Kayaking the Kwanza River to make Angola landmine-free

by Oscar Scafidi

In October 2015 my friend Alfy Weston wrote to me with a plan: we were going to become the first people in history to navigate the length of the Angola’s longest river, the River Kwanza. 

At first mention, this seemed like a ridiculous proposal. It would involve almost one thousand kilometres of kayaking, and hundreds of kilometres of hiking. There were no accurate maps. Nobody had any idea what wildlife lived on the upper stretches of the river, and the area was filled with illegal diamond miners. The only source of information about rapids and waterfalls was Google Earth. The Bié Plateau, where the source of the river is found, is one of the last remaining wilderness areas in Africa. In summary: this was going to be an epic task.

But we did have some advantages. The first was time. We gave ourselves a full nine months to plan and train before the start of the expedition. Our second advantage was Angola-expertise. I lived and worked in Angola for five years between 2009 and 2014. Alfy was still living in Angola at the time he sent his proposal through. We had networks of contacts that we could call on to help us with bureaucratic and logistical hurdles. Alfy’s presence in-country also meant that he could conduct recces on sections of the river, to determine what could be kayaked and what had to be hiked (or portaged, in kayaking parlance). Our final advantage was that Alfy had the right tool for the job: a Klepper Aerius II 545 Classic kayak. German-built in the 1960s, this collapsible wood and canvas design has been so successful that it is still used worldwide by special forces to this day. This five and a half metre craft was exactly what we needed to carry us the full length of the Kwanza River.

photos © Oscar Scafidi

Alfy and I decided very early on that if we were going to attempt such a crazy feat, it had to be for a good cause. The first one that sprung to mind was landmine clearance. The HALO Trust is the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian landmine clearance organisation. In 2012 I visited one of their minefields down in Cuito Cuanavale, in the south-east of Angola. This is known as Africa’s most landmined town, a terrible legacy of the Angolan Civil War, which raged from 1975 to 2002. We set a fundraising target of $10,000, which would pay for a nine-person team to do one month of mine clearance work in Cuito Cuanavale.

photos ©Oscar Scafidi

In June 2016 we set out into the unknown. Laden down with 115kg of gear, we were dropped at the source of the River Kwanza, which is a few hours south-east of the city of Huambo. If we had known what lay in store for us over the following month, I am not sure we would have stepped out of our tents the next morning.

photos © Oscar Scafidi

For the next thirty-three days we kayaked, we hiked and we waded. Some days we would have to carry all of our gear over rough terrain for more than thirty kilometres, to avoid rapids and waterfalls. Other days we would get up at 4:45am, get out on the water and paddle until sunset, sometimes clocking up over seventy kilometres of travel in a day. We met local fishermen and villagers as well as diamond miners. We also spent long stretches of time alone. Just us and the river. It was exhausting work, but we made good progress.

Things did not always go smoothly. We were bitten by insects, attacked by hippos and sank in rapids. We were even arrested by Angolan security forces and threatened with deportation. But despite all these obstacles, thirty-two days and twelve hours after we started, we paddled out into the Atlantic Ocean and completed our journey. In total, we raised $25,000 for The HALO Trust’s landmine clearance work in Angola, resulting in the removal of 214 landmines from the ground in Cuito Cuanavale. Our journey has also been recognized as a Guinness World Record.

photos © Oscar Scafidi

I have also written a book called Kayak The Kwanza, which can be purchased in print and e-book formats from Amazon or Unbound. I will donate 25% of the profits from book sales to The HALO Trust’s work in Angola, in the hope that we can make Angola landmine-free by the year 2025.

If you would like to find out more about our expedition, we have released a 52 minute documentary film on YouTube:

About Oscar Scafidi

Oscar Scafidi is originally from the UK and Italy and spent five years living and working in Luanda, Angola as a history teacher. He has lived, worked and travelled in over thirty African countries, and is currently based in Tunisia. When not teaching, Oscar writes travel journalism focusing on difficult destinations, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Liberia and Timor-Leste. In 2016 Oscar wrote the first English language guidebook to Equatorial Guinea, as well as completing the first ever source to sea navigation of Angola’s River Kwanza. Details of the expedition, including a documentary film of the 33 day journey and a book, can be found on his website www.kayakthekwanza.com. His latest book, The Bradt Travel Guide to Angola (3rd Edition) was published in July 2019. 

Oscar’s two latest projects for 2020 are to try and kayak the longest river in Madagascar (The Mangoky) and writing the first ever English-language guidebook to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.

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