To say that our February has been an eventful one would be an understatement to say the least. There have been many trials and tribulations to overcome but we’re happy to say we’ve made it through – we have so much to tell you!
We’ll start with section 11 which was where we tried our hands at pack-rafting for the first time. It’s no easy feat for 4 pack-rafting newbies to set out onto some of the most rural lakes and rivers with nothing but a GPS and a lot of enthusiasm. We were all nervous about what was in store for us because, after all, such open water can be unforgiving and with nobody around for miles, things had the potential to get serious very quickly with one wrong move or a simple weather change. Our first day on the Rio Cuacua got to a slow start. Garrett and Aljoscha’s raft was losing air before we’d even put it in the water and so after a lot of rigorous testing and some very worried faces, it turned out that something as small as having a few grains of sand stuck in the zipper could mean the difference between a buoyant boat or some very soggy camera equipment and consequently the inevitable halt to our trip. Aljoscha stepped up to the mark and sacrificed his toothbrush (which we should note he still uses; we’re getting more savage by the day) to brush away any sand in the boat’s zipper, and we were good to go!
We were all pleasantly surprised by how well our first few pack-rafting days went. Despite some very cramped conditions with very little leg room, especially for Garrett, and some dead legs for Aljoscha and Robyn who were kneeling, we made it through and, my goodness, was any discomfort well worth it for the views. Even those achy arms are nothing when you’re on a lake with sapphire water as far as the eye can see and not a cloud in the sky. It’s bliss. So, after crossing the incredible Lago Neltume, we pulled our boats onto the shore of a campground and settled in for the night, content that we’d come to the end of our first pack-rafting section, relatively unscathed.
Section 12, however, was on another level altogether. It’s safe to say that this section has been the most physically and mentally challenging of our journey so far! We got off to a rocky start at the beginning of the section in Puerto Fuy. Anthony ended up getting sick in the town on the one night we had the luxury of staying under a roof. Since he’d been up vomiting all night, he’d had no time to recover from the last section, had no sleep and was not in great shape to get to hiking again. So, we delayed our start and caught a ferry later on in the afternoon allowing for a little more time to rest since we’d all need a lot of energy for the next stretch... Although none of us could have imagined what would be lying in store for us!
We set off in search of the trail again from a settlement of around 5 houses called Pirehueico, where they use a generator for their electricity and there is no telephone signal. They do however have a café, which we’ll get to later! We’d estimated that section 12 would take us 4-5 days and since the first day’s walk was mainly on a dirt road, it looked like this might be one of the less challenging parts of the trail. The next day we set out all bright eyed and bushy tailed, full of optimism and we clearly had some kind of spring in our step seeing as we managed to smash out our first 9km in little over a couple hours. The spring doesn’t last that long though when you’re faced with one of the longest mountain passes (surely?!) known to man. We spent the next 9km on a steady, winding incline, working our way over the longest mountain pass we’d done so far, in the scorching heat with those 50lbs on our backs feeling heavier by the second. We were pretty beat after that, but having thought the worst was over, we set out on the trail again the next day aiming to continue our streak of getting those kilometers under our belt.
There had been some issues with the GPS and our trail map on the laptop. There were two possible routes and usually we take the ‘main’ route where possible but the GPS and laptop had different ideas about which route that might be. We ended up taking the route we thought had been most travelled and set out on our way. We knew we would reach an ‘iffy’ stretch of about 3-4km where we’d hike through a forest, but that’d be short work, and soon we’d be out the other side and on our way to the nearby hot springs! Little did we know, we’d never get to soak ourselves in those lovely hot springs!
So, we got to the forest and it was a little overgrown but we thought nothing of it at first, seeing as it was definitely a trail, and we didn’t expect to be following it for long. As we made our way though, it got progressively worse and we were soon army crawling under fallen trees blocking the path and pushing through overgrown bamboo shoots. We stopped for lunch and saw not one but two tarantulas. Aljoscha took what seemed like a few hundred shots of one of the spiders, much to the displeasure of Garrett who is hugely arachnophobic and has to go through all of these pictures after the trip. Anyway, we made the best of it and bullied Garrett into having his photo taken with the tarantula – we hope you find this picture as hilarious as we did watching it being taken!
As we went further the forest became denser and the trail more overgrown. The ‘main’ trail eventually disappeared, although the alternate path still seemed to have been traveled at one point, with machete marks visible. A few hundred meters in, Anthony had completely repurposed the handle of his pack-rafting oar – it was now the world’s bluntest machete and through hell or high water, we were going to get out of there and into those hot springs! As we continued, it became clear that this was going to take longer than we thought and it would be hugely challenging terrain-wise. There’s no explaining how frustrating it is when your backpack (which at this point was nearly as big as each of us!) catches on every other branch and vine while trying to navigate through the brush. You’re constantly ducking, swerving, breaking branches and at one point trying to do all of the above whilst simultaneously sinking in mud. It’s doubtful that bit will make the film purely for the amount of swearing that was going on, it was a pretty colorful moment.
Next came what we very unaffectionately call ‘the bridge into hell’. This bridge was, in fact, a rotting log that we had to shuffle across on our bums to get to the other side of a 60ft ravine. Anthony had the bad luck of going first and during said bum shuffle, came across a decomposing tarantula which was being feasted upon by a colony of ravenous ants. They must have been ravenous, seeing as how they were pretty set on nibbling on us too... The bridge into hell, received its name because the terrain got much worse from that point on. The trail became unidentifiable and we could barely see the sky for all the trees, so, bushwhacking was moved up a notch. Whilst balancing ourselves on a precarious slope and trying to hack our way further down the trail, Robyn stood on a wasps’ nest which resulted in about 10 stings, closely followed by Aljoscha who managed to get about 5 and Garrett who was at the back managed to land himself a couple too. A few tears of panic ensued since getting away from the nest in such dense woodland was neither a fast nor easy feat but we soon got on with it again.
What we’d expected might take an hour had now taken 6 and we weren’t even halfway through by the time darkness began to coat the forest. We had the difficult task of finding a clearing but we eventually found enough room for 2 of the tents, bunked up and turned in for the night. The next day we were sure we were getting out of there. We set out and after a further few hours of bushwhacking we came to a cliff edge where the trail could be taken no further. We were surrounded by drop-offs with unstable earth crumbling below our feet. Sketchy terrain turned into something quite scary. Despite being so close, we had to make the tough decision to turn back. We stood on the side of that cliff face struggling with the concept of not completing the section but in the end, our safety had to come first and we’re all glad we didn’t let pride taint that decision.
Turning back meant adding extra days to the section. Extra days meant extra food which we didn’t have. Our rations were low by this point but we worked out that if everything ran smoothly, we had just enough dehydrated food and trail mix to get us through. As is true of all good adventures though, things that run smoothly don’t make for good stories nor do they push your limits. So after another night at the ‘emergency camp’ we made it out of that hellish forest, and started anew on the trail. We managed to smash out one of our longest days yet and felt pretty elated once we reached the first camp we’d originally stayed at. The elation didn’t last long though because Robyn began vomiting – initially just thinking it was exhaustion after a strenuous day - but it didn’t let up, and after being up the whole night and not being able to keep hydrated in such extreme heat, it became obvious we couldn’t walk the 18km we needed to get to civilization the next day. While Robyn recovered, the boys had to tide themselves over with what was left of the peanut butter and powdered milk. Although still very unwell, we had no choice but to soldier on and get back to Pirehueico, so Garrett, Aljoscha and Anthony carried Robyn’s pack weight between them for the final stretch in the sweltering sun. Red raw hips, aching limbs and an invalid toe, we made it back to civilization and that café I mentioned earlier? Let’s just say that we probably bought more food there than they’d sold to anyone all year.
Every section seems to bring a new challenge and a unique twist to the trip but we're loving every minute of it (well, at least afterwards!) Now we are off to Section 13 where we search for hot springs, hopefully stay on trail and finally, climb our first volcano! Until next time!