The Caveman of Patagonia

Geographical, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Caveman of Patagonia


Next year, Rolex Laureate and world-renowned speleologist, JeanFrancois Pernette leads a major expedition to Patagonia to chart the vast network of unexplored caves in the Ultima Esperanza province. Geographical reveals his past achievements and his hopes for his latest mission

The great karsts or limestone plateaux of Chile's Patagonian bleak coastal Pacific islands are over 250 million years old and measure up to 1,000 metres thick. Forming part of the country's Ultima Esperanza province they have been scoured and eroded for millions of years beneath the surface by relentless water action. The karsts contain immense labyrinths of caves, tunnels, corridors and lapies (or giant fissures), carved hundreds of metres down through solid stone.

Wedged between the world's deepest ocean and its longest mountain range, the region is tectonically unstable, offering geophysicists and geologists a superb but inaccessible laboratory for studying the perpetual movement of the earth's crust.

Next year, world-renowned French speleologist, Jean-Francois Pernette and his team of 20, intend to explore this region and open it up for future study.

Having spent 30 of his 44 years exploring more than 100 large caves in Europe, Asia and the Americas, Pernette is a dedicated and committed explorer of caves, motivated by discovery and advancement of knowledge rather than the mere physical challenge of exploration. His dedication to speleology has won him many awards in the past and after twice winning Honorable mentions in the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, last year he became a Laureate of the prestigious awards.

A viticulturist in Bordeaux by trade, previous caving exploits have seen Pernette leading the first ever expedition to the world's largest underground river in the interior of Papua New Guinea; discovering the world's largest known megadoline measuring one kilometre wide and 300 metres deep, also in Papua New Guinea; and penetrating and subsequently traversing the great Pierre-Saint-Martin cave complex in the Pyrenees.

Despite such wide experience and having visited the Patagonian islands on reconnaissance expeditions in 1995 and 1997, Pernette is under no illusions that his latest exploit will be easy.

"The Ultima Esperanza province is well named, it means Last Hope," he says. "One needs every last hope merely to survive there. To the east lie the great glaciers of the Hielo Patagonico massif, and to the west, thousands of miles of open Pacific in the latitudes known as the Roaring Fifties. These are truly islands at the end of the earth - totally uninhabited and no major exploration has ever been made there. No speleologists have ever been to these islands before."

Even so, few question that the expedition will succeed. Paul Viala, president of the French Federation of Speleology, says, "The spirit of enterprise, dynamism and perseverance of Pernette is irreproachable. Pernette and his team companions are among the best placed to make a success of this difficult undertaking."

The islands are only accessible by chartered boat and the voyage is so hazardous that even experienced mariners avoid the area. "Fishing crews who enter there often disappear without trace,' explains Pernette. "We were fortunate to have survived the first two reconnaissance trips, for our boat was far too small."

Beginning in February, Pernette's expedition will principally target two islands, Diego de Almagro and Madre de Dios, both of which Pernette visited on earlier voyages. …

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