"Look, I finally went to the moon!" says Jean-François Pernette, pointing at a photograph of one of the most unusual and forbidding landscapes on earth.
The sea of grey rock, chiselled into smooth mounds and bowls separated by sharp, jagged walls, is actually a marble plateau, or karst, on the remote Chilean island of Madre de Dios. Pernette, a veteran speleologist and Rolex Laureate, fulfilled a long-standing ambition early in 2000, when he led a multidisciplinary expedition to this bleak and desolate island.
The trip was made possible, he says, by his having won a Rolex Award for Enterprise two years before. As a result, he could at last afford to hire a boat large enough to act as a mobile base camp for a full-scale expedition. The Rolex Award also brought the project to the attention of Peter Miller, then senior editor of National Geographic magazine, which co-funded the expedition.
Pernette had led reconnaissance trips to several of the uninhabited and largely unexplored islands of Patagonia’s remote Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope) province in 1995 and 1997. These preliminary visits confirmed the extraordinary speleological potential of Madre de Dios, as well as revealing something of the practical difficulties and potential dangers an expedition would face.
Relentless, often gale-force, winds blast the island which, with an annual rainfall of more than seven metres, is one of the wettest places on earth. The powerful forces of nature have deftly carved the spectacular karst scenery from marble — a limestone baked hard and crystalline by the intrusion of magma (hot, molten rock) along vertical joints and fault planes.
Geologically speaking, the rate of erosion on the island is phenomenal — an unprecedented 10 millimetres a century, or possibly higher. Putting it into perspective, Pernette points out that this is about four times the erosion rate of the Pyrenees in France. Significantly, this rapid erosion is by no means confined to the surface of the island. The underground karstification of Madre de Dios is an ongoing, dynamic process. Rainwater made acidic by the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to create a vast network of underground tunnels, chambers and sinkholes beneath the karst plateaux, as the water dissolves the rock. It is these sub-surface features that first attracted Jean-François Pernette to the island.
"Nobody has been caving there — in fact very few people have even been to the island. It has so much potential for discovery.”
And so, in January 2000, Pernette and 24 fellow expeditioners — some of them scientists, all of them experienced cavers — embarked on a voyage of more than 1,000 kilometres, from the town of Puerto Montt in central Chile, aboard a 34-metre wooden-hulled fishing boat.
The main objective of the expedition, Pernette explains, was the geographical exploration of the island — its flora, fauna, landforms, archaeological remains and especially its underground cave network. The expedition was, he says, a resounding success, despite technical problems with the boat, which was not ideally suited for the rigours of what Pernette, somewhat understatedly, refers to as the "desperate" climate.
In exploring the island of Madre de Dios, Pernette and his team found human remains in several caves. These are believed to have belonged to members of a mysterious and now extinct group of sea nomads known as the Alakaluffs. Archaeologists are still examining these remains, reports Pernette, to establish their age and learn more about this lost people.
Scientists in France are also examining samples of mosses, lichens, shrubs and trees taken from the dense, virgin forest that covers much of the island’s lower reaches, as well as a selection of rock samples. The harsh climate has stunted the growth of the trees, making them look, Pernette describes, like bonsai.
Karst geomorphologist and expedition member Richard Maire noted some fascinating and possibly unique erosional features on Madre de Dios. These include a series of curious parallel grooves in the karst surface — each forming a "tail" extending from volcanic rocks dumped by a melting glacier at the end of the last ice age (some 10,000 years ago) — and carved, Maire believes, by the ever-present wind and rain. They also found small channels on the rock surface behind several bonsai-like trees, which Maire thinks may be the result of some type of rare biological and geochemical interaction.
Of most interest to geomorphologists, though, is the rate of erosion on Madre de Dios. It seems that the sheer volume of water plays a large part in the speed and aggression of the erosion.
Pernette and his colleagues have dubbed the jagged, polished and rain-pitted rock surface of Madre de Dios, "glaciers de marbre", marble glaciers, and photographs show that they indeed look like vast, grey ice sheets — particularly when reflected into an almost continuously grey and stormy sky. Yet grey as it was for most of the time, the expedition did experience one extremely welcome period of good weather during the 40 days they were there. Eager to make the most of it, team members ventured out towards the Pacific side of the island, where they discovered a cave with a huge opening, inside which they found the skeleton of a whale. This was one of few examples of animal life the expedition noted on the island, barring a few insects, birds and rodents.
Multidisciplinary as the expedition was, speleology was very much its common theme, the shared interest of all expedition members. It was an interest that the island of Madre de Dios fulfilled more than adequately.
"In all, we discovered nearly 10,000 metres of unknown caves, one of which — the Perte (sinkhole) du Futur — is now recognised as the deepest in Chile and second deepest in South America, extending 376 metres below the ground surface.”
With the aid of laptop computers and aerial photographs — the latter provided by the Chilean Geological Survey — the expedition managed to map and produce cross-sections of 30 separate cave systems.
The island’s caves are some of the most technically challenging in the world, and take an extremely long time to explore, says Pernette. There are not many squeezes (the suffocatingly narrow tunnels one typically associates with speleology in Europe), but it is very much "an active system". Consequently, there is an ever-present danger of flash floods, necessitating the laborious process of attaching ropes to the cave roof while advancing through it.
Pernette has two photographs that clearly illustrate the extreme dangers posed by such active systems: one reveals a vertical gash in a vast cliff face, a tiny human form providing scale to the image. The next picture shows the same cave opening a day later — but this time it is spewing out a torrential waterfall.
When asked if he ever gets terrified when facing such potential danger, Pernette admits, "I do get anxious sometimes, but never scared. Everybody is aware of the dangers associated with caving — we’re all top-class cavers — and we don’t take chances. These are not stunts."
Pernette is keen to emphasise that the caves of Madre de Dios are not "pretty", or scenic in the conventional sense. Being part of an active system, they contain few of the classic features, such as stalactites and stalagmites, generally associated with karst scenery. It is their extreme isolation, he explains, that makes them so spectacular and compelling for cavers.
This isolation and the inaccessibility of the island result in half of it remaining unexplored. "Entire mountains remain unvisited and we’ve not even explored a tenth of the potential in terms of its caves," Pernette says. All of which means he is eager to go back there and is, in fact, planning a return expedition in 2002.
So Much to Explore
In the meantime though, it is back to work for Jean-François Pernette who, at 47, is possibly the world’s pre-eminent speleologist. Among his many achievements, Pernette led the first expedition to the world’s largest underground river, in the remote interior of Papua New Guinea, and was also responsible for penetrating the great Pierre-Saint-Martin cave complex in the Pyrenees. His "day job", in what must seem at times a different world to that of his intrepid exploits underground, is owner and manager of a family vineyard in the Bordeaux region of southwest France.
It was not unexpected that Pernette should develop an interest in speleology, growing up as he did within easy reach of the Dordogne, the Lot and the Pyrenees, all with complex cave systems. Yet in taking this interest beyond the realm of a mere hobby, he has on many occasions displayed the spirit of enterprise Rolex recognised in making him a Laureate. Already, in addition to Patagonia, he is planning two more caving trips, to New Mexico and Mongolia.
The 2000 expedition, says Pernette, has taught him that there is still a great deal of the planet left to explore — for those like him with a taste for discovery and adventure.
Jean-François Pernette appears to live two very disparate lives. "Two lives?" he retorts to this suggestion, "I must have at least four." There are the lives in which he raises his two children and makes a living, plus the one in which he has to plan and raise money for future expeditions. Then there is the caving itself — his "passion" — which continues to take him to some of the most remote places on the planet, and which he knows will, one day soon, take him back to Ultima Esperanza.
Published in 2001