The Flight of the Condor

It was January, 2000 and my dad and I were sitting on top of a rocky promontory in Torres del Paine National Park, in southern Chile, withstanding the strong cold Patagonian winds that pierced through our parkas, gloves and hats. But we were on a mission: To photograph the elusive Andean Condor. As we waited, I remembered how we came to be there on the first place.

In 1982, the BBC produced one of my dad’s favorite documentaries, “The Flight of the Condor”. Mind you, he got a copy and played it over and over again. Being just a girl, I was more into cartoons and Michael Jackson videos, but I ended up liking this incredible film about a bird that is a national symbol in most Andean countries, including Chile, where we live. So much so, that there’s even a comic strip in Chile called “Condorito” (little Condor).

Although the Condor (Vultur gryphus), one of the largest flying birds in the world, was once common throughout the Andean Mountain Range, it is currently not that easy to see. Because its habitat has been reduced, it is now confined to areas where strong winds are available to support its soaring flight. Still inspired by this documentary, my dad and I we were intent on having a close encounter with this bird that has a wing span of about three meters. So here we were, in the Chilean Patagonia, one of the most beautiful places on earth.

We were fortunate enough to stay at a park ranger post, where the staff gave us tips on the best spots to find the Condor. Since this is a scavenger bird, they suggested we take with us some really stinky cat food that would surely do the trick of attracting it to us.

Following their instructions, we trekked for hours through the tall grasslands of the “pampa” to reach one of the hills they had recommended. It was a rocky mount, completely barren, but after climbing it we discovered it provided a great lookout point. There we sat, with our stock of smelly cat food, and waited, and waited, and waited…

A couple of hours went by and we had almost lost all hope when suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge bird appeared flying straight towards us. It was a Condor! We quickly ditched our gloves and grabbed our cameras, getting ready to take great shots of this amazing animal. But in only a few seconds it was right on top of us!

As it came, and we realized how low it was flying, we instinctively leaned back until we lay flat on the rock. It was such an awesome sight, having this massive bird glide only a meter above us that we completely froze. We could see all the details of its belly and the long wings. When we snapped out of our awe, we realized we had not taken any pictures! So we quickly rolled over on our bellies and started shooting with our cameras to try to catch at least a glimpse of the Condor. It was too late! We were only able to capture a tiny speck that was quickly flying away from us towards higher altitudes.

We stayed there a while, letting the experience sink in. It had been so amazing! Finally we grabbed our cameras and the stinky cat food and walked back to the park ranger post. At night, while we sat with the rangers around a fire sharing a “mate” (muh-teh) –a typical Patagonia herbal tea-, they laughed at our adventure.

Once we were back in Santiago, my dad and I watched “The Flight of the Condor” again in the comfort of our home. We had clearly failed in our photographic mission, but I’ll never forget the whooping sound of the Condor’s wings while it flew over me in the cold solitude of that Patagonian hill. It’s one of the most incredible wildlife encounters I’ve ever had!

M Torres

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