On the desolate and icy Ruta 9 from Morro Chico to Puerta Natales, Chile, traffic is hardly nose to tail. In fact since we set off this morning we have seen only a handful of 4×4´s and the odd bus lumbering past. They scrutinise us as we do them, nods and waves are exchanged but this is not the time for chit chat. The Patagonian wind is severe as it has been for the last seven days running, but thankfully today the blizzards are well contained in sporadic squalls. We see the anvil shaped squalls from a distance and try to predict their course . . .ha! In reality, at our speed it´s not as if we can do anything to avoid their path – it´s just something to engage the brain with until they hit or miss irrespective. The last one missed. It´s a relief as even the peripheral wind whipping past our raw faces was enough to lift ice off the ground and fling it across the surface of the surrounding wetlands. Our eyes water. The sun is low in the austral winter and the angle renders caps ineffectual, the unfiltered rays turn the road ahead to the north into a monochrome silhouette, but the view in the opposite direction beyond the road behind is a photographers delight – long shadows and unusually vivid colours.
It is this direction I am looking as a seven wild horses draw my attention, its been a while since two gringos and a bright orange trailer have run by this way 80km from the nearest town and they cannot contain their curiosity, galloping, manes flowing across the Patagonian steppe. But its not them now, it’s the unmistakable bushy tail of a fox whipping into the remaining stand of Lenga forest that catches my eye. I don´t think he has noticed us either which is curious as we are upwind. To bring this running project to life we need images of the stunning wildlife, so I hop the fence and approach the copse.
I recall days standing at platform 2 Herne Hill station watching the cubs playing amidst yet oblivious to the bemused commuter bustle. But foxes in the cities of the UK are mired in too much of a complicated debate to enjoy the sight of them unfettered. And anyway I was much to reserved to hop across the eurostar tracks dressed in a suit to get into the action. But here is a wild animal in his element, friend rather than foe I admire him, and although my chances of tracking him are remote I have time so i´ll try.
I meander the horse paths through the spiky berberis under-story, heart pounding and eyes glued to catch the most fleeting glimpse . . . Something curious happens, barely 50 metres into the quest is a shape that is so still my dull senses almost fail to register it, but sitting 20 paces ahead there he is. And he doesn´t know i´m here…. or doesn´t care?!!!`
He is scenting the air. I am upwind. We have run over 110 miles in the last week without a shower, surely he will flee? Any right minded human would.
Is it the fact I am shrouded by sunlight from his direction? Or is it just his way – his local name Culpeo is said to stem from the Mapuche native Indian word for “madness”, referring to how this fox boldly reveals himself to hunters? Either way we share a moment before I dare to reach for the camera, to film him before he tires of the inaction and mooches off on whatever business he was on.
Generally speaking, good sightings of wild mammals are rare, well, because wild mammals are, more often than not, rare. Or at least they are in the places, times of days or seasons in which we are not. We are rowdy neighbours. The coffee-table documentaries whet our appetite with helicopter views of the most incredible hunts and chases, savage bloody fights and intimate moments, all captured in HD. Then the “making of” section at the end details the gazillion patient man hours required to “can” the moment. But today, sandwiched between long running sections, I have enjoyed a close encounter with the most handsome of fellows and I am lifted. One of the charities we are running these painful sheer distances to raise money for, is undertaking arduous and unglamourous, yet essential work reverting barren overgrazed land into habitats in which my new friend can flourish and fulfill his natural role in the complex and fascinating system that nature has become. It feels like our challenge makes sense, so we tighten the rucksacks, adjust clothing to keep out the freezing wind and resume pounding the long road with a feeling of being privileged.
Even if he didn´t think I was that special.