mistake, looking back, lay in a woefully misplaced
self-confidence. Emerging unscathed from two days'
white-water rafting on Patagonia's mighty Rio
Futaleufu, I was soaring on adrenalin and bravado.
paddling a single-seat kayak on the Rio Espolon,
a comparatively placid tributary, I grow distracted
by the passing vista of forested valleys and snowy
Andean peaks. Unwisely ignoring the river's ever-changing
moods, I hit an unseen eddy line, teeter off-balance
and plunge headlong into the frigid water.
have never understood the mathematics of fluid
motion, but in two minutes I learn more about
the raw power of surging water than in a lifetime
of scholarship. Wrenching my face skyward to breathe
through the spume, I swing my legs downstream
to avoid crushing my head on solid granite. For
500m, the pounding current bumps me painfully
over extruding rocks.
however, lies horror. Surging over a cap of boulders,
the Espolon takes an abrupt turn to the left,
forming swirling pools that congregate, then disappear
in a churning, vertical circle of water. Getting
caught in such a hydraulic can prove fatal: much
like a washing machine, it traps the unlucky swimmer
in an endless series of underwater spins. Experts
advise bundling up the body to reduce its surface
area, but the outcome is largely dictated by the
try to stifle my panic, holding on desperately
to the air in my lungs. At last, my life vest
kicks into play and I surge back to the surface,
spluttering and shaken.
seconds, a rescue kayak pulls me into place, hauling
me out of the maelstrom. I clamber slowly on to
the bank, trembling with cold and fear.
have come to southern Chile with my partner, Ianina,
to court such sobering moments by descending Patagonia's
steep-incline rivers from the Andes to the Pacific
Ocean. We aim to intersperse thrills'n'spills
rafting with mountain biking, hiking and fly-fishing,
finishing up by kayaking among sea lions, dolphins
and pelicans on Chile's fjord-riven Pacific coastline.
aficionados will have heard of the Futaleufu,
abbreviated by veterans to the Fu. In Mapuche,
its name means grand waters, an apt moniker as
the Fu's adrenalin-pumping class V rapids have
become a byword for Patagonia's extreme outdoor
technically demanding "wave trains" of the rapids,
long considered too dangerous to navigate, were
first conquered in 1985 by former US Olympic kayaker
Chris Spelius, who kayaked its length as a youthful
adrenalin hound. Spelius loved the Fu's challenge
so much that he set up Expediciones Chile, one
of several outfits in the town of Futaleufu who
shepherd first-timers through an intensive introduction
to class V rafting.
meet our fellow oarsmen -- 10 Californian accountants
on an annual, all-male shindig -- and sit attentively
as guides outline the finer points of river dynamics,
team technique and safety. We are midway through
a run-down on rowing style when it dawns that
rafting is no passive jaunt for the idle traveller:
we will have to sweat.
you've got to learn to hate those waves," says
James Rodger, a laid-back American with a surfer's
argot. "You've got to jam your body down, plunge
your oar into them and haul. Treat the waves like
nerves are jangling as we head down to the river.
As we strap on wet suits, splash jackets, life
jackets and helmets, even the Californians' bluster
wears thin and fun is replaced by fear. To add
to the challenge, three weeks of torrential rain
have left the Fu swollen and menacing. "Waa-hey,"
whoops Rodger, as he assesses the swirling torrent
that gushes through the landscape on its way to
the Pacific. "Man, that's some fast water."
of exhilaration sweep the valley as we crash through
our first waves, paddles meeting in the air for
a collective high-five before the next wave hits.
In truth, the first morning's practice is undemanding;
we even have time to admire the Futaleufu's craggy
canyon, its gullies carpeted with alerce and arrayan,
a cinnamon-barked member of the eucalyptus family.
By the first afternoon, we have manoeuvred through
testing class IV sections, comfortably handling
evocatively named rapids such as Rodeo Hole, Casa
de Indio and Puma. By the end of day two, we've
mastered our first class V sections, emerging
soaked but intact.
real challenge, faced at the end of the third
day, is Wild Mile, a fearsome stretch of interconnected
rapids, complicated by choppy counter-currents
and edged by boils, undercuts and holes that leave
little room for error. Wild Mile provokes a repeating
cycle of fear, thrill and relief.
succession of rapids pitches the raft near-vertical,
our paddles flail wildly, technique utterly abandoned
in favour of grim desperation. Overboard goes
a burly Californian, swept away by a crashing
breaker. In panic, four oarsmen reach to grab
him, placing us in even greater danger of flipping.
almost as soon as it begins, the danger is over.
Breaching the last constrictive gorge, the river
settles as it flows into a wide bay, the awe-inspiring
might of its fiercest waves calming to lap placidly
on the shore. The Californian hauls himself back
on board and we beach the raft, shocked but safe.
was the Fu, the best there is," Rodger says, grinning.
"After this, you never need to raft again."
a playground for the determined adventure-seeker,
Patagonia's vast, untamed wilderness is attracting
a growing trickle of mainstream visitors. Each
year, thousands come to admire Argentina's 4km-wide
Perito Moreno glacier or tramp beneath the awesome
spires of 3375m Cerro Fitzroy.
share of Patagonian spoils are, if anything, more
impressive. Most are clustered within Aisen province,
a remote region lying between Puerto Montt and
Chile's northern continental ice field. The province
is replete with raging melt-water rivers, majestic
glaciers, snow-capped volcanoes and temperate
overriding problem is access: one road -- the
single-lane, gravel Carretera Austral -- connects
Aisen's isolated settlements, stopping abruptly
1300km south of Puerto Montt at an insuperable
barrier of permanent ice, towering peaks and deep
fjords. Moreover, car rental is expensive and
bus timetables are fitful and infrequent.
recompense is a landscape carved by ice, fire
and a sea-borne humidity -- prodigious annual
rainfall tops 5000mm -- giving rise to the odd
combination of cold, moist jungle. Even odder,
these extremes coexist in close proximity. Hiking
through a forest of southern beech and thickets
of quila bamboo, just an hour south of the Futaleufu,
we part stands of wild fuchsia and 2m-wide nalcas,
a giant rhubarb, to touch the icy snout of Ventisquero
the shortest drive along the Carretera opens up
photogenic landscapes of virgin forest, largely
untouched by Aisen's settlers.
several hours, we head south through an undulating
terrain dotted with wooden cabins, sheep pens
and ox-drawn carts, drawing up at Queulat National
Park, a 170,000ha reserve.
glacier-studded Garden of Eden, Queulat's best-known
feature is its hanging glacier, which teeters
over a precipice; every hour, vast chunks crack
off, plunging 200m to explode on the rocks below.
ago, Chilean naturalist Patricio Silva snapped
up a 3.5km sliver of biodiverse forest on the
park's boundary, building Ecolodge Fiordo Queulat
among its dense vegetation. The forest forms the
highlight of Silva's private kingdom: trails wend
through stands of old-growth coigue, southern
beech, cypress and arrayan, carpeted with myriad
mosses and lichens, and cut by hidden waterfalls
and natural clearings that provide habitat for
an astonishing wealth of birdlife. We watch green-backed
firecrowns, the world's most southerly hummingbird,
flutter around a copihue, an evergreen climber
with blood-red blooms.
lushness grows more marked as one nears the coast:
the forest gives way to a barely penetrable tangle
of ferns, nalcas and bamboo. We ride the Rio Palena
to the sea in a diesel-powered launch, breaching
the open ocean before running southwards, parallel
to the coast. Towards nightfall we anchor at Bahia
Mala, a 5km-wide bay of black volcanic sand, bracketed
by forested mountain.
from the wild westerlies that whip in over the
Pacific, Bahia Mala -- bad bay in Spanish -- deserves
its name. Just metres from the beach, stands of
wind-blasted southern beech shelter Bahia Mala
Lodge, a four-cabin hosteria guarding 700ha of
private jungle and the only access to glacier-cut
weather can be inclement yet hauntingly sunlit
days seem all the more glorious for the preceding
days of pelting rain. Our last morning dawns with
a spectral, post-storm tranquillity as Ianina
and I paddle a two-seater kayak out into the still
is no sound at all: no revving motors, jet engines,
voices, not even a faint breeze to stir the air.
We round a cliff, disturbing a black-chested buzzard
eagle and duck as red-legged cormorants hurtle
low across the waves towards the kayak, curious
to assess our intrusion into their territory.
a rocky fastness, we alarm a colony of sea lions
that dives headlong into the sea, scattering flights
of Peruvian pelicans in its wake. A pair of dolphins
emerges from the waves in front, tracing a delicate
arc across our bow. I gaze west over the ocean,
stretching unbroken for more than 17,000km, and
sigh in satisfaction. We may not have paddled
the length of a single river but we began our
journey among Andean peaks and ended it in the
Pacific. We have reached the limit.
November 16, 2006