Sunday, January 22, 2012

Los Saltos de Nilahue

Mr Tabubil and I, along with Mr Tabubil's parents, sister and brother-in-law, have come south to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year  at the parcela of a friend just outside the small village of Llifen on Lago Ranco (Lake Ranco), deep in Chile's southern Alpine Region.

On Day Four , Mr Tabubil and I went for a drive all the way around Lago Ranco.  It was a splendid day for it - the ash from Puyahue was thin and the air barely hazy.

Shortly after crossing an exquisite blue river whose name we never quite managed to catch, we braked to a sudden stop on a wooden bridge over another river.  Below us, on a stone precipice, three men were preparing kayaks.  We watched, and wondered.


"They can't be thinking of doing that."  We thought.  The river here was awfully low; it flowed thin  along a knife-sharp gouge in the rock, dropped swiftly through a series of hollowed out basins (churning maelstroms in high water, now merely sharp-edged and puddly) and without any particular fanfare - dropped vertically off the edge of the plateau and vanished.

But they were doing it.  They were scouting, preparing, studying the lay of the plateau, considering the drop -off , and trampling down shrubbery for the placement of a video camera (if I was going completely off the deep end, I'd want a video recording too.)

            Shaking our head sadly, we climbed back into our little car and drove across the bridge and turned into a shadowy driveway where a hand-painted sign advertised the "Saltos de Nilahue."  (Nilahue Falls.)
            We parked into a pleasantly shaded farmyard.  A man emerged from behind a house, where he was painting a swimming pool, and pointed us down a dappled path along the side of the gorge.
            It was a peasant walk.  Horseflies don't appear to like the shade very much.  The occasional horsefly that into us by mistake was slow and clumsy and an easy mark for an open handed haymaker that shot it over the tops of the trees and down into the gorge.

            At the end of the path we found a view of the saltos and a way down into the gorge.  We slithered down mulchy wooden ladders and steps cut into the rock that hadn't been  mucked out since the last ice-age, and caught our sleeves and wrists on sharp-hook-like needles of vines draped carelessly across our path, and at the bottom of the stairway, we stumbled out of the bosky murk and into the sun, and suddenly we found where all of Puyahue's debris had been going.   During the volcanic eruption, the temperature of the Rio Nilahue had reached 45 degrees Celsius.  Below us the gorge opened up into a wide valley, but around us the river leaped and roared - thick and grey and frothy -turbid as a kitchen sink, and riding high on the waves we saw hundreds of thousands of pumice stones.

The river bank crunched peculiarly under our feet - Between sharp-edged rocks  the banks were carpeted with the stuff -pebbles of pumice worn round and smooth like river stones.  Around us,  the walls of the gorge were thick with ash that dripped like limestone runoff in a cave.

And above us, in front of us, were the falls.  Thick and steamy and unequivocally vertical.  To go over that In a kayak you'd have to be purely suicidal.  Between us, Mr Tabubil and I are almost totally devoid of the mysterious urge that drives people to live on (or sail over) the edge, but if they were willing, we had all day, and we sat down on a pair of solid pumice rocks to wait.

Down on the river the horseflies were merely pestilential - downright playful, even, in a voracious and bloody-minded sort of way.
            And after the mind-trip they'd given us up at the hot springs the previous day, we reckoned that we could withstand them pretty good all right.
            But we'd reckoned without psychology, and while we sat, serene in our noble disregard, swatting occasionally and absently, they began to feel hurt and went away and came back with all their friends. Which were apparently the same flies that we'd smacked over the cliff some time previously,  and they had opinions.
            And about three minutes after that, we were running, slipping and skidding and sliding across loose rafts of pumice,  clutching our cameras to our chest and simultaneously trying to wave the same clutching hands above our heads to ward of hordes of hundreds and hundreds of enormous black and orange horseflies, as we fled back to the shelter of the cliff wall and the path back up to the top.
            Back at the top of the gorge, I knocked on the door of the farmhouse to ask if the kayak descent was really feasible.
            "Oh yes."  The man nodded proudly, surprised at my ignorance. "People come from all over the world to ride these falls!"
            He ushered me into a large, well-lighted room, where banks of empty drinks refrigerators and rows of round tables with hand-embroidered tablecloths waited for the summer hiking season.  He walked across the room to a desk piled high with books and papers and empty coffee-cups and  from underneath a stack of aging telephone books, he pulled out a 3 ring binder.
            Slapping it down on an embroidered table-cloth, he opened it proudly.  It was full of photographs of daredevil athletes riding the falls - shots taken from below, shots taken from above - all confirming that shooting the Saltos of Nilahue was indeed possible. And possibly exhilarating.   I did notice, however, that in every single photograph, the amount of water going over the lip of the falls with the kayaker was much higher than it we had seen it: own in the gorge we had seen a vertical fall - in these photographs the water level was so high that the kayaker was riding a 60 degree slope down the mountain.  A very different sort of ride.
            So as far as we're concerned, the jury is still out. But on account of the horseflies, the kayakers would have to do it without us.

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