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Radix Bulletin - Mike Dawson: The First Decent of the Kwanza

Mike Dawson: The First Decent of the Kwanza
By Nick Allen 17/12/2018 11:35 am

We plunged into the Kwanza River. I felt scared. It’s hard to describe precisely how intimidating it is, entering into a river about which you know so little. All I knew was that there was no going back, that I was at the mercy of an uncountable number factors, most of which could end the expedition in an instant. Right then, I knew the biggest challenge was staying relaxed in such a crazy environment.  

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Mike Dawson, heading down the Kwanza River in Angola | Photo Credits: Mike Dawson

The Kwanza

We were on a mission to complete the first descent of a remote section of the Kwanza River, and we had done our homework. The Kwanza River is one of the last unexplored parts of the planet. Africa’s fourth-largest river by volume, the river's power is incredible — it’s full-on.

This part of the river has remained unexplored for a good reason. Besides the fact that it’s a massive 80 km of whitewater, the river is steep, pumps out a staggering 400 tons of water per second and is controlled by a vast power scheme upstream. This means that at the press of a button, the river gorge could turn into a raging flood without warning. 

Then there’s the wildlife. The Kwanza is swarming with crocodiles. Earlier that morning, not long before we first plunged into the river, a 5.5m croc tried to get into the tarp under which we were sleeping. We knew there would be so many more crocs, hidden away in the gorges we were about to paddle. 

On top of all this, there are the landmines. This is something unique to Angola. It’s scary stepping onto land and not knowing where you can and can’t walk. Before getting onto the water, we heard of a landmine accident involving an expat worker in the river gorge. This was a frightening prospect, so many miles from civilisation: there is no Search and Rescue in this part of the world.

I hit the first rapid. The wash of fresh water was a relief from the heat of the day. But it was difficult to enjoy when there was so much playing on my mind. I felt tense — it was hard to relax. I knew I just needed to focus and rely on my training.  I had been preparing for this moment for a long time. 

Mike Dawson, on the journey to head down the Kwanza River in Angola | Photo Credits: Mike DawsonZambezi River (Zambia): Training Part 1

My research had begun long before we stepped foot in Africa. I had spent countless hours pouring over satellite imagery of the river. I had an idea of what to expect in the gorges, and where the river looked most steep. You can’t go into a project like this completely blind.

I had assembled an impressive team of kayakers — some of the best in the world: Dewet Michau (South Africa), Pepe Gonclaves (Brazil) and Jake Holland (United Kingdom). Together, we had the experience to complete the mission. 

We all met in Zambia, to practice as a team and launch the expedition. The Zambezi River is the best big-water destination on the planet: known for world-class whitewater that’s forgiving. This means it’s ideal for honing the technical skills and feel we needed to tackle the big- water features we would encounter on the Kwanza. It was also an excellent opportunity to spend time together as a team, go over the trip logistics and make sure everyone was comfortable with the plan. 

However, despite spending a week on the Zambezi, we were still nervous about the Kwanza. We knew it would be a big mission and there was a strong sense of apprehension within the team. We packed up the truck with all our gear and we pulled out onto the road. That’s when we had the realisation that, “this is it.” That’s when I felt most nervous.  We were journeying into the unknown, driving 2,500 km across Africa without any idea how the expedition was going to turn out. 

Mike Dawson, on the journey to head down the Kwanza River in Angola | Photo Credits: Mike Dawson

Keve River (Angola): Training Part 2

Before hitting the Kwanza, we decided to get familiar with another piece of Angolan whitewater: the Keve River. Remote, rugged and steep, the Keve was an ideal place for bringing together all the aspects of a whitewater expedition: exposure to wildlife, the challenge of world-class whitewater, navigating geopolitical difficulties, and managing multi-day trips in the wilderness. 

On the Keve, the whitewater was committing. Once you enter the river, the only way out is downstream. Because the Keve features a low river volume, some sections of whitewater were 10 km long. This meant we had to do a massive amount of scouting to plan the runs. For the first two days, a lot of the rapids were impossible to run. There were also sections where the entire river disappeared under rocks from almost 1 km. We paddled a considerable distance, but we also walked a lot – and portages with 40kg boats are hard work. 

However, the Keve was amazing. On the river, we encountered tiny villages that had minimal contact or access to the outside world — this was a real cultural experience. There was an abundance of bird life in the Keve River. This was particularly special as a large number of rare African birds have found a sanctuary in the remote reaches of the river’s gorges.

Coming off the Keve, we felt more prepared as we headed to the mighty Kwanza. Nonetheless, the immensity of the project ahead of us was daunting. 

Mike Dawson, on the journey to head down the Kwanza River in Angola | Photo Credits: Mike Dawson

Kwanza River (Angola): The Mission

I pulled my boat out of the water, the end of the first day. The river had been incredibly intense, and I was exhausted. We had experienced many close calls, both with crocs and on the river. 

One of the rapids was much more difficult than we had anticipated. The Kwanza River is so broad that it has multiple channels. We tried to find our way down one of these channels, but we choose the wrong one. We saw a small, awesome-looking waterfall that we really wanted to run. We couldn’t scout it thoroughly, but it looked good from the water. I lead the team over the edge. 

I didn’t realise that there was a substantial recirculating pocket below the waterfall. Luckily, I made it through. Jake and Dewet, however – they got caught in the rapid, and there was no way out. I jumped onto the bank and ran upstream, only to find Jake swimming. I couldn't see Dewet anywhere — I couldn't believe it. Eventually, I caught a glimpse of him in the water and quickly tossed him a rope. He grabbed the line, and I pulled him to shore. He looked utterly broken. Their gear had floated away down the stream, so Jake ran to rescue it, while I looked after Dewet. It was an incredibly intense few minutes, and our expedition almost ended catastrophically. 

That evening, one of the guys on the team had had enough and didn’t want to go back on the water. The river was dangerous, and we had to reassess the entire expedition. It was a complicated decision to make, and we spent a day sitting at the waterfall section of the river, trying to figure out if it was safe to continue.

Mike Dawson, on the journey to head down the Kwanza River in Angola | Photo Credits: Mike DawsonIt’s like a puzzle we pieced together slowly. We assessed the risk downstream, to determine if it was possible to kayak each section of the river. When you’re that remote, we had to think about where we were and form a plan of action in case something went wrong. We worked as a team, and in the end, he decided to attempt the bottom section of the river. That was a massive relief for me – we’d travelled a long way to run this river.

The next day, we made an early start. We fired up the Jetboil and prepared Radix meals before packing up and getting on the river. It was better early, with cooler temperatures and less crocodile activity.

The river throws endless challenges. If it’s not a giant rapid to run or portage, it’s a seemingly endless flat stretch or a wild storm raging in over the highlands. When you get multiple crocodile charges in an hour, it’s pretty scary.  I found myself hoping it was the right decision to get on the water. My mind was on edge the whole time – hyper-alert, to notice any sign of danger or movement. 

It was almost a relief when we pulled out of the river, all in one piece. With so many unknown factors and so many things that could go wrong, I could hardly wait to reach Ponte Kwanza and get off the river. For me, as the leader of the team, our successful descent meant that I could finally relax!! 

Radix fueled our team from the moment we left Zambia, and throughout the descent. On the river, we ate mostly breakfasts to keep us energised. Due to the remoteness of our mission, we had to carry everything into the river with us. That's why the Expedition Range breakfasts and dinners were our number-one choice, due to the fantastic calories-to-weight ratio. On a mission like this, you need food you can count on.

My favourite meals? They would have to be Expedition Mediterranean Style Free Range Chicken  and Expedition Mixed Berry Breakfast

Words and photos by Mike Dawson; Written by Nick Allen

Mike Dawson, on the journey to head down the Kwanza River in Angola | Photo Credits: Mike Dawson