In August 2015 Oscar Scafidi and Alfy Weston set out to kayak and hike 1,300km along Angola’s longest river, the Kwanza. This is the story of their 33-day expedition in a 1960s Klepper collapsible kayak as they journey through some of the last remaining wilderness areas in Africa, while avoiding hippo attacks, waterfalls and security forces. The journey was in support of The HALO Trust, the oldest and largest humanitarian landmine clearance organisation in the world. Angola requires The HALO Trust’s assistance due to the brutal civil war, (1975-2002), in which 500,000 people died and over 20 million landmines were planted.
We begin with an account of our arrest at gunpoint in the middle of the night, twenty-four days into our expedition. Weapons are pointed into our tents, we are handcuffed, beaten and taken into police custody for spying.
Following nine months of intensive preparations, I fly back to Luanda and rendezvous with Alfy to begin the expedition. We are dropped at the source of the Kwanza, then drag 100kg+ of gear over 50km to an entry point. We spend our first week extremely cold and isolated. Aggressive hippos, responsible for thousands of deaths in Africa each year, are a constant source of danger.
Before completing the first third of the journey, we crash and sink the kayak in rapids. Alfy almost drowns. We are rescued by diamond miners who help us repair the Klepper. My feet are injured.
The river ahead is filled with hippos and illegal diamond miners. We camp with the miners and learn about their industry. We complete some long sections of portage and hike through the Luando Nature Reserve, home to Angola’s national animal the Palanca Negra, one of the rarest mammals in the world. It is also home to a man-eating lion. On the final stretch of this section, we are attacked by three aggressive male hippos, but narrowly escape.
Having been arrested by security forces for camping near a site of strategic interest we are held in a cell for the night, then driven 135km to police HQ in Malanje. Here we meet our nemesis Police Commissioner Bernardo, who arbitrarily decides to end our expedition. Our gear and passports confiscated, we are interrogated for two days, before being driven to Luanda (375km away).
In Luanda we are arrested at gunpoint and taken to a deportation processing centre. The British and Italian embassies have to intervene to persuade the Minister of the Interior to prevent our deportation.
Upon release, and against Embassy advice, we head straight back onto the river to complete the expedition. We complete the last 220km at high speed in total secrecy, dodging police checkpoints. We finish the expedition on 6 July.
Our expedition raised $25,000 for The HALO Trust, funding the deployment of two demining teams down in Cuito Cuanavale for a month. The documentary film we made of the journey was aired in film festivals in Cyprus, USA, UK, Canada and Australia, helping to publicise The HALO Trust’s vital work internationally.
The authors will be donating 25% of the profits to support The HALO Trust's continued work in Angola.
Walking up to the hut, we saw fish barbequing over hot coals and generous plates of funge with a thick sauce poured over them. It was mouth-watering. The chef, a short Angolan man stooped over a steaming pot, greeted us in a nonchalant manner and asked how he could help, eventually calling over the camp supervisor.
A tall, muscular-framed bald man in smart shoes, clean jeans and a collared shirt came striding over confidently. As he shook our hands vigorously, we noted a fancy gold watch on his wrist.
‘Welcome to the camp. My name is Jean-Claude. Where are you guys from?’
‘We are British. We have kayaked all the way here from Soma Kuanza in that.’ Alfy pointed to the battered Klepper.
There was uproar from the chef and a couple of the hungry miners waiting for their food. ‘It cannot be!” “That’s so far away!’ The usual response. Jean-Claude simply whistled quietly.
‘It’s great to meet you. Where are you from?’ Alfy continued. His distinctive accent and name told us he was not Angolan. Our first guess was Congolese, but it was not a good idea to ask this directly. The two countries have a very troubled shared history, which continues to cause problems for Congolese migrants in Angola to this day.
‘I am from Central Africa.’ Jean-Claude smiled politely. We did not push the issue, but it was clear he did not mean the Central African Republic. I suggested that we switch to French for ease of communication. He agreed and invited us to sit on some plastic chairs in front of the canteen, and we happily obliged. The chef even offered us a plate of food, but we declined, not wanting to deprive the camp of supplies. I really wish we had said yes, as it smelled delicious.
‘So how long have you been out here? Who do you work for?’ Again, I had to be very careful about my line of questioning, recalling the warnings we received back in Luanda. The miners on this section of the Kwanza are secretive for a reason: a lot of the mines operate in a grey legal space, and some are outright illegal, with no permission at all from central government.
‘I have been working in this area since the 1980s. We first came out here as part of a cooperation deal between the Angolan government and the former government of Zaire, under Mobutu. Back then we worked with Gécamines, although now this is not the case. Now, we work for ourselves.’
Jean-Claude said that they had been in their current location for a few months, and were doing quite well in terms of their diamond haul. Looking back at the tattered tents, I asked him when the last time he went home was.
‘I have not been back to see my family for ten weeks. But this is normal for us. When one searches for lucre (dishonourable wealth), one has to be willing to tolerate a certain level of discomfort.’
His French was impeccable. I loved Jean-Claude’s vocabulary choice. He was a well-educated man, and keen to talk about the problems ‘foreign’ workers faced in this industry while in Angola. He of course meant Congolese.
‘There is no work over the border. Many come here to provide for their families. Or they are brought here by Angolan companies that then do not provide them with work permits or any protection if the security forces pick them up. Some of us have been here for so long, this place becomes home for us. But we have no papers, no rights. You see what happens in the other areas, in Lunda-Norte and Lunda-Sul.’
Jean-Claude was referring to the recent mass-expulsion of artisanal Congolese miners on the Angolan side of the border up in the north-east of the country. These unfortunate workers were historically used as pawns in the volatile relations between the governments in Luanda and Kinshasa. Populist Angolan politicians also knew that stirring up anti-Congolese sentiment with a few xenophobic remarks to the press was great for boosting their profile. In 2011, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) documented over 100,000 Congolese expulsions in a particularly bad year.
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These people are helping to fund Kayak The Kwanza.