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Rafting on the Futaleufú

After cycling for 900km on the Camino Austral, we say goodbye to this beautiful road and cycle east towards the Argentinean border. We follow a river that is called Futaleufú, which means ´big river´ in Mapudungún, the language of the Mapuche natives who live(d) in this area. This river is especially known as ´big´ because of its whitewater capabilities caused by the large gradient and high water volume. Few rivers in the world (if any) can match the Futaleufú for sheer power and beauty and today there is hardly any kayaker or rafter who has not heard of this place. Also we would like to make a rafting trip on this wild river.

Cycling up, we find an excellent place to pitch our tent besides one of the rare calm parts of the river. It is a closed campsite where only two boys live in a wooden shed. We are lucky that we choose to put up our tent over here, because the boys appear to be rafting guides and this site is used as starting point for the rafting trips. One of the boys explains the river:

The river is divided in 5 sections. The upper two (´Infierno Canyon´ and ´The Terminator Section´) are dominated by class V+ rapids and can only be done by experienced people. The lowest section is not interesting because it only contains rapids II and III. The most popular and suitable for us is ´The Bridge to Bridge´ (class IV) section with the option to continue to the ´Casa de Piedra´ (class V) section. The system of classes is defined as follows:

Class I: Flat, moving water.
Class II: Moving water with slight obstacles.
Class III: Significant obstacles such as waves, holes and rocks. ´Fun.´
Class IV: More and larger obstacles, requiring significant manoeuvring; rafting customers should be prepared to swim and self rescue. All commercial trips should use a safety boater. ´Advanced.´
Class V: Major obstacles requiring aggressive evasive action, with the possibility of long and/or dangerous swims. Previous experience required for raft trips. ´Expert.´
Class VI: Undoable without serious risk of injury or death.

In the morning, after we get our wetsuit, floating jacket, helmet, and paddle, we notice quite quickly that we are dealing with a North-American company. One of the two guides, called Math, starts to give a real pep talk with a lot of sound bites like: "We are going to have fun", "When you fall into the water; it's OK, it's OK.., it's OK..., it's OK....", "Yes, we are going to have fun", "I don't like the attitude: I'm afraid to die. I don't like that attitude", "Oh yes! We are going to have fun today!!!".

The second part of the preparation is more practical, and is given after the group has been split and we have found our place in the boat. Our guide, called Tico, explains the safety procedures and the commands we need to know to drive the raft. The five of us sitting in the raft with a paddle are the engine, and the guide who is sitting in the back with two oars steers the boat and gives the commands. He will say "forward" when we need to paddle to give the raft enough impulse to get over the waves. To rotate the boat he will say "left forward, right backward" and vice versa. When the boat inclines to flip over to one side, the people of this side have to jump to their neighbour: "over left", or "over right". In case of big trouble the command "all bottom" can be given, what means that everybody should lie on the bottom of the boat holding tied to a rope.

It is time to float down the river. The two rafting boats are accompanied by a safety kayak and a safety (rowing) catamaran. They will help to get you out of the water when you fall out of the boat. There is another kayaker, but his function is mainly making pictures. Before every rapid, Tico explains what we can expect, what should happen, and what can go wrong. In the first few rapids (class III) nothing goes wrong and it is indeed fun. It is quite spectacular and the waves are larger then we expected beforehand. We have to keep our feet tight under the foot holders to stay in the boat. In the waves it is often difficult to get a good hold with the paddle in the water and the idea of paddling synchronic can also not always be realized.

When we reach the class IV+ rapid called 'The Pillow', Tico explains that the chances are about 50/50 to stay dry. They didn't tell us that on shore. The pillow is formed by water that floats over a stone just under the surface. After this pillow is a huge rock which we must hit just a little bit on the left side with the right side of our boat. We drift nicely over the pillow of water but then start to float towards the rock with a wrong angle. The guide tries to rescue the situation by giving the command "over right". The left paddlers go as fast as they can to the right side of the boat, but it is already to late. The boat is pushed upwards by the rock and four of the five paddlers slide down and fall out of the raft in the cold white water. The boat doesn't flip, but we are in the water, and Iris realizes that she is actually under the boat. "Don't panic", goes through her mind. "I can hold my breath for at least one minute. So, no reason to panic." With her hands she feels the bottom of the raft and pulls herself towards the edge of the boat. When her floating jacket appears above the water surface, Tore can pull her back into the raft.

So, apparently it is possible that you are forced to swim through the rapids. This makes us see the next rapids with different eyes and a slightly higher heart beat.

At a certain place, Tico asks who wants to do the optional 'Casa de Piedra' section with its class V rapid. "Whoever wants to do this first has to swim a class III rapid to show your swimming capabilities", he says. We decide to do it and jump overboard. It appears to be a relative easy swim because it is just a very short rapid. Three other persons like to try this part of the river too and after the second bridge we continue with them and Math as guide.

The first rapid is called 'Más o Menos' (more or less) which is a long class IV+. Math emphasizes that we have to bury our feet even deeper under the holders because "this is really rough whitewater". We push our feet further until they hurt, and paddle like crazy when Math shouts forward. We are heading for an immense high wave. How on earth can we ever get over this wave. Faster, faster.. Splashhhh!! The wave crushes the boat and tries to flush all of us out of it. It is a miracle that we are still inside. Iris looks over her shoulder and sees that the guide has disappeared! His oars are hanging uncontrolled in the water. No guide? This is pretty scary because we are just halfway this long and violent rapid. Then Iris sees him lying helpless beside her on the floor. He was blown out of his seat and the only thing he can do now is yell "forward, forward, forward". The only thing we can do is paddle like hell to get over the next big waves. We pass it. Wow...

We get a little time to get our breath back and to lower our heart beat somewhat, before we start the class V 'house of stone'. When this rapid is run properly you don't encounter any huge waves, but it needs a lot of technical manoeuvres to do so. When we go down we see a lot of frightening holes from the corners of our eyes. A hole is formed behind a rock where water falls down, creating a vertical rotating stream. Once you are in such a hole it is difficult to get out of it. By a lot of paddling forward and backward we keep the right track and finally reach the safe calm water.

This was quite an experience, probably a 'once in a lifetime' experience.

Photos by John Cornwell

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This page was last updated on Friday July 29, 2011