Going Over the Edge On Chile's Bio Bio River

By: John Boardman

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February 7, 2019 | 50th Anniversary Stories

In 1994 I was on a MT Sobek trip to raft the Bio Bio River in Chile. Billed as a last chance to see the river before parts of it were damned, it was a much anticipated adventure and my first ever trip to South America.

We flew into Santiago and all met up there. It has been 25 years, but I still have memories of the city and the railroad station where our guide Mike Borcik shepherded us onto a vintage train, complete with sleeping cars and sliding privacy curtains, that could have been used on an Orient Express movie.

Arriving at Manzanar near the put in area we had a free afternoon, so a sightseeing getaway was planned that involved visiting several area waterfalls. We were shuttled around in a van, got out at various sights, took a look and moved on.

At one site, the Salto El Indio Falls, the parking area was above the river, so we walked down a sloping path to a fast moving stream than followed the path down around the falls to a viewing area below. The falls were about 54-feet high. After viewing from below for a bit, I made my way back toward the van. As I got up there, another rafter in our group, Ed, a recently retired ophthalmologist with a bad knee was making his way down the slope when he stumbled forward falling with a thud on his back. He than slowly rolled into the fast-moving water.

I hustled over, grabbing his vest but couldn’t pull him out, instead getting pulled in. Letting go of Ed, I tried grabbing at the shoreline but it was hopeless. We were being swept over the falls. I remember some ladies on shore screaming. One said “they are going to die!”

I remember thinking that my wife is going to be pissed.

Ed was in front of me doing a dog paddle. I thought my best bet was to go over the middle feet first and push out as far as possible. I was expecting to crash into a rock pile after hitting the water. I remember trying to stay vertical going down, hitting the water, which was full of air but no rocks, coming up, being pushed down, than up again and out of the splash.

Damn, I thought, I’m ok!

Ed was in front of me, clearly hurting as we made our way to shore. Mike was there and he took charge of the situation, getting Ed to the local clinic and on to the regional hospital. He was found to have a compression fracture of his spine and was unable to continue on the trip. I lost a few things including one of my river shoes. Ed told me to take his. I was fine and the rest of the trip was great.

What I learned that trip was that the best memories might happen when things go wrong. But when things go wrong in adventure travel it is very important to have someone who has your back like MT Sobek. They had quality people and resources to help Ed and there was no doubt they would do whatever was necessary. When my wife and I planned an Africa adventure, I had no hesitation in choosing who to go with.

All these years later, I still wonder what Mike thought, sitting below that falls, head guide for the first time, looking up and seeing two of his clients flying over the lip of that falls!

John Boardman, MT Sobek Guest

MT Sobek Trip: Rafting the Bio Bio River, 1994