From the high peaks of Chile/Patagonia to the dry dusty plains of Argentina a group of Kiwi jet boaters took on a great adventure, punctuated by the almost never-ending punishment on equipment and navigating some of the most remote whitewater rapids on earth. In the final part of the trip, Matthew Fallow recounts the team travels into Argentina.
A world away from our homes In New Zealand and Australia, four purpose-built CWF Hamilton & Co. Ltd 141 alloy jet boats arrive in Puerto Aisen Patagonia/Southern Chile, having left Christchurch New Zealand three months earlier. The 4.5m (14.7 feet long) boats feature 10mm high tensile aluminium bottoms, HJ 212 water jets propelled by Chevrolet 383 cubic inch (6.3 litres) V8 motors.
An experienced group of some twenty jet boat adventurers set out on a challenging and difficult expedition, a large proportion of which is venturing into unknown rivers and roads. Lower Patagonia is a rugged area where glaciers and volcanoes are spectacular, active and very dangerous.
Heading north through Chile we launched into the Rio Simpson and had a great run down river, spotting a clear stream, some fly fishing was had by the keen anglers and others explored the river further. We had launched from the banks of a farm and gave the elderly locals a ride in the jet boats; the look of excitement on their faces was priceless. This was a big day of travel and so we hit the road by lunchtime with a large pass ahead of us to negotiate. All vehicles were well spread apart over most of the day, as the drivers all tried different approaches to minimize trailer damage on the rough roads to La Junta, the spare vehicle doubling back into town to have jet unit components machined, ensuring we would have sufficient spares.
After a late start and a well deserved good nights sleep, we headed to the local river (Rio Rosselot) just a few minutes away. It always seemed at every launch some sort of jet unit maintenance and repair was required, the rough roads were very tough on equipment and our designated drivers during their pre-launch inspection would always find something to fix.
The river was fairly fast and soon turned quite steep with large rocks present in the many rapids ascended. Coming to one large very long rapid we regrouped and planned the way up, the water was boiling white as far as the eye could see with large rocks and falls to negotiate, not a clean tongue to be seen! With no clear way up, each boat got to the top, all choosing different paths of varying success, however one boat found a huge hole and while climbing out was briefly caught on a rock, there was a rumor that one passenger (could have been our doctor, scared to ‘death’) tried to abandon ship out of sheer fright!
The river soon turned into a lake and some trout fishing was carried out with some assistance from our new guide/fixer, Roberto, who we “borrowed” from the Green Baker lodge days earlier. Roberto speaks very good English and will assist us in crossing the borders between Argentina and Chile. Always in the back of the mind was that we had to descend the large long rapid, we assembled at the top and went down one at a time. Most boats descended without incident although many were quite drenched after visiting the ‘green room’; avoiding the huge pressure waves boulders and holes soon turned to elation as each boat and crew made it to the bottom.
Duncan’s boat, our expedition leader, was drawn towards a huge hole and our nose was driven into the standing wave which towered above us, this swamped the boat and we had little or no control due to the sheer weight of the water, with no steering and being drawn into and through each successive rapid we were sure to sink. Each hole and rapid seemed to be bigger than the first and the boat was swamped time and time again, yet miraculously with the motor running we still had enough momentum to continue through each hole and standing wave.
After almost rolling over due to the water entrained in the boat shifting, we were spat out the bottom, Duncan headed for the relative safety of the bank driving the boat hard onto the rocks before the engine quit and the boat lost power. We all made it back to the trailers for a large fire on the river bank to dry out and recount the day. Every day with all boats back on the trailers is a good day in Patagonia!
The following day we put in on the Rio West and boated down to the Rio Palena confluence, the Palena is a small river that climbs through some steep countryside on its way to the Argentina border. We stopped at Balsa Palena a few km’s short of the border rather than continue through and threaten our border crossing with the whole vehicle convoy the next day. On returning to the trailers we ventured up the Rio Frio for a quick look, however, a change of plan had us continue up the Rio West which turned out to be a very good decision, a small winding river climbing sharply to a remote valley amongst huge mountains.
Primitive houses only comprised what appeared to be a logging village; the mountains are believed to have epic rainfall that surely carved the jagged rapids we ascended.
We hit the road for our next stop at Futuleufu, whitewater Mecca of Chile; a detour, we were lost, on the way had us stop at a small school with just 12 students, most of which arrived on horseback from cabins high in the mountains. Volcanic ash still covered the ground from the Chaiten Volcano eruption, the large amounts of ash and dust played havoc with the 4×4’s air filters and sensors, frequent stops were required in this area to prevent vehicles going into ‘limp mode’ or breaking down.
Border Crossing Day
Its border crossing day as we leave Patagonia for Argentina, after checking in at the police station in Palena we headed for a small one-man border post in Elencuentro Chile, having got through there we were in no mans land for a short distance before arriving at Corrileufu Argentina to gain permission to move all the vehicles, boats and our two fixers (Pascual and Roberto) into the country. We found no diesel or petrol and had to go further into Argentina on fumes, almost immediately we were on the desolate plains, such a contrast to the previous week. Our 4×4 involved in the accident a week earlier lost all drive and brakes shortly after entering Argentina, this time we could not fix it and towed the 4×4 and boat trailer by rope to our camp, an idyllic site just off the road at Corcovado.
We met three locals who were fishing and it was not long (despite them speaking no English) before we were sharing their makeshift campfire and salted beef. They were well rewarded with a jet boat ride upriver through a small canyon and skinny rapids. Fish for dinner! Not so – apparently you need a fishing license.The noise of the boats attracted the attention of a passing fish inspector (Secretaria de Pesca), in the middle of nowhere! Camp tonight is divided, with some replacing and rebuilding trailer springs, others swapping tow bars with the dead truck and our spare 4×4. After some work on the satellite phone we learn there are no spares in Argentina for this vehicle and due to it being a Chile registered hire 4×4 we would have to tow it back over the Andes Mountain Range to Chile!
Camp tonight is divided, with some replacing and rebuilding trailer springs, others swapping tow bars with the dead truck and our spare 4×4. After some work on the satellite phone we learn there are no spares in Argentina for this vehicle and due to it being a Chile registered hire 4×4 we would have to tow it back over the Andes Mountain Range to Chile!
Tin Foil Repairs
After a camp breakfast we launched into the Rio Corcovado, a small stony river just on the Argentinean side of the border. The night before, we had been to the local police to get a permit. John’s boat took a huge hit at speed and the motor distributor was punched out of the motor and the rotor badly damaged,
Jeff headed back to the trailers for spares, however eventually some tin foil was used to repair the rotor that lasted the remainder of our expedition. We headed off to the nearest large town ‘Esquel’ some 80 km’s away, one boat trailer combination towing the broken 4×4 using a bow rope, a tricky task over the rough winding roads. After a night of rest in Esqual, we had located a 500kg rated tow ball hitch receiver for our 2200kg 4×4 and a workshop identified so that we could fabricate an ‘A-Frame’, this would enable us to complete our expedition and tow the broken 4×4 more than 1200 km’s back to Chile.
Again materials were hard to come by and it did not look like we could get the steel to make the ‘A-Frame’, due to the language barrier a rough sketch was made and a local motioned that he may have something for us. As luck would have it, he produced an old ‘A-Frame’ section off a trailer that we modified and attached to the front chassis rail of our 4×4. As the Dakar Rally is now held in the Chubut Province we also managed to secure a support 4×4 to tow it with, although we would have to send it back to Argentina from Chile with one of our fixers; Pascual.
A Frame to the Rescue
Now on the plains with our dead 4×4 in tow, we headed south to Sarmiento, crossing a large desert with barely a sole or building to be seen, the 4×4 “A-frame” set-up working well on the rough roads and able to be towed at speed. Upon arrival the town had no accommodation and winds were gale force, so camping was not an option our “fixer” Roberto visited the Mayor no less and we were soon lodged in a local hall. Two more fuel tanks suffered leaks from the days towing so it was back to using the jerry cans again.
After a good meal and rest we departed Sarmiento for the Senguer Rio, three hours away, we covered around 170km upstream on a very windy day, a small skinny braided river with plenty of narrow channels, most had pushes and cold feet. Wild horses often flanked us, charging at speed while at times rushing across the river right before us, a great sight. This, our last day on the river, most boats were having a great deal of fun pushing the limits through channels barely a boat width wide. Jeff in the red boat not to be outdone clipped a shallow bar while trying to navigate a very tight section and had the best push of the day to get the boat back into the water.
Another dash for the Chile border commenced and after around 5 hours of endless desert road which seemed to get narrower by the hour, we arrived at a remote border post in the mountains, departing dry windy barren Argentina and almost immediately upon entering Chile we were in green hills and snow-capped peaks again. We made our way back through Chile to the port where we would pack the container with our now very tired boats and equipment.
From the high peaks of Chile/Patagonia to the dry dusty plains of Argentina we had completed a great adventure, punctuated by the almost never-ending punishment on equipment and navigating some of the most remote whitewater rapids on earth.