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To the Limits

Colin Barraclough kayaks unpredictable white water from the Chilean Andes to the Pacific.

By Colin Barraclough

MY 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.

Now, 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.

I 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.

Ahead, 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 water's mood.

I 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.

Within 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.

I 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.

Rafting 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 challenges.

The 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.

We 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.

"Man, 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 they're yourenemy."

Our 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."

Howls 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.

The 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.

The 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.

But 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.

"That was the Fu, the best there is," Rodger says, grinning. "After this, you never need to raft again."

Long 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.

Chile's 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 rainforests.

The 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.

The 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 glacier.

Even the shortest drive along the Carretera opens up photogenic landscapes of virgin forest, largely untouched by Aisen's settlers.

For 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.

A 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.

Years 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.

Aisen's 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.

Unprotected 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 Volcan Melimoyu.

Patagonia's 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 ocean.

There 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.

Approaching 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


Adventure Travel in Patagonia Chile with Expediciones Chile. Chile rafting vacations. Patagonia trekking in Torres del Paine, Cerro Fitz Roy and Los Glaciares National Parks. Chile horseback riding vacations and expeditions. Chile kayaking on the Futaleufu River. Patagonia sea kayaking expeditions. Summer skiing in Chile trips. Whitewater kayak school located in the Futaleufu valley. Annual swiftwater rescue training. Customized eco tours and yoga travel retreats. Patagonia maps, Patagonia weather and Patagonia travel information.

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