‘Croc! Big croc. Left. ON THE LEFT.’ Shit.
Here we go.
It’s impressive that a pounding heartbeat can still find another gear. But then again I guess it’s also kind of impressive the stupid situations some of us are willing to enter freely. This was our second serious crocodile charge in as many hours. Arms laden with lactic acid – that joke of not needing to be faster than the croc, just faster than your friends, was starting to sound less funny.photos Mike Dawson
You would be forgiven for not knowing exactly where Angola sits on the map. So let me help: African continent … west coast … southern third … got it? OK, good. Yes, it’s that place famous for its brutally long civil war, which left a legacy of landmines strewn throughout this honey pot of bountiful natural resources.
Armed with somewhat less than the rudimentary facts, I found myself agreeing to join two other kayakers who I barely knew on a ‘trip of a lifetime’ as Mike sold it, to Angola. Taking my mum’s universal life advice ‘Don’t say no to opportunities’, which I like to apply to situations where logic probably does not say yes, flights were booked. I completed the team of Mike Dawson (of Kiwi Olympic slalom fame); Dewet (a hardy South African); and Adam (a Czech non-kayaking film-maker). We were set to leave in just two weeks.
No ‘trip of a lifetime’ (which is actually code for, ‘I’m kind of desperate, everyone else has backed out, please keep the dream alive’) is complete without a brutally long road trip. Starting in Johannesburg, South Africa, this one was to include a visit to Zambia, home of the Zambezi – a river that needs little introduction in the kayaking world other than, believe the hype, it’s real good.
Logistics are the lynchpin of any so-called expedition worth its salt. I will not pretend that I had much to do with ours, Mike and Dewet handled everything. As a South African, Dewet he has an endless passion for his land and loves to share the wonders of the continent with everyone. This 7,000 kilometre road trip was not his first foray on the potholed merry-go-round. Stepping out of the airport, I was pleasantly surprised by the car he owned, which would become a weird kind of home over the next month.
Angola is shockingly expensive for a country where many have little and a few have plenty. The capital, Luanda, is the most expensive city in the world for expats. Car hire is ludicrously expensive. In Dewet and Mike’s logistical battle plan it had been decided that driving from SA was the best bang for our buck. That plan involved almost the entire width of one of the largest land masses on the planet, and entering five countries.
Leaving Joburg airport I impressed by the quality of the roads (my expectations set by previous trips to Uganda) – but seeing a dead guy on the hard shoulder quickly re-aligned my senses. Africa for the non-African, is simply a mind boggling experience, filled with contradictions.
Border crossings are a mysterious art – I’m pretty certain most of the border control officers do not fully understand the process – however Dewet seemed to have it under control. With an air of calm, he assured a guy holding a AK47 which looked like it had served in more than one war, that we had the correct paperwork. With a sigh of what could have been relief if I did not know him better, Dewet took back the bible of car papers, cracked one more joke with the official and lined up the with the ferry.
Logistics to any so called expedition that’s worth its salt is often the understated kingpin. I will not try to pretend in any way, shape or form that I had much to do with ours, but Mike and Dewet did. As I mentioned earlier Dewet is a hardy South African chap. Coming from the continent, he has an endless passion for his land and loves to lavish it with praise regularly. This 7,000 kilometre road trip was not his first foray on the potholed merry-go-round. Stepping out of Johannesburg airport, I was pleasantly surprised by the car he owned, which would become a weird kind of seated home over the next month.
Welcome to Zambia. Our third country of the trip, and the home of the Zambezi River, a kayaker’s Mecca. It was here that our small team was fully assembled (Mike had flown directly to Zambia, due to visa issues).
Falling over Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world, the Zambezi snakes through a box canyon. Sporting legends were forged here and it’s easy to see why. For me and many others the Zambezi is river of childhood dreams; the Minus Rapids; the boof at Number 5; stories of centre line on Number 9; Steve Fisher and his barreling wave; the list goes on.
A friend once said you shouldn’t meet your heroes, in case they don’t live up to your expectation. I was worried this might be the case for the Zam. But as I watched the kayak in front of me head straight off the hump of Number 5 I knew the hype was real. A perfect big volume boof, this river is as a kayaker’s playground.
The next two days went by in a blur, charging down crashing waves, jumping over diagonals, to weave between crashing holes and attempting a few lines that our heroes had laid down years before us. Perhaps meeting your heroes is a bad idea, but going into their playground is a sublime experience.
Our days on the Zam were an essential team building exercise. Running hard rivers efficiently relies not only your individual skill, but also the group’s collective ability – our time here allowed us to get an insight into each others river running techniques and ideas. No Zam trip would be truly complete without a fairly colossal party. It was with bleary eyes that we said our goodbyes to friends and headed off for new lands.
It’s often the unexpected experiences in life that turn out to be some of the most rewarding. Our objective was to paddle in Angola but in the manner of time-honoured cliché, our journey was just as rewarding as the destination. Leaving Zambia and heading into Namibia, was a solid milestone. Namibia’s wonderful smooth, straight roads that ran endlessly through wild plains brought a change of pace. On occasions we had herds of fifty or more elephants cross our path. I think we must have been less than fifty metres away from these massive wild animals at times, Dewet advised us to treat them with caution. Africa, although definitely stinted by our human impact is still a wild place.
Our progress to the Angolan border at Oshikango was not bad. OK, Google Maps wasn’t entirely accurate with our ETA, but we had made progress in comfort. Little did we know, this was all due to change. Our border crossing into Angola, went in fairly similar style to the previous three – mild confusion, a plethora of forms, and swapping different currencies with few pleasant lads trying to ‘help’ in exchange for a bit of that cash. But soon any expectations of making a fast travel across the Angola to Luanda were abandoned. Years of civil war take their toll on a country in many ways. One of which is the development and maintenance of infrastructure. Smooth tarmac roads turned to graded gravel, which soon turned to potholed mud.
We drove fairly solidly for the next three days, rarely stopping the car other than to fuel up or eat some freeze dried food that Mike had bought in bulk from New Zealand. The car was suffering, with every pot hole we bounced through the rear shocks would bottom out. Comfort in our overfilled, seated home was evading us, but I don’t think any of us would have changed it. Rarely did we ever put our cameras down.
Angola is geographically blessed for whitewater rivers. The Bihé Plateau is between 1,520 and 1,830 metres high, its a central rib to the country and all all the way along it different rivers make there beginnings before falling down to the South Atlantic Ocean.
Eventually we arrived at the mouth of the Kwanza – Africa’s fourth biggest river and our main objective for the trip. We stretched ourselves out and enjoyed the pleasant surrounds of a river that had become lazy as it headed out to the Atlantic. The bird life here was spectacular and the fish that the locals caught from there dugout canoes were bordering on beasts in size. It was here that we picked up our translator – Angola’s native language is Portuguese and outside of the capital Luanda, very few people speak English.
The Kivi River
The Kivi was the other river which Mike wanted to take us to, its a smaller river than the Kwanza, but has a steep gradient and is very remote. Google Maps plays a key part to making these trips happen – Mike had spent hours creating laminated maps of the river and had made heaps of notes from his previous trip in 2015 where they had made the first descent of the Kivi. It was with some difficulty that we found our way to a suitable put-in. The village there was beautiful, with huts made from the deep red mud. Like everywhere else in the country the villagers were understandably interested to see what we were all about. Putting yourself in their shoes (they had probably never seen white people before, let alone a kayak) I found their hospitality and openness humbling.
It was with trepidation that we slid into the murky waters of the Kivi. Crocodiles are a genuine concern on many of Angola’s rivers. Throughout the trip it was a constant worry that one of these prehistoric creatures might be lurking in a pool ready to make you lunch. On the Kivi we saw quite a few crocodiles and had one serious charge.
We all agreed that the whitewater on the Kivi is perhaps some of the most diverse any of us had ever experienced on one river. The upper stretches took us through an open landscape dotted with towering granite monoliths. Along the river’s edge are exotic cacti and aloe vera plants. The river itself has calved into the granite bedrock, making strong creek boating features.
It wasn’t long before we found the whole river disappearing under a jumble of boulders for the best part of 500 metres. It’s here that we had to really work together as a team. Moving kayaks weighing forty-five kilos filled with four days worth of food over twenty metre voids is a dangerous game, it would be too easy to slip and find yourself broken in the worlds worst siphon. These kind of portages were commonplace on the river and it tested us towards our physical limits.
The simplicity of expedition river life is special. Taking nothing more than what’s needed to survive in simple comfort. As we moved down the river we found a variety of beautiful campsites and were often joined by a few locals. My favourite of which were out hunting for small mammals with their bows and dogs.
Hidden deep in the Kive was a most spectacular waterfall, none of us felt brave enough to run, but we all agreed that it was easily thirty metres high and probably runnable. So for any of you young guns out there, this river has it all. Creeky drops, huge waterfalls, gnarly boulder canyons and to top it off, finishing with some of the most fun steep big volume rapids any of us had paddled.
The Kwanza River
After our successful descent of the Kivi we wasted little time and headed back for the Kwanza. It’s a much bigger river and as such has received the brunt of Angola’s ambitious hydro electricity dams. When all is done seven hydro dams will be installed. It’s an environmental disaster, no doubt about it. What’s worse is that the same thing is happening all over Africa, encouraged by Chinese investment. As a result, the Kwanza is a bit like one of those sand hourglass. Her time as a free flowing river is over and shortly almost all the whitewater will be submerged, hidden with the diamonds on her river bed.
Because of the dams and the diamond riches in the rocks, the Kwanza is literally a guarded treasure. On our first attempt to visit a potential take-out, we were told by the police and army that we would be arrested. We went back to the drawing board, until unbelievably through Mike’s contacts on the Olympic committee we were granted full access to the river from all the necessary government officials including the general of the air force! Proving it’s who you know that counts.
Arriving late at the put-in we decided to camp out and start early the next day. The beautiful sunset faded fast and it wasn’t long before a head torch beam flicking across the river bounced back an eerie croc eye. On closer inspection we found four crocodiles in the small area we could see. This was a worrying proposition. How does one decide on unknown risk? A risk that has a brain, sharp teeth, huge power and the will to kill you. A river is different, it doesn’t care, if your in the wrong place, well that’s just tough but at least you can tell what’s coming. Crocodiles though? In the end we all decided to paddle, we ventured to different places in our minds to accept that risk and we respected each other’s personal choice.
The flats became the scariest places where we stuck together in a triangle shape, heads on pivots, arms pumping, getting to the next rapid as quickly as we could. The tactic seemed to work, and although we were charged by crocs they never got that close.
The whitewater was wonderful. Long powerful rapids in a basalt gorge, with impressively steep features, here you could go as hard as you would ever like. If it weren’t for the fact that we were in a country that has suffered one of Africa’s longest civil wars and is filled with exciting wildlife the Kwanza would have been as popular as the Zambezi. Instead it makes me very sad to think we were only the second group of kayakers and possibly the last to play on this river.
The section we paddled took only two days, but we choose to extend the trip by hanging out at a waterfall that is arguably even more beautiful than Victoria Falls and may never before been visited by tourists. It’s these kind of experiences that really made the trip very special.
For more insight into Angola’s whitewater and more photos, you can read Mike Dawson and the team’s account of the trip in Kayak Session issue #69.