Kayak The Kwanza

By Oscar Scafidi

Two friends paddle, hike and wade 1300km along Angola's longest river in support of The HALO Trust's demining work.

Would you like to buy some diamonds?

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.

As with many areas in Africa where high-value natural resources are up for grabs, reports of human rights abuses were commonplace. In May 2015, Angolan investigative journalist Rafael Marques was handed a six-month suspended jail term for defaming Angolan military leaders in his 2011 book Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola. The book detailed serious human rights abuses in the Lunda provinces by private security companies guarding the mines, including torture, rape and murder. It was these sorts of stories that had coloured our initial attitude towards the diamond mining projects on the Kwanza: steer well clear. However, we could see no evidence of these kinds of abuses here.

‘Here, security is not such a problem. We are much more isolated, and far from the border. There is no concern that the diamond will be stolen.’ We were happy that was the case. Dodging trigger-happy security contractors every time we passed a mine would have made the journey borderline impossible.

After buying up the canteen’s supply of cold drinks (which consisted of six cans of Blue orange), we said our goodbyes and continued paddling. That evening, we had to haul all of our gear up a sheer slope in order to camp in a forest at the end of our 63km paddle. We camped on the right-hand bank of the river, still within the Luando Nature Reserve. The whole area had recently been burned, meaning that only large trees had survived. The rest of the ground was blackened and cleared, ideal for setting up the tents, although there were a few glowing embers still around. Five hundred metres further inland, we could hear the sound of the fire still burning, and occasionally even see the flames in the evening light. It was a great spot to camp: no insects, no long grass for snakes to hide in, and plenty of dried out logs for our fire.

That evening, as we sat around the fire discussing plans for the next day, a hippo surfaced down at the water’s edge and walked out onto the bank, about twenty metres from our camp. He was hard to see in all the undergrowth, but we could certainly hear him, crashing around in the thicket and grunting loudly. The only route up to where we were sitting was via the very steep bank: we had only been able to scale it by crawling on our hands and knees, grabbing hold of tree roots for leverage. We assumed this was an insurmountable obstacle for the heavy hippo. Just in case, we stoked the fire larger and shouted at him to go away. He got the message, slipping back into the water, grunting his disapproval as he went.

Over dinner, we switched on the satellite phone and waited for the text message from my brother about the referendum result. Most of the polls before I had left Britain for Angola predicted an easy remain victory. Even Alfy was expecting a clear vote in favour of remaining in the European Union. My brother’s short message came through like a bombshell:

‘We’re leaving the EU.’

What an incredible turn of events. The British public had voted by 51.89% to 48.11% to leave. We were both shocked. Alfy was the first to speak.

‘Wow. Even I wasn’t expecting that. That’s incredible. I wonder how many of the Leave campaigners actually thought they would win?’

‘Not that many I imagine! Boris Johnson has a big mess to clean up now. Why on earth would anyone vote for something so damaging to the UK’s interests?’

‘Well, I never registered to vote by proxy. But I know my dad said he was going to vote Leave. I think the short-term economic issues are worth going through for the flexibility that independence from the EU will afford us to run our economy the way we want. We were never going to be able to affect reform from the inside.’

‘I just don’t understand. I guess being half Italian I’m more inclined to side with the continent on this, but the EU has brought so many positives. Single market membership? Customs union? I am baffled that we would be willing to throw access to those things away.’

‘We’ll have to see. Tell your brother to send us more updates. I want to know how David Cameron is going to react!’

Alfy and I had a lot to talk about that evening.

The morning of Saturday 25 June was another tense, early start. Was that hippo lurking out there, and if so, did he begrudge us camping on his patch? As we set out in the early morning light, the extent of the fire damage on the right-hand side of the river became apparent: it stretched for kilometres. Later in the morning, it also spread across both sides of the river. We paddled through a still smoking, blackened wasteland for hundreds of metres at a time. This did not seem to have put the hippos off, they were out in abundance. On three separate occasions, we had to sprint the width of the river to avoid large pods blocking our path. Following the issues with the aggressive males a few days earlier, we were even more cautious and gave them a very wide berth, which was easier now that the river had opened out.

45km into our day of paddling, we came across a large diamond mine on the west bank of the Kwanza, which stretch two kilometres along the river. We shouted our usual greetings to the confused looking miners on the other side of the water, and asked if they had anything to sell us.

‘Why don’t you come and look in the shop?’ One of them yelled back.

Alfy and I could not believe our ears. A shop? We raced over to the other side and moored the Klepper. It turned out that due to the size of the mining community in this camp, there were actually two shops, both garden shed-like arrangements with a locking door and even awnings to keep browsing customers out of the sun! Alfy walked over to one while I had a look at the other. We reconvened five minutes later with our haul: canned Portuguese sardines in spicy tomato sauces. Chupa Chups lolly pops. Fizzy drinks. Powdered hot chocolate. Weird salty biscuits. They even sold us a can of Cuca beer each, for only six times the street price in Luanda (300 Kwanzas each). It was a medieval banquet as far as we were concerned.

The last 15km of the day were a breeze, as we raced along on a sugar-high. That evening, we found a series of mud steps carved into the high bank, presumably by a fishing party. While cutting across the river to finish for the evening, we had one final incident when a lone hippo surfaced out of nowhere to see what we were doing, giving us quite a shock. We quickly moored, climbed up the steps and onto a plateau overlooking the river, dotted with termite nests. The fishermen’s fire was still smouldering from the night before. As we sipped our Cuca and looked out over the water, the next phase of our expedition was almost in sight. If all went well the following day, we would reach the Malanje Bridge, and a promised resupply from The HALO Trust. Then it should only be three more days until we reached Capanda Dam. We were both excited about the dam for the same reasons: not only did it represent the point of having completed two-thirds of the expedition. It also meant entering a far more predictable (and safe) section of the expedition: no more hippos, much more accurate mapping of rapids and closer population centres if help was required. Alfy and his brothers had even kayaked this last third already, which further reassured us that it was doable. The end was almost in sight.

On Sunday 26 June we woke up exactly 60km south of Malanje Bridge. The river was 250m wide, and we knew there were hippos around as we had seen one and heard multiple animals the previous evening. It only took half an hour for us to see our first set of hippos, who all went crashing into the water as soon as they heard us. There were at least three, all vanishing underwater rapidly, then reappearing worryingly far away from their submersion points a few second later. After pausing to assess, we sprinted across to the other side of the river and continued cautiously along the left bank.

Much of the morning was taken up with negotiating light rapids and fighting against a strong headwind. Just before lunchtime, we approached a massive set of rapids, over 500m wide, on a sweeping meander. This was the sete ilhas rapids that Alexandre had warned us in Camacupa. We had the choice of barrelling straight through, cutting out the meander but braving the worst of the white water, or creeping along the meander, with no idea what exactly would be waiting for us around the blind corner. After seeking advice from a local fisherman, we opted for the corner, and were rewarded with a terrifying two-kilometre ordeal of rapids interspersed with sand banks. The battered Klepper held up remarkably well, although we did end up scraping her over some rocks in sections, threatening to pierce the already worn skin.

The river kept us on our toes all afternoon, with a series of rapids, often around multiple islands in the river. The benefit of this section was that the current added to our average speed, making up for the headwind and sweeping us along towards Malanje Bridge. The landscape became greener as we approached the settlement, and for the first time palm trees and other tropical plants started to dot the skyline on each bank. We even saw some large farms using the Kwanza for irrigation.

Alfy had noted a large waterfall a few kilometres before the bridge, known as Porto Condo, so we were on alert as we steamed down the rapids. In a rare break between white water, a farmer on the side of the river started shouting to us.

‘You! You need to get out! Up ahead it’s dangerous! You cannot take your boat down there!’

Alfy shouted back to reassure him we would be getting out before the waterfall.

‘No! You must get out now! This is the last place you can get out!’

According to our map he was wrong. We had another three kilometres to go before we needed to portage around the waterfall. We paused, paddling backwards to stay still, while Alfy checked the GPS trail. Local knowledge had already proven invaluable more than once. We did not want to take a risk on an obstacle as serious as this one. The man kept screaming for us to get out, as if his life depended on it. It was really disconcerting.

No. Alfy was confident. The man was wrong. We shouted thanks to him, and paddled on cautiously.

‘You’re doomed! You will die!’ His warnings soon faded into the distance, drowned out by the sound of a lot of white-water.

The Porto Condo waterfall was easy to hear and easy to spot. The spray from the drop shot up into the late afternoon air and the sound was unmistakeable. The waters leading up to the falls were very calm, so we were able to paddle right up to the edge. Here we surprised various groups of Angolan tourists, mainly day-trippers from nearby Malanje, the provincial capital, 35km to the north. There were quite a few people, paddling around near the edge or taking selfies with the sunset behind them. We unpacked our gear, stuck the Klepper on our shoulders and then carried it along the path that led from the top of the waterfall to the calm waters beyond it. This seemed to be a popular weekend spot for young Angolans to congregate: there was a bar, a dirt football pitch and a large space for car parking. Some people were even swimming at the foot of the falls. We paused for a while to chat to people and ask about obstacles further up. The men in fibreglass boats, running a water taxi service, told us that there were few hippos up ahead but gave us the rough locations of the main rapids they knew of. Our goal was in sight, just 3km further down the river, with the sun setting behind it. We had made it to Malanje Bridge!

Figure 1 - Passing the waterfall at Porto Condo (26 June 2016)

We were half expecting to see the HALO Trust Land Rover parked up on the bridge, looking out for us, but they were nowhere to be seen. There was, however, an Angolan couple, taking photos and waving down to us. Gerhard’s advice had been to avoid the foot of bridges because of the mine risk, but we had little choice when choosing an exit point from the river. The rest of the bank was thick reeds and bog. We chose a well-worn path on the east bank and moored.

A hundred metres up the hill, by the road entry point to the bridge, we saw a bright blue hut. This was a police checkpoint. The bridge itself was two lanes wide, with solar powered lighting along both approach roads. The archways underneath gave it a distinctive profile against the backdrop of the setting sun. On the side that we had landed, there was a wrecked Soviet tank in the undergrowth. Another one sat in the bush on the other side of the approach road, covered in white graffiti.

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