Journey Down the Rio Kwanza

By Aaron Mann

Rumors of the spectacular whitewater in Angola have circulated throughout the paddling community for many years. With an abundance of water in rivers dropping over 3,000 feet through the Bie Plateau into the Atlantic Ocean, there was little doubt about what Angola had to offer those willing to explore. Though the whitewater was clearly there, many unknowns remained. After a 27-year civil war ravaged the nation, there were many stories about active land mines remaining strewn across the country. There were some irreconcilable safety concerns before even considering the wildlife risks (crocodiles, pythons, spitting cobras, puff adders, the lost goes on).

Once we landed in Luanda and began our journey, however, that fear and doubt quickly dissipated. We were continually in awe of the country’s rugged beauty. What we had found was a nation filled with the smiling, welcoming faces of the Angolan people who, despite their own hardships, showed us nothing but kindness and hospitality.

With 16,000 cfs dropping 1,500 feet over a 40-mile stretch, we knew there would be some big rapids on our targeted section of Angola’s Kwanza River. The true nature of the river was immediately revealed when we approached our first big horizon line of the day, only to find the entire river channeled through a 30-meter-wide gorge filled with steep drops, house-sized holes, and massive boils that looked like they would devour anything that dared to approach. As we stood 20 meters above the monster, conversation between the two of us was hardly audible over the powerful waters ripping through the gorge below. At that moment, one thing became abundantly clear to us both: We better get used to walking with our loaded boats.

The expedition was the brainchild of Michael Dawson, known best as a 2012 Olympic slalom racer from New Zealand. Though slalom has been his main focus for the past few years, Mike is an accomplished extreme kayaker who grew up paddling rivers around the world. I grew up paddling whitewater in the U.S. and have also always dreamed of going out into the unknown. When Mike invited me to the expedition this summer at the first slalom World Cup, I happily accepted. Initially, the plan was an expedition party of five paddlers. After three dropped out, creating a less than ideal situation, I trusted that my longtime friend would make the right call. Mike felt that, even as a two-man team, we could still accomplish our mission. So we set off to paddle an unknown section, bringing us to this perch above our first major challenge.

Launching back into the beastly flow, we had to fight hard to make it across the river to scout the next rapid. Opting to paddle down a “small” side-channel at the entrance, the only visible line left to avoid a large hole guarding the middle of the river required us to ferry all the way to the other side of the river. Struggling to make it over the massive boils on the eddyline, we then had to fight for every meter of ground we gained in the main flow. What looked to be a routine move turned out to be a serious challenge. Stroke after stroke, the river tested our determination and stamina until we finally broke through into the open water. In the wave train below, we continually lost sight of one another between each peak and trough. While we both made it through unscathed, the experience left us both in awe. 

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Even in the flat sections, the sheer force of the Kwanza made itself known. On high alert for crocodiles in the flat water, mammoth boils constantly harassed us, which seemed as if they would appear out of thin air. Expending enormous amounts of energy just to remain in the middle of the flow as we watched for crocs, the river found a way to further humble us. Nearly 20 miles downstream from the put-in, the landscape suddenly morphed into that of a tropical jungle, filled with lush green trees, ferns, and even a few monkeys. Just as the scenery transformed, the river started flattening out and braiding off into numerous side channels. This area seemed like the epitome of “croc country.”

Attempting to minimize our exposure by staying in the middle of the river, we vigilantly scanned the riverbank for those prehistoric, cold-blooded killers. Almost on cue, we spotted a 4-meter croc launching into the river. Sprinting away with a clear sense of urgency, our efforts deprived several of those big bastards from acquiring a new taste for kayaker. Twisting and turning, the small channels began to merge back into one flow. Just before clearing the jungle, our gaze fixed onto a bright orange raft that was connected to a few ropes strewn across the river. People in the raft were connected to the ropes and wearing diving masks. Operating under the assumption that these people were just doing a survey for another dam project, we slipped between the ropes and ignored their angry shouts. Later we would come to find out that these guys were no surveying crew at all. Rather, they were illegal diamond miners.

Soon after the channels rejoined, we arrived at our intended campsite on the rocks above what we believe to be a 200-foot waterfall. As we pulled our boats ashore to set up camp, we were greeted by the deafening roar and magnificent beauty of the falls. With islands once again splitting the river’s flow, we were only able to see one-third of the drops making up these falls. What we could see was enough to leave us standing in silent appreciation … which is really saying something for me.

With darkness approaching, there was little time for sightseeing if we wanted to collect firewood and set up camp. During set-up, a pair of local men, one holding a kitchen knife and one wielding a machete, made their way toward us. Startled, each of us picked up our own machetes and greeted our guests with smiles and waves. Though neither of us spoke Portuguese, we were able to communicate with the two men using a combination of broken Spanish and French. After a few minutes of “small talk,” the local men let us know they would come back to check on us in the morning and said goodbye.

The locals proved to be a valuable asset, helping guide us around the falls. Under their direction, we followed a nice trail down and back to the river. At one point, as we walked through the woods, our guides came to sudden stop. Believing we had come upon a snake, we both jumped back and checked our surroundings. To our relief, and horror, the men had found a snare trap buried in the middle of the trail. We were very lucky to have had these guys with us.

As we returned to the river, excitement for another power-packed day of big whitewater filled us both. From the start, we encountered many more runnable rapids than the day prior, filled with towering waves and crashing holes. We were making fantastic time until our progress came to an abrupt halt at another huge gorge.

Much like the gorge we saw the day before, this one contained a multiple sizable drops. The first one looked good to go, but sadly it fed directly into a hole that looked like certain death. Near the bottom of the gorge was an impressive 7-meter waterfall that held the force of all 400 CMS in the river. It took us nearly one hour to portage these drops and continue on our way.

Nearing the final few rapids before the takeout, we found ourselves staring at one of the most impressive rapids on the Kwanza. Enormous gray rocks, shoved in awkward positions by previous floods, made up the island where we were standing. We navigated through the maze of rock only to stumble upon another maze awaiting us in the river. Navigating the rocky channels with water rushing between (and under) them was a much more dangerous proposition. One wrong turn into a dead end could have, literally, turned into one.

With our takeout nearly in sight, we had one final rapid standing in our path. The line down the drop was clear: Push left and around a potentially troublesome hole. Mike went down first, skirting the edge of the hole with ease. Meanwhile, I found myself in a bad spot, engulfed by a crashing wave, sending me directly into the middle of the very feature I was trying to avoid. Like a rag doll, the hole bounced me up and down as I attempted to stay composed. After nearly 30 seconds of fighting and two violent window-shades, I managed to fight my way back into open water. It was a scary moment for us both.

As we continued down through the last few rapids before the final portage to the takeout, fatigue from the long second day of paddling and portaging began to set in. Once we finally walked to the takeout bridge, our tired bodies could hardly cope with the sheer weight of the boats on our shoulders. Though the final portage took only 10 minutes, the walk felt like an eternity.

Reaching the bridge, we dropped our boats and began reflecting on our accomplishment. Two days of difficult whitewater, arduous portages, and constant crocodile threat had tested us but could not stop us. Unfortunately, our excitement turned to fear the next day when we began scouting the second half of the river.

Initially, due to expansive flatwater on the lower section of the Kwanza, our primary concern was the danger from increased wildlife encounters. However, it didn’t take long to realize the real danger: illegal diamond mining operations. During our search for a safe put-in, we accidentally stumbling on an illegal miner’s camp filled with shady characters, police, and government officials. Arriving in the camp just after some local authorities, tensions were high. The miners had no issue openly brandishing their guns. We quickly retreated, concluding that risk from the apparent threat the posed too great to continue down river. We set our sights on to another river, the Rio Keve.

— Check back next week for the conclusion of Mann and Dawson’s exploration of Angola on the Rio Keve.