The Great South American Jet Boat Challenge

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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 white water rapids on earth. In the first of a two part series we Matthew Fallow recounts the team travels in Chile/Patagonia.

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 aluminum bottoms, HJ 212 water jets propelled by Chevrolet 383 cubic inch (6.3 liters) V8 motors.

An experienced group of some twenty Jet boat adventurers, still fresh from past expeditions in Africa and the Himalayas, meet up in Coihaique to check over the equipment and boats transported in a single purpose built 40 foot sea container. This is to be a challenging and difficult expedition, a large proportion of which is venturing into unknown rivers and roads only recently constructed as far 50 deg South. Lower Patagonia is a rugged area where glaciers and volcanoes are spectacular, active and very dangerous.

Tow bars….Yeah Right!

We had organised the use of 5 identical 4×4’s equipped with tow bars, however soon discovered the bars fitted were grossly inadequate with failures occurring almost immediately. We were forced to manufacture our own tow bars at a local workshop, no mean feat as this far south raw materials and welding equipment is almost impossible to source. After a days work using light steel box section, concrete reinforcing bar and timber bolt fasteners we were ready to hit the road. Ahead of us the mountainous topography of Chile and the baron desert plains of Argentina.

Traveling south to our first launching we had to cross sections of the Andes in some very spectacular and steep country, the roads were very rough and by days end nearly all trailers had suffered significant damage. Most had lost their stanchion poles and all but one had broken trailer springs which were replaced with spares at the road side, this was to set the tone for the rest of our road travel in the coming weeks

The following day we were told a short 30 minute drive from our overnight accommodation at Cochrane to the Baker River would be ‘easy’, however this took 4 hours with more trailer springs broken, our steel trailer mud guards had now fatigued and disappeared, while a spring hanger had to be repaired, at this rate we would run out of spares before our second days boating!

The road was through heavy wet forest in parts and our first launching was at an idyllic confluence with the Baker River, huge sheer ice capped mountains in the background set a story book scene. Upon arrival we heard a large roar and over the next 10 minutes witnessed a large avalanche, the result of a huge overhang collapsing and traveling many kilometers almost down to the river.

Running Repairs

We were soon distracted having discovered that two boats had suffered split fuel tanks in at least 6 places. The tanks were removed from the boats and repaired on the spot with “two part putty” and epoxy bandages. Patagonia was certainly sending us a clear signal of how tough she can be and we were not even on the water yet.

Following repairs 135km’s was covered upstream through high country and moderate white water, a few larger difficult rapids were negotiated before we headed back down stream. We beached at Tortel, a small remote fishing and logging village clinging to a rocky outcrop, flanked by dark bleak mountains, fjords and glaciers; a rugged place and sure to be bitterly cold and isolated in winter. Frenchman and Mt Everest Veteran Philippe Reuter, who has lived in Chile for some 20 years, joined us for a few days and provided a great deal of local knowledge and history.

We departed Tortel early for an hour long run up stream on the Baker River back to the trailers, a couple of boats had a look up a clear running creek with hope of reaching a moraine lake seen on the map, however time caught up with us and had to turn about. With all boats back on trailers we headed up the dirt road to refuel 4 hours away, however one 4×4 with boat in tow clipped an on coming truck almost ‘head on’ nearly sending the other vehicle down an sheer embankment.

The back wheel of our vehicle was driven into the rear wheel arch and body, the axle torn off the springs whilst the drive shaft was unceremoniously pulled from the gear box. After a couple of hours the suspension was patched back up massaging springs and brackets with the 14lb sledge hammer, U-bolts and springs pieced back together with fencing wire and bearings re installed. The other vehicle more worse for wear with the front end suspension destroyed was retrieved from its precarious situation and we were on the road again.

Blue Skies and Glaciers

After some rest we launched into another section of the Baker River and boated down to our camp at Balsa Colonia through some very large beautiful valley systems, enjoying perfect weather and clear blue skies, this allowed us to view the many glaciers and peaks in the area. After a big cookout around the camp fire we headed for the Glacier Lake Cachet Dos via the Rio Colonia, a confluence only a few km’s away. The Rio Colonia almost soup like in consistency such was the huge amount of glacial debris suspended in the water, this would be sure to inflict high amounts of wear on the jet units.

Braided on the lower sections, heavily wooded midway up and steep towards the top this river made its way through massive glacial carved valleys. A few boats had some very big hits in the milky violent white water, some boats significantly damaging their transoms and another boat close to sinking as the rear corner was pushed under water. Rather than cause more damage or lose a boat we decided to abandon our trek up to the glacier and head back.

The trip back to the trailers had us boating under hanging glaciers with spectacular blue skies and with some spare time and fuel we explored a gin clear side stream. We spent a relaxing night in the Green Baker lodge with a huge feast of mutton cooked on an open fire, then on the road at 5am to Coyhaique to repair the trailers, minor tow bar welding, weld a broken engine mount and fix the numerous fuel tank leaks. The tanks were removed for repair and refitted again; prior to this we had been running some boats directly from fuel jerry cans.

This area was the only place in southern Chile to have any sort of engineering work done, so we took full advantage before we headed north into even more remote areas of Chile and ultimately Argentina. Chile has certainly thrown all challenges imaginable at us, rewarding none the less with perfect weather and truly spectacular countryside. With spares almost completely depleted we face tough days ahead making our way over the Andes to the desert plains of Argentina.

In Part 2 (AB #12 Sept release) the expedition heads North to Argentina.

Expedition Members: Duncan Storrier, Lance Kerr, Jeff Horne, James Murdoch, Matthew Fallow, Paul Mullan, Brent Collie, Hugh Neal, Neville Kelly, Johnny Gray, Ross Denton, John Smitheram, Warren Donald, Wayne Donald, Paul Wilkinson, David Watson, David Street, John Giacomnatonio, John Moodie

The entire story of this expedition is available as a professional wide screen documentary on DVD from or email [email protected]


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