats and their hunting and family life are truly remarkable, not least the recent Attenborough series on the BBC called ‘Dynasties’. So it’s a win, win result, our pioneering film not only saving pumas but proving that wildlife on television can indeed have a positive effect on our natural world and its' wildlife. 

So some good news instead of bad. Excellent!

And if you still need some more beautiful photography for happiness medication and would like to admire more of Laurie Campbell's lovely images, you can visit his website. 

There's hundreds of stunners ... and he's illustrated and written many lovely books such as ' Otters - Return to the river', 'Highlands - Scotland's Wild Heart' and 'Golden Eagles', even contributing to one of mine, 'The Great Wood of Caledon'.

I have other friends who are 'Carlsberg' photographers, so I'll  add some more of my stories from the wilds and from some great cities too when time allows. So watch this space and enjoy the spring beauty out in the fresh air.