This is where I conquer my childhood fear of slime. The tree trunk that Patricio, my guide, is pointing to glistens with fungus, freaky, multicoloured moss and God knows what else – but this is my hand-hold. Patricio’s eyes twinkle encouragement. I put my trust in him, plunge my hand into the green and haul myself up a step further.

I’m learning to love the forest as much as Patricio does. He sweeps his hand through a hanging wind chime of ferns, presses his face lovingly to the mottled russet bark of a hundred-year-old arrayan tree, and talks in throat-clicks to the frogs and melodious whistles to the inquisitive chucao birds that hop up to his boots. My hat brim is stuffed with leaves he has handed me, too intricately beautiful or thrillingly fragrant to discard.

At dawn, I left the cosy cabin and crackling log stove at Patricio’s lodge on the edge of Queulat National Park, in the remote Aisén region of Chilean Patagonia. Waterproofed from head to toe, we crossed a stormy fjord in a tiny rowing boat and have been clambering through lush rainforest that seethes with life, wading up streams and over moss-carpeted rocks and lichen-covered logs, tightroping over makeshift bridges. I feel like one of the Famous Five. We emerge at a thundering waterfall and sit on a rock in the spray, soaking up the view of dense green slopes and snow-dusted granite peaks. This place is worth getting up early for.

For this abundance of wilderness, Aisén has its total geographical isolation to thank – and to blame. Treasure-seekers were lured and lost in the search for the mythical City of the Caesars, while Jesuit missionary Padre Garcia was the first to map the area. It wasn’t until the 1940s that European settlers really began to brave the wild terrain that for thousands of years had been inhabited by native tribes. Unfortunately, in the attempt to colonise, nearly three million hectares of native beech forest were burned by settlers offered the rights to land cleared for pasture.

Charred stumps still punctuate stretches of this prehistoric landscape, but there’s a sense that at any moment a T-Rex could emerge to pick off a few head of cattle. The drive to Queulat was one of deep valleys, mountains slumbering in swirling rain-mists, roaring waterfalls, lagoons, fjords and meteor craters. And glaciers – albeit obscured by the clouds (up to 300 days of rain a year isn’t uncommon). Where the tarmac turns to rough gravel, the scale just grows and grows, streams racing alongside and, over the road, rock faces soaring sheer on both sides. This road is changing the future of Patagonia.

Begun in 1976 with the aim of binding Chile’s extremities, the central section of Pinochet’s grand Carretera Austral – ‘southern highway’ – opened in 1983, linking Coyhaique with Chaitén. Five years later, it reached Puerto Montt in the north and Cochrane in the south. Stretching around 1000km, work on the road south continues. Torn between the need for progress and the desire for preservation, local people still debate whether the road is a good thing or not, but the fact is it’s here – and as a trip along the Camino Austral is increasingly tipped as one of Chile’s highlights, visitors are discovering the area at last.

Compared to the likes of Torres del Paine further south, however, tourism here is in its infancy. We’re here just as the ‘season’ begins, and the handful of trails that do exist have yet to be recut for the year. Patricio recently found an arrowhead when extending this small trail. I’m beginning to get a handle on just how uncharted this wilderness is.

When I was a growing up, you had to take a boat and a plane to get here,” says Luisa Ludwig, our interpreter and owner of a guest house in the small town of Puyuhuapi. “I never could have imagined we’d ever have tourists.”

If this is the situation in 2005, it’s hard to imagine the impenetrable wall of nature that must have faced Luisa’s parents, Sudeten Germans who fled wartime Europe in search of land and freedom. As humbling as Patagonia itself are the people who’ve made it their home. They hunt, farm, ride, fish, fly planes, make boats, build houses. And even if you live a week’s hike away, they’re as neighbourly as can be – out here, people have to look after each other.

Though their ancestors burned the land to live from it, today these pioneers are investing in its protection in the name of eco-tourism. At El Pangue eco-lodge on Lake Risopatrón, Heidi Barentin tells us how she, her husband Carlo and their three children lived in a tent for four months while building the first cabins.

A few hours’ drive north at a picturesque plateau overlooking the Ensueño Valley, Theobaldo Dörner is a third-generation settler who turned a patch of forest into farmland by hand, and now runs El Ensueño Lodge as one of the region’s first agri-tourism projects. Twenty years ago, you had to cross rivers on horseback to get here, Luisa tells us. Today, Theobaldo is telling us about the launch of his website.

At Fiordo Queulat lodge, Patricio still has only a radio for contact with the outside world – and that’s the way he likes it. “When people come here, I want them to disconnect,” he says.

Disconnecting from the world; connecting with the planet. Queulat National Park, one of several established by Pinochet, covers 154km2 of original, unburned forest. Luisa tells us the stunted trees are the result of colossal landslides – in 1960, the largest earthquake on record occurred here, measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale and shifting the whole continent by 10 metres. Nature has the upper hand here.

Not that I’ve been in any doubt: it’s overwhelming, but mostly in the best way. The highway is lined with fuchsia bushes, giant rhubarb and michay bushes aglow with bright orange berries – step off it and you’re not on a trail, you’re in another world.

Later, we see on a scale model of the park just how little we’ve glimpsed. Luisa points out a blue divot on a green mountain top. “There’s a beautiful lake here, and a glacier,” she says. “My husband tried for a year to cut a trail, but there’s still no way of getting there on foot. Yet.”

While the people cut trails with machetes, the Camino Austral rumbles south to Villa O’Higgins, hoping to capitalise on tourism to the Moreno glacier, just over the Argentinian border. The bigger picture is even more ambitious: the Sendero de Chile or Chilean Trail is a project for Chile’s bicentenary in 2010 that aims to create the world’s longest trekking trail, one that will reach from the Atacama Desert to the Patagonian icefields. Slowly, steadily, this mighty, forbidding place is opening up – it’ll never be conquered, but it will be explored.

Our own explorations have come to an end, however, with sandwiches and a thermos of coffee munched in the Queulat visitors centre. We can hike in the rain, but picnics are another story. Luisa doesn’t seem to mind. “If we had great weather with this landscape, everybody would want to live here,” she says. “The climate protects us.””