Today is Big Friday. In rafting terms, it's the biggest day of whitewater in the world. Fifteen Class 4 and 5 rapids spread over 15km of the Futaleufu River in the depths of Chile's Patagonia. I wouldn't mind but Sunday through Thursday weren't exactly small. Over the past five days our group of 15 has tackled some of the southern hemisphere's most exhilarating whitewater. And all while surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet.Patagonia is nature showing off. Encompassing the southernmost portion of South America, it features idyllic Swiss-style green pastures peppered with quaint pastel-coloured wooden houses from which granite cliffs soar skyward towards snow-covered peaks. The entire region is word-robbingly scenic.
Starting in Argentina, the mouthwash-blue Futaleufu River squirms its way through the Andes into Chile, creating what many claim is the world's No.1 multiday whitewater rafting trip. Our adventure started six days ago with a bone-jarring six-hour drive from Balmaceda airport in southern Chile to Queulat National Park and an overnight stop in El Pangue Lodge. From here it is another 2 1/2-hour drive to the lower part of the Futaleufu where we meet Robert, lead guide and co-owner of rafting operator Earth River, plus his team of Chilean, Peruvian and Colombian guides.
We spend a couple of hours kayaking on its gentle, glacier-fed waters before transferring to the main raft put-in point upriver. After a thorough safety briefing on shore, we're distributed among the rafts and spend some time practising the various paddling commands. Feeling excited but apprehensive, we plunge into a series of Class 3 and 4 rapids that test our technical skills and stamina. Unlike many commercial rafting trips where the guide does all the paddling, on the Futaleufu everyone has a paddle and everyone is expected to pull their weight. We stumble wearily on to the bus at the end of the day and head towards our home for the night, the ominously named Terminador Camp.
Earth River owns four stunning private camps along the Futaleufu, which allows it to operate the only expedition-style top-to-bottom trip on the river. Terminador Camp overlooks the churning 1.6km-long Class 5 Terminador Rapid (which we'll tackle later in the week) and features 14 hand-built wooden cliff dwellings scattered along the riverbank. There's a communal dining area, flushing toilets, hot showers and possibly the world's most welcome sight after a day on the river: an 18-person wood-fired outdoor hot tub. Shortly after we slip into its soothing waters, the guides appear with cold Escudo beers, a Chilean cabernet sauvignon and a plate of home-cooked pizza slices. It sets the scene for a week of indescribably good food that's miraculously conjured up in the middle of a wilderness. Breakfasts are sumptuous platters of scrambled eggs, pancakes, pastries and fruit; lunches feature a smorgasbord of cold meat and salad; and dinners range from steak cooked over an open fire with creamy gratin potatoes to a mountainous spaghetti bolognese complete with garlic bread.
The rest of the group are all Americans and they're a mixed bunch. There's a neurologist and his wife from Wisconsin; a patent lawyer living in Shanghai; a retired consultant and his wife from Boston; and three generations of the McKay family that range from a 15-year-old to his 75-year-old grandfather. Throw in a straight-talking Tennessee girl with an accent straight out of Sweet Home Alabama and you have all the ingredients for an entertaining week.
Over the next four days we make our way downriver, tackling menacing-sounding rapids such as Purgatory, Inferno and House of Stone. Often the guides pull in before a rapid to go ahead and check the best route. Each time, our gentle Chilean man-mountain Pedro returns with his trademark grin and talks us through what we'll need to do. As we progress downstream, the camps get even more spectacular. Cave Camp is situated high above the un-raftable Class 6 Zeta rapid and features a natural stone hot tub carved into the cliff.
The next day we make the strenuous two-hour hike up to Tree House Camp, a Swiss Family Robinson-style collection of elevated hexagonal tree houses that could be an Ewok village. These camps are part of an extraordinary conservation effort to prevent the Futaleufu from being dammed by overseas power companies for hydroelectricity. Over the past 20 years, Earth River has acquired more than 20km of riverfront property with the aim of providing some resistance when the inevitable damming scheme begins. Many of their clients have pitched in, too. This is the fourth time Scott McKay has rafted the Futaleufu and the first time he'll see the 8 hectre piece of land he bought in November last year. The company has also been instrumental in bringing employment to the area. Locals cook in the camps, transport luggage by ox-cart and even provide a roasted sheep for the celebratory last dinner.
Earth River describes this journey as a mulri-camp, multi-sport, wilderness trip because in addition to the rafting, you get the chance to try a range of other heart-stopping activities such as kayaking, rock climbing, zip-lining, rappelling, mountain biking, cliff-jumping and canyoning. As someone who gets nervous on a high cliff, the thought of some of these is frankly terrifying. But that's a large part of what a trip like this is all about confronting your fears, whether it's heights, getting wet or just going without email access for a week. It turns out that hanging upside down from a cable 15 meters above a Class 6 rapid isn't as bad as I thought it would be. However, edging over a sheer cliff for a 100 meter rappel is, particularly when you have to stop on a tiny metal platform halfway down to switch ropes. I manage to do the 6m cliff-jump (eventually) but baulk at the 12 meter one. Everyone in the group has his or her own demons to tackle, and it's almost as rewarding watching someone else conquer a deeply held fear.
When we reach the final take-out point at the end of Big Friday, our group is unusually subdued. We strip off our wetsuits for the last time and say a heartfelt goodbye to the guides who have kept us safe all week. When I ask Pedro how many times he's rafted the Futaleufu, he pauses, mentally ticking off the years in his head, before answering, "Maybe 300?" This trip has been just another week in the office for him. For the rest of us, it's created memories that will last a lifetime.
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