Paddling in Angola is intimidating.
The horrific 27-year civil war that raged across its wild savannahs cut the beautiful country and its whitewater off from the outside world. Now, the doors of this incredible African country are open, and Angola is on track to become an adventure mecca; a destination full of towering mountains, untouched wilderness and endless whitewater. In 2018, despite the odds stacked against them, Mike Dawson, Dewet Michau, and Jake Holland embraced the challenge of Angola, beginning with Africa’s fourth-largest river: The Kwanza.
“Rumors of a river on the same scale of the Zambezi laden with rapids but hidden behind the bureaucracy of an African government have long been whispered throughout the whitewater community,” writes Mike Dawson. Rumours that lured Dawson to the once war-ravaged country of Angola rumours Dawson has helped prove to be true. Dawson, Dewet Michau and Jake Holland braved croc charges and threats of arrest to be the first to bear witness to the brutal beauty of the Kwanza River’s towering mountains, untouched wilderness, and endless whitewater already succumbing to the threat of hydro.
“Putting on, we instantly dropped a few rungs down the food chain.”
“The immense joy of paddling steep, powerful whitewater was only rivalled by the beauty of the surrounding landscape. With immense dome-shaped rocks dominating the countryside, it felt like we were paddling through The Lion King. Though I had spent time in Africa before, this was the Africa I had always envisioned.”
“Rumors of a river on the same scale of the Zambezi laden with rapids but hidden behind the bureaucracy of an African government have long been whispered throughout the whitewater community.”
“The choices were tough. Did we poach it and risk detainment or abandon the expedition and return to Luanda?”
“The instant we broke out of the eddy and headed downstream it became real. This was the Kwanza. Approximately 400 cm3 of flow dropping nearly 600 meters over 120 kilometres, and it looked to be packed with powerful, high-volume whitewater.”
“Around the first bend, the safety and comforts of civilisation were left behind. We were suddenly, irrevocably, alone; isolated and unreachable on a river that holds no mercy for those who try to navigate it.”
“We were shaken, but had no choice but to continue downstream, our pride bruised as we carefully wove our way through a maze of jungle-laden channels.”
“Despite how close we had come to absolute disaster, despite the multiple croc charges, the day’s hardships only illustrated the beauty and intensity of Angola and emphasised the reasons we had come.”
This expedition was more than a kayaking trip – it was an adventure. An adventure that started by travelling across the remote, undeveloped regions of half a continent on the way to the put- in. The journey took us, myself, New Zealander Mike Dawson, South African Dewet Michau and Brit Jake Holland through South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, and Namibia before entering Angola.
Countless rumours of incredible whitewater in Angola have circulated throughout the paddling community for many years, but it wasn’t until 2015 when myself and Aaron Mann led an exploratory trip to the wild west of Africa that Angola’s whitewater potential was first unlocked. Our objective for this mission was the Lauca Gorge of the Kwanza River-Africa’s fourth-largest river system.
LAND OF PLENTY
Angola’s geography creates an abundance of rivers that drop off the edge of the Bie Plateau into the Atlantic Ocean, creating endless prospects for hydro-electric schemes and endless whitewater for those willing to explore. The Kwanza originates in the Bie Plateau, which feeds the Okavango Delta as well as three of Africa’s four major river systems –including the Congo and the Zambezi. The Kwanza winds its way along the Plateau before continuing its 960-kilometre journey through the heart of Angola to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s crystal clear waters are the lifeblood of Angola. The upper reaches provide fish, drinking water and irrigation for the local communities, while further west its role changes to supply energy via the countless dam projects in the lower sections. Fuck dams. One can only imagine what lies hidden below the man-made lakes.
Despite its promise, a kayak expedition here is intimidating, to say the least – with many factors that continually keep a team in check. Remnants of the brutal civil war that ravaged the nation in a battle for power are everywhere. Millions of unexploded landmines still cripple communities and forced us to stay on the beaten track. Though most of the large wildlife was eaten during the war, a high concentration of crocodiles remains, fattened by 27 years of death and destruction. Then there is the human factor: bandits, armed robberies, corrupt officials, illegal mining, and a considerable amount of munitions.
As we made our way across the southern African continent tensions built, our imaginations ran rampant picturing a hostile, war-torn wasteland. Once in Angola, our preconceptions dissipated. We were welcomed by a ruggedly beautiful country filled with the smiling, hospitable faces of the Angolan people who showed us nothing but kindness and hospitality.
Our first stop was the Keve River. Surrounded by beautiful dome rock mountains, the river weaves through the remote mountains ranges virtually inaccessible outside our put-in and take-out sites in the Kwanza Sol Province, some six-hours’ drive south of Luanda. In 2015, I completed a partial descent with Aaron Mann before being shut down by diamond mining activities in the river, and was looking forward to going back.
Putting on, we instantly dropped a few rungs down the food chain. After a few kilometres we were greeted by big, beautiful class IV-V rapids, a welcome stress-reliever after the tense paddle through the flats. The epic whitewater was short-lived as the next horizon line revealed the characteristic of days one and two. Impassable boulder gardens, huge, siphoned-out rapids, and hours of portaging became our world. At one stage an entire kilometre-long section of the river disappeared under a sea of rocks. We were truly “earning our turns.”
We made our way downstream, stopping to eat lunch at a beautiful 140-foot waterfall. It was a magnificent display of power. I have no doubt that someone would run it had it been in another place rather than a four-day walk from the nearest road. Throughout the day, curious local children and fisherman followed us as we made our way down the river, smiling and waving as they caught our gaze. It was clear that they had never seen kayakers and most likely white people before. Even as we made lunch and did our map checks, they gathered around, inspecting our kayaks and equipment.
Later that afternoon we came upon magnificent two-tier waterfall with a total estimated 100 feet of drop. The falls looked runnable, but we opted to walk them – there was just too much at risk out here. We had the feeling that this would be another long day of carrying our heavy boats.
To our amazement, below the falls the nature of the river completely changed from the rock gardens of the previous two days to long stretches of open, runnable rapids. The immense joy of paddling steep, powerful whitewater was only rivalled by the beauty of the surrounding landscape. With immense dome-shaped rocks dominating the countryside, it felt like we were paddling through The Lion King. Though I had spent time in Africa before, this was the Africa I had always envisioned.
Eventually, the river relented, and after several hours of classic whitewater, the daylight began to dwindle, and a thunderstorm approached. Rain pummeled us, lightning struck the banks, and we hustled to take shelter. We hid from the downpour in a small cave, our bodies tired and beaten from a brutally physical day. Suddenly, mud began to fill our surroundings as a tiny crease in the mountain started to spew a torrent of water. We packed up. It was an intense environment. The previously clear river was now a chocolate brown and rising fast. Torrential downpours meant visibility was zero.
Within minutes, the river had risen almost a meter. With the environment throwing everything at us and with so much at stake, we called it a day. We committed to spending an unplanned night out in the bush and set up camp in the rain. Hungry, tired and without food, we watched the day slowly turn into the dark, the sky clearing right at dusk to expose a gigantic tombstone on the horizon. Despite our humble circumstances, it was paradise.
We rose at dawn and packed up fast. With no food, there was little to do before getting back on the river. The final push for the take out was incredible. 15-plus world-class kilometres of tight gorges filled with steep rapids, all of which were runnable and boat scoutable. For two hours we casually paddled down choosing lines as we went, occasionally stopping to soak in the breathtaking scenery. It was the perfect end to four days on the water. We revelled in our success as the take-out approached when the Keve gave us one last fright. A giant croc charge split the team mere hundreds of meters from the take-out for a not-so-subtle reminder of where we were and what letting our guard down could mean.
Rumours of a river on the same scale of the Zambezi laden with rapids but hidden behind the bureaucracy of an African government have long been whispered throughout the whitewater community. The sister river of the Zambezi, the Kwanza hosts a drainage that stretches nearly 1000 kilometres and drops over 1500 meters as it flows through Angola before joining the Atlantic Ocean at Barra de Kwanza.
Kayakers aren’t the only ones drawn to the Kwanza. There are already four completed hydro-electric projects on the Kwanza, with a fifth underway. We knew the trip would be tough, but with no information available to the outside world and dam construction sucking the life out of this monstrous river day by day, it was time to go.
After a 200 kilometre drive north we began scouting access points and tried to get permission to put on the river. When paddling in a country like Angola you have no idea how the local military will react. They could be happy to see us, or they could arrest us on the spot. The 2016 arrest and detainment of a British Duo worsened our fears. Our first encounter with the military in the gorge seemed to shut down our expedition plans immediately. The commanding officer told us that it was not permitted to enter the river then recorded our faces and license plate numbers to identify us. He warned that failing to leave the river valley immediately would result in detainment. We hastily left the check-point and headed away from the gorge, our ambitions deflated. After six days of travel, we were shut down before we could even begin.
The choices were tough. Did we poach it and risk detainment or abandon the expedition and return to Luanda? Africa works on contacts and networks. It’s a game of who you know. Fortunately for us, we knew someone with the right connections. Just as we decided the risks of poaching the section were worth it, a contact in Luanda came through with permits. Two days of waiting later we received the necessary paperwork. It was game-time.
We camped at the put-in for an early start. During the night Dewet sent a beam of light across the flat pool at the put-in, illuminating three huge crocs hunting in the water. To make matters worse, one tried to sneak under our tarp in the dark of night only to be foiled by Dewet Michau’s razor sharp ears. The extensive damming on the Kwanza has regulated the flow of a river that used to fluctuate hugely, wreaking havoc on the eco-system. Now, flows are controlled online with energy consumption forcing outputs around 400 cm3, year round. This creates the perfect breeding ground for the crocs stuck between the oversized hydro schemes, crocs who are rapidly multiplying and growing. The tone for the trip had been set – and we weren’t even on the river.
The harsh African sun beat down as we finished the critical tasks of preparing, planning and packing. Countless packets of Radix food were stored with our safety and camping gear. With boats loaded, there was nothing left to do. The instant we broke out of the eddy and headed downstream it became real. This was the Kwanza. Approximately 400 cm3 of flow dropping nearly 600 meters over 120 kilometres, and it looked to be packed with powerful, high-volume whitewater.
Around the first bend, the safety and comforts of civilisation were left behind. We were suddenly, irrevocably, alone; isolated and unreachable on a river that holds no mercy for those who try to navigate it.
The river snaked downstream, and slowly the gorge walls began to rise, and gradient increased. Our eyes glanced continuously for any sign of a horizon line and the first taste of whitewater. The river character was exposed when the river channelled into a tight gorge filled with steep drops, house-sized holes, and massive boils capable of devouring us. As we stood 20 meters above the monster, conversation between the team barely audible over the thrum of the rapids below. Outside the whitewater, there was little time to relax or catch your breath in the flats as we had to be on constant watch for crocodiles.
We tried to avoid a large flat section by dropping blind into a channel that looked good. It wasn’t. Instantly, Dewet was back-looped and thrown into a nasty pocket. Jake, who had been following mere meters behind, was suddenly getting worked alongside him. Everything changed in an instant. Jake swam, frantically heading for the bank as his gear was swept downstream into a pool that looked croc-infested. Once Jake was onshore, we were able to get a throwbag to Dewet, then set about the mission of getting the gear back just as a massive thunderstorm came over the horizon. We sheltered under rocks to wait it out. We were shaken but had no choice but to continue downstream, our pride bruised as we carefully wove our way through a maze of jungle-laden channels. This was the most active section of wildlife on the river, and we didn’t relax for a second; the hairs of on the backs of our necks prickled at the slightest ripple or sound. The sun set in the distance as we reached the edge of the world – a gigantic 70-meter waterfall that signalled the end of day one. We collapsed on the riverbank and basked in the view as the last rays of the sun slowly dissipated into darkness.
Around the campfire that night the mood had changed. The team was exhausted by the challenge the Kwanza had put forth, and we still had a long way to go. Two of us wanted to continue, one didn’t. The decision would change everything. While it was intense to run a section with no safety knowing the factors in play and the real risk of catastrophe, well, we weren’t here to fuck butterflies. Despite how close we had come to absolute disaster, despite the multiple croc charges, the day’s hardships only illustrated the beauty and intensity of Angola and emphasised the reasons we had come. With nothing else to do, we went to sleep, uncertain what the morning would hold.
A new day brought new attitudes. We portaged back into the gorge, and after countless discussions, all three of us set off to complete the Lauca section. It was epic, with countless kilometres of continuous class III-IV whitewater. Our eyes were peeled we reached the flats. Within moments a croc charged. Jake yelled, “CROC LEFT” and we rushed right. The croc kept racing towards us, relentless – before diving just meters from our boats. We stared at each other wide-eyed for the briefest of moments before returning our paddles to the water. We had survived our closest attack yet, but we weren’t hanging around to talk about it.
Downstream, Dewet geared up to run a rapid in the lower gorge. It was massive, with volatile swaths of powerful, surging currents isolated in the Angolan jungle with enormous consequences; 100 meters downstream was a huge 12-meter-wide weir that could devour you. Jake and I wanted no part in it, but Dewet was operating in another realm. He crushed the line, and we continued downstream. The sun was relentless – the hottest day yet. The black rocks absorbed the sun’s heat, beating us down during long portages. Energy levels were fading as we rounded the last bend with our takeout nearly in sight. There was only one more big rapid. Our exhausted bodies found a line between the crashing waves and avoided smashing into the gigantic hole waiting below before we began the fight back to the bank above the last un-runnable drop.
At the take-out, there were no shouts of elation, no raucous celebrations, just the quiet satisfaction of survival. We each took a moment of silent appreciation, thankful that the mighty Kwanza had gifted us safe passage down.
We might have lingered, taking a moment to appreciate our accomplishment, but military waiting on the bridge gave us little respite, threatening us with arrest unless we left within minutes. Exhausted and dehydrated and hungry, we loaded the boats, and in a cloud of dust we were gone, the mighty Kwanza receding into the distance.
As the truck bumped along the road, we gazed out the windows in silence. We had come to Angola to paddle two unknown rivers, and now our mission was complete. There was satisfaction, but also the sense of emptiness that comes from realising what has long lived only as a dream. While what is left of the Kwanza will soon drown under relentless damming and humanity’s greed – our first descent may well be the last- more awaits. Angola has realms of untouched, untapped whitewater and hundreds of un-run unexplored sections waiting to be discovered before they too are lost.
Follow my journey www.mikedawson.co.nz
TEXT: MIKE DAWSON
IMAGES: JAKE HOLLAND, MIKE DAWSON
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