Angola Expedition: PART II

Story by Aaron Mann / Photos and Video by Mike Dawson

The second river Mike Dawson and I chose for our Angola Expedition took us deep into the heart of the vast southern African nation. Hidden in the mountains of the Kwanza Sul, the Rio Keve weaves through rugged terrain and tight gorges toward the Atlantic. Unlike the Rio Kwanza, the challenge of the Keve section we planned to descend would be gradient rather than volume. The estimates from our maps figured a drop of more than 2,300 feet over the 25-mile section. Add to that the continued logistical and wildlife concerns due to the lack of road access or populated areas nearby.

Initially, the arid climate and dry rivers we passed on the mountainous drive in left us wondering whether there would even be water in the Keve. Those concerns quickly disappeared. Finally, standing on a rock shelf above the river’s first rapid, we began salivating over the river’s potential whitewater. While the prevalence of under-cuts was worrisome, our focus quickly shifted to the rapid’s steepness as we began our descent into the unknown.

Almost immediately after this first rapid however, the river began to wind and braid off into a number of different channels. For what felt like an eternity, we tried following the main flow as we zigzagged through these channels—always on edge due to the crocodile risk in these narrow, low-flow areas. The only animals we encountered were a family three, grunting hippos.

Once the channels converged, the whitewater picked up. Three consecutive Class IV-V rapids provided a much-needed stress-reliever. The beautiful wave trains and large holes felt like a peek into the Keve’s soul. Brilliant whitewater, though every rapid was laden with sieves and undercut rocks. We began operating under the assumption that every rock in the river was a hazard.

The bliss didn’t last. The horizon line revealed a completely impassable boulder garden, the entire flow buried under or between the large, tightly packed rocks filling the riverbed. The brutally difficult portage was only made more onerous by the searing heat—the first of three similar rapids necessitating portage that day. As we worked down the river however, curious local children and fishermen would follow our progress, smiling and waving when they caught our gaze. Even as we made lunch and did our map checks, they would gather around us, curiously inspecting our kayaks and equipment—a clear sign that they’d never seen kayakers before.

As daylight dwindled, we approached a gorge with an enormous horizon-line, which our maps indicated would be a sizable, 100-some-foot-tall waterfall. Mike paddled for a closer look, barely catching the last eddy above the drop. While I was attempting to decipher Mike’s frantic hand signals, a farmer on the opposite bank ran toward the river, waving his arms and shouting Portuguese. After the warning, he also kindly extended us an invitation to sleep on his property, which we happily accepted.

With the river on one side and a steep embankment on the other, the farm was completely isolated from civilization except for a small walking trail. The farmer along with his brother and their two sons welcomed us with open arms and were even generous enough to offer us a mud hut for the night. For someone with so little to be so kind and welcoming to two complete strangers was truly touching.

The next morning, we thanked our hosts and set off into the box gorge below the waterfall. It wasn’t long before we came upon a magnificent two-tier waterfall. With an estimated 100 feet in total drop, these two waterfalls looked runnable, but we opted to walk them since safety would have been inadequate with only the two of us. Once again we had the feeling that this would be another long day of carrying our heavy boats.

To our amazement, the river’s nature completely changed from the previous day’s rock gardens to long stretches of open, runnable rapids. The beauty of the landscape rivaled the raw joy of paddling steep, powerful whitewater. Dominated by immense dome-shaped rocks, the countryside felt like we were paddling through an African landscape I’d only ever hoped to encounter, straight from a set for the Lion King.

After hours of continuous whitewater, we had our first scare of the day when I got stuck in a rather unfriendly, monstrous hole guarding the bottom of a rapid. I tried working to the corner and to freedom, but the violent hole would not relent. It suddenly spun my boat around, cartwheeling uncontrollably. All I could hear was the roar of the river as I waited for my window. Finally, in a momentary release, I scrambled to open water. Relief.

Tired and a little shaken, we called it a day, satisfied with our downriver progress. Even though we had not seen any wildlife, we decided to play it safe and camp on an island. We set into our usual routine of setting up tents, collecting firewood, purifying water, cooking, and getting to bed.

Rain fell through the night, making sleep difficult. Still quite tired, we packed up and prepared for the final stretch to the finish: more tight box gorges filled with steep, flowing rapids. For two hours we casually paddled down reading the water and choosing lines as we went, occasionally stopping to soak in the breathtaking scenery.

Excitement was abounding when the river took a sharp turn, exposing the takeout bridge a few hundred meters ahead. Floating out, we began reflecting on our accomplishment: The two of us had come to Angola with a lofty mission to paddle two unknown rivers and now our mission was complete. Besides celebrating our success, the only thing left to do was plan our next mission.