Dermot Coleman's story
The many photographers present exclaimed with frustration, but were rewarded when it returned a couple of minutes later to make a pass along the front of the lookout point, turning its head to look at us as if it were a celebrity on the red carpet, before banking into a thermal to climb away for the day's scavenging in the mountains.
You did not need to be a glider pilot to be awed by the size and presence of the Andean condor with its three metre wingspan, dramatic black plumage set-off by a white collar and, above all, its effortless elegance in the air.
Well below us, in the depths of the canyon we could see other condors working their way up the precipitous face, alighting from time to time on prominent outcrops to rest or await better conditions. From above we could see how their wings would twist in flight to take advantage of the breeze along the cliff face and the separate movements of each of the seven splayed wing tip feathers which are constantly changing individually to provide precise soaring manoeuvres.
The condors' nests are a kilometre below, deep in the canyon, usually in inaccessible crevices in the cliff face where the egg or chick will be safe from predators such as foxes. The one chick in each nest spends 6–8 months growing before taking to the air, but remains with its parents for another two years. The juvenile condors have brown plumage and lack the distinctive white collar of the adults, whose life expectancy is roughly equivalent to ours. Lacking the talons to capture prey, they feed on carrion, but have been known to swoop unexpectedly on animals in perilous situations in the hope that the startled animal will lose its footing and fall to become fast food. Perhaps that is what our first visitor was trying to achieve when it buzzed us from behind.
While I have enjoyed the thrill of flying close to wedgetail eagles over the years, the sheer size of these birds – almost twice the size of our wedgetails – puts them in a different class. To be able to see them in the wild, and in close proximity, is an unforgettable experience and only possible in a few locations as the condors have been hunted to the verge of extinction. The lookout sites are both expensive and time-consuming to visit as they are in remote locations and at a height that demands acclimatisation for most people.
The lookout we visited was the Cross of the Condor (Crux del condor) in the Colca valley in Southern Peru. Because you need to be at the lookout by 8:30 most people stay overnight in the valley, which is four hours' drive from Arequipa, the nearest tourist centre. We saw about a dozen condors over a one hour period climbing up past our lookout, which is regarded as pretty good number, as the condors are reluctant flyers in the cold or wet, and can survive several days without hunting.
I hope this article shows, that if you can afford to travel to the right area, the effort is worthwhile.