By the time our kayaking guide Alexis announces that we must wait for the tsunami to pass before continuing, I am beginning to think that I might need to reconsider my definition of adventure. As I examine my trembling hands I decide that – if we survive – my next adventure will be little more than ordering a new dish from the menu at our lodge’s restaurant.
Just four days prior to this little tête-à-tête with the tsunami, my better half and I had arrived in Chilean Patagonia under far less dramatic circumstances. Eager to celebrate a milestone birthday, we had thrown both caution, and our chequebooks, to the wind, booking ourselves into Awasi Patagonia – a luxurious lodge overlooking the magnificent Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile.
A member of the esteemed Relais & Chateaux association, Awasi’s 14 villas and main lodge are located on a private reserve with views so magnificent, one could be forgiven for imagining they are Photoshopped. We spent our first few days hiking through the rugged wilderness and fly-fishing in pristine streams, not to mention dealing with dilemmas such as being forced to decide what time we would like our outdoor hot tub ready. They were a perfect few days, but still, we both knew what brought us to Patagonia. We were there to paddle Lago Grey.
A glacial lake named after its muted tone, Lago Grey (Grey Lake) is located within the heart of Torres del Paine National Park’s 181,414 hectares and is a declared International Biosphere Reserve. Its Grey Glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (the world’s second largest contiguous ice field), parts of which are safeguarded under Torres del Paine’s protected status. An astonishing mass of ice made up of interconnected glaciers, the ice field covers an area of more than 12,000 square kilometres and feeds numerous glaciers between Chile and Argentina. With the Grey Glacier receding at an increased rate in recent years, we decided that when it comes to paddling Patagonia, it was now or never.
By Day 5 we have annihilated our jet lag with maca and are ready to jump into our wetsuits. We leap from bed at the crack of dawn and inhale some breakfast before climbing into a four-wheel drive vehicle captained by Christian, the young Chilean guide assigned to our cabin. We head west and, by the time we arrive at the southern tip of Lago Grey, three hours later, beams of sunlight have begun to slip through the cloud cover, striking the sides of the thorny mountains around us with flashes of light.
Christian throws Indy (his four-wheel drive is named after my favourite adventurer) in park and we wind our way down a foot trail where Lago Grey emerges out from behind some craggy fingers of rock, like a mirage. Its surface is reflective as a mirror, but even more striking are the icebergs that have calved from the Grey Glacier. Some drift along the skin of the water while others sit like giant seashells washed up on the shore.
It’s here that we board a small boat with a few other passengers. They are doing a tour of the lake while we’re making a 13-kilometre trip north to the base camp of our adventure tour operator, Bigfoot Patagonia Adventure. We disembark at a small clearing and I stand and watch as the boat sails away, feeling a bit strange about being dropped off in the middle of nowhere.
Looking at what is little more than a small wooden refugio nestled atop a narrow footpath, I remind myself not to be fooled by the humble exterior; this adventure travel outfit holds exclusive rights to tours on the Grey Glacier. We’ve hired Bigfoot’s head kayaking guide for a full-day tour of Lago Grey. A living legend in these waters, Alexis has been paddling the Magellan region of Chile for more than a decade. “He’s a kayaking God,” Christian tells us excitedly.
We climb into our wetsuits while Alexis prepares the kayaks on the beach below. Although we’re both experienced kayakers, there is something about the icy waters here that have me feeling shifty. After a safety lesson, Christian holds down the fort while Alexis hoists our kayak into the water. “Welcome to my office!” He stretches out his arms and smiles, then is off like a shot.
Fastened snugly into a tandem kayak, we paddle alongside Alexis towards the Grey Glacier while dodging icebergs of all sizes. Up close they are works of art; their frosted blue colours and impossibly beautiful shapes are like something one might find in a Murano glass workshop. I dip my paddle into the water, causing a few small, iridescent pieces of ice to clink against one another like delicate crystal.
Alexis guides us as close to the Grey Glacier as we can safely manage and we bring our kayaks to a stop. At 30 metres high, the glacier is six kilometres wide and almost 30 km in length. I look up, feeling humbled. Overhead, birds take respite on ledges of rock while the boat that brought us here is now a pinpoint in the distance.
Moments later, the sound of metal bending echoes across the lake. Confused, I look up. A massive iceberg is calving from the glacier. It is startling to watch, but what’s more heart-pounding is the death rattle of the ice tearing apart. The iceberg plunges into the water, dipping below the surface of the lake before shooting back up again like a giant champagne cork. I search frantically for an escape route while my better half remains infuriatingly composed. “Here it comes!” Alexis calls out. I squeeze my eyes shut and brace myself against our kayak as the wave hurtles towards us.
After the event, we sit in silence for a few moments. The tsunami is little more than a ripple by the time it reaches us and we watch as the iceberg glides gently away. Back at our lodge that evening we regale other visitors over candlelight with the tale of our adventure. “At the end of the world,” I remind them, “wetsuits are a requirement.”
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