Whitewater Kayaking Through Angola

In 2018, New Zealand–based photographer Mike Dawson and his two kayaking partners dodged crocodiles, land mines, and torrential rains to paddle wild rivers in a remote corner of Africa

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Photo: Mike Dawson

For years the kayaking community heard rumors of powerful whitewater in remote Angola on the scale of the mighty Zambezi River. But a horrific 27-year civil war and its aftermath had cut off the country from the outside world. Once the war ended, in 2002, the country began rebuilding itself, and visitors started to trickle in, and what they found was a place with all the makings of a major adventure destination, full of towering mountains, untouched wilderness, and big rivers. In late 2018, Dewet Michau of South Africa, Jake Holland of Great Britain, and I braved crocodile attacks, unforgiving weather, and miles of unmapped terrain to become some of the first kayakers to experience the perilous rapids of the Keve and Kwanza Rivers. 

The Kwanza, pictured here, drops more than 3,000 feet through the heart of Angola to the Atlantic Ocean. Its crystal-clear waters are the lifeblood of the country—its upper reaches provide fish, drinking water, and irrigation for local communities, while farther west, it supplies energy through dam projects in the lower sections.

Photo: Mike Dawson

Driving from South Africa, we entered Angola from the south. Our first stop was the Keve, where we spent four days paddling a 50-mile section that drops more than 2,600 feet. At the put-in, in the small southern town of Jumba, the entire village stopped its daily tasks to watch as we unloaded our kayaks, packed, and headed off down the river. 

Photo: Mike Dawson

Flash floods transformed small tributaries into raging torrents that instantly changed the river from its traditional orange color to a chocolate brown. Moments after an intense portage in the relentless rain, Michau took on a mighty rapid on the Keve River.  

Photo: Mike Dawson

One afternoon in the midst of a wild thunderstorm, we came upon a magnificent unnamed waterfall along the Keve with an estimated drop of 100 feet. It looked runnable, but we opted to walk past—there was just too much at risk. Standing there, we accepted the fact that this would be another long day of carrying our heavy boats around impossible rapids.

Photo: Mike Dawson

Exploring Angola is no easy task. After kayaking the Keve, we made a 124-mile drive north into the wilderness, and the road seemed to disappear as we began scouting for access points to the Kwanza River. Slowly, we navigated through a maze of overgrown jungle tracks, minefields, and a bureaucracy hesitant to let us on the water.

Photo: Mike Dawson

We waited and watched in awe as a herd of more than 150 elephants crossed the road, almost oblivious to our presence.

Photo: Mike Dawson

With every new day, the vibrancy of the country comes to life. During our drive overland, we stopped at a rural market. There were an abundance of colors as well as smells, sounds, and tastes that are so distinct to Angola.

Photo: Mike Dawson

We drove for two days across the central Bié Plateau to the mouth of the Kwanza River.

Photo: Mike Dawson

It didn’t take long to realize that the intensity of these rivers never lets up. Here, Holland takes in the raw power of the Kwanza, a turbulent mess of whitewater. Our team undertook the laborious task of portaging around the first gorge, which is no easy feat under the relentless sun, with nearly 100 pounds of equipment on our shoulders. 

Photo: Mike Dawson

Angola’s history is etched into everyday life. Remnants of the brutal civil war, which ravaged the nation in a battle for power, are everywhere. Tanks have become part of the scenery, like this one rusting away on the side of the national highway. Initially, we were nervous to venture from the safety of the road due to the millions of unexploded land mines, but these youngsters showed us the way.

Photo: Mike Dawson

During our first day on the Kwanza, we tried to avoid a large, flat section by dropping blind into a channel that looked good. It wasn’t. Instantly, Michau was back-looped and thrown into a nasty pocket. Holland, who had been following mere feet behind, was suddenly getting worked alongside him. Everything changed at that point. Holland swam frantically, heading for the bank as his gear was swept downstream into a pool that looked croc infested. Once he was ashore, we were able to get a throw bag to Michau. We set about the mission of getting the gear back just as a massive thunderstorm came over the horizon, so we sheltered under rocks to wait it out. Although shaken and our pride bruised, we had no choice but to continue downstream, carefully weaving 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.

Finally, we arrived at Hidden Falls—dropping 230 feet into a deep gorge, it’s the largest waterfall on the Kwanza—where we set up camp. As the sun sank in the distance, it felt like we were on the edge of the world. 

Photo: Mike Dawson

Exhausted by the challenge the Kwanza had already put forth, and with a long way yet to go, the mood around the campfire changed. Two of us wanted to continue; one didn’t. Despite how close we had come to absolute disaster and multiple croc charges, the hardships only illustrated the beauty and intensity of Angola and the reasons we’d come in the first place.

Photo: Mike Dawson

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. Pictured left to right are: Michau, myself, and Holland. 

Photo: Mike Dawson

Sometimes the wilderness can beat you down. Here, Michau (left) and I take a moment to laugh while sheltering under a rock ledge as a storm rages.