Mike Dawson Journeys into the Unknown: Angola, Africa
By Nick Allen 7/11/2018 2:32 pm

New Zealand canoe slalom champ and Olympian Mike Dawson is in Angola, in West Africa, to attempt a first decent down sections of the Kwanza River. He's just started this daring mission down an extremely remote stretch of dangerous water. The team at Radix are keen to keep him safe by supporting his team with the high-quality food they need. I caught up with him before he left and asked him a few questions:

Mike Dawson, on his way to the Kwanza River in Angola. Photo Credits: Mike DawsonNick [N]: Tell me about your mission and why it’s important.

Mike [M]: The Angolan Expedition is all about journeying into the unknown. It’s an opportunity to run one of the frontiers of the white-water world. The Kwanza River is Africa’s fourth largest river, and one of the last unexplored waterways.

Our burning desire is to run this river while we still can. There’s a timer on the life of the Kwanza, as Angola rapidly dams the river to quench its thirst for energy and hunger for natural resources. Within months of our descent, the fifth and final dam will be commissioned and potentially drown the last of the rapids on this beautiful river.

N: It sounds exciting! What’s the structure of the trip?

M: It’s a unique trip – usually we fly to the destination and head straight onto the river. This time we’re first heading to the Zambezi, one of the most famous big-water destinations on the planet. We’ll be staying in Zambia for a week to get the dynamics of the team sorted, get communications dialled and go over the equipment. We need to make sure we’re not leaving anything to chance when we head out there.

From there we’ll load up the truck and head 2,500kms west across Zambia, into Namibia and towards the coast, before heading into Angola. The team will get the first taste of Angolan whitewater on the Keve River, in central Angola. This three- or four-day descent will give us an idea of what’s to come. From there we’ll recharge for a day, before putting onto the Kwanza. 

Once on the Kwanza, we’ll spend four days running class-five whitewater. The river will take us through approximately 100kms of deep and remote gorges. Completing the descent, we arrive at the small town of Dondo. We’ll head from here to Luanda, celebrate the expedition and spend time exploring before flying out. 

Mike Dawson and his team practicing on the Zambezi River. Credits: Mike Dawson

N: Who are you going with? And what’s the vibe amongst the team?

M: Everyone’s a bit nervous. There’s always a lot of eerie conversations before an expedition of this magnitude. It’s the fear of venturing into the unknown. The risks – both on and off the water – make this a lot different from your typical kayak expedition. This is especially true in Africa: once we jump on the river we’re going to fall a few rungs down the food chain.  

The most important part of a trip is the team. Fortunately, we’ve teamed up with some of the best whitewater kayakers on the planet. I’m joined by Dewet Michau (South Africa), Olypmian Pepe Gonclaves (Brazil) and Jake Holland (United Kingdom). Together we've got the skills to get it done and although there’s definitely a lot of apprehension, we think we’re a pretty strong team. Joining us is a world-class film crew that will document the journey along the river.

N: What aspects of the expedition are you particularly looking forward to?

M: There are a few things that really stand out for me on this expedition:

The Kwanza is one of the most beautiful rivers on the planet. The opportunity to see this river is mind-blowing, not to mention the opportunity to the first descent of the Lucala Gorge Section. This section, visible from space, offers 80kms of continuous whitewater.

Mike Dawson traversing Africa on his way to the Kwanza River, Angola. Credits: Mike DawsonThe journey across some the heart of Africa is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There’s nothing more satisfying than setting out on a trip into the middle of nowhere, with endless adventures and countless stories awaiting. The challenge of trying to accomplish our goal is secondary to the experiences shared by great mates, enjoying the special moments along the way. 

Angola is an incredibly beautiful country of stark contrasts. On the one hand, we will enjoy the beauty of pristine waterways, cascading waterfalls, endless coastline and stunning sunsets over towering rocky peaks. On the other hand, we will face intense poverty, the remnants of a 27-year civil war, polluted cities and the continual global pillaging of the nation’s natural resources.

N: What are some of the biggest challenges you will face? 

M: There are so many challenges: we have a multi-national team from three different continents, meeting together in Africa to operate in one of the planet’s most remote and hostile environments. 

However, the biggest challenge we will face is staying calm under pressure, in extremely volatile and risky environments. Our team will be faced with a variety of challenges throughout the expeditions: corrupt police, diamond miners, countless unexploded landmines, poaches, bandits and wildlife. And that's just off the water. 

On the river, we’ll be descending through unexplored gorges with blind corners. This means we will spend a lot of time trying to solve the puzzle presented by raging rapids and risky waterfalls. And then there’s the ever-present danger of hippos and crocodiles.  

We will be filming the trip and that creates another dynamic. We want to showcase Angola and the Kwanza River, but the presence of a film crew makes you much more exposed. Cameras can attract the type of attention that’s bad in some parts of Africa. We’re constantly figuring out how to mitigate these risks and document our journey. 

Mike Dawson practicing on the Zambezi River. Credits: Mike Dawson

N: If I took a look in your bag when you check it in, what would I find?

M: A lot of stuff! There’s kayaking gear: Personal Flotation Device (PFD), spray deck and helmet. On multi-day trips like this, we take a pretty large the rescue kit: abseiling gear, a pin kit to rescue someone trapped in the river, ropes for pulling people out of the water or crossing the river, and pullies to set up 3:1 drags. 

A ton of Ortlieb dry bags – used to stow our most important gear: bivy bag, sleeping mat, blanket, a change of clothes and our first aid kit, which includes malaria treatment, anti-venom, fire-starters and matches. 

An InReach device means we can track our position from the water using an iPhone and GSP co-ordinates.

Lots of Radix meals: these will keep the team fueled on the river, so we can focus on completing the descent. 

N: The moment the wheels leave the ground on your first flight, how do you think you’ll feel?

M:  I’ll feel relieved! So much work has gone into planning, and it will be great to see it come to fruition. A true adventure, the kind you find far off the beaten track – that’s where you really test yourself. The hardest part is stepping over the edge and taking the plunge into the unknown. The thing that gets me out of my comfort zone is knowing that as soon as I do it, it will be amazing!