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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We waited and watched in awe as a herd of more than 150 elephants crossed the road, almost oblivious to our presence.
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.
We drove for two days across the central Bié Plateau to the mouth of the Kwanza River.
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.
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.