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Big Read: Up the (very big) creek with a paddle

Kiwi Mike Dawson has kayaked in some of the world's most dangerous spots. Photo / Supplied
Kiwi Mike Dawson has kayaked in some of the world's most dangerous spots. Photo / Supplied

As if the Olympics are not enough of a challenge, Mike Dawson has sought adventure in some of the world's roughest spots, writes Andrew Alderson.

Mike Dawson faced a dilemma last October: Should he risk his life paddling over a 35m waterfall, or confront the machete-armed bloke running towards him down an embankment?

The Olympic slalom kayaker was navigating the Cuanza River in Angola, a waterway he thought looked "a curious place to explore" while randomly browsing an encyclopedia.

The 29-year-old had been on the water 10 hours, the sun was setting, and he had negotiated seven crocodile charges ("you just have to paddle faster than them").

Had Dawson gone over the cascade, his chances of survival were minimal. He pulled into the last eddy before the drop. Safety beckoned, until the knife-wielding local loomed. It wasn't exactly David-Livingstone-meets-Henry-Stanley.

"My mind was blown," Dawson says. "We were in one of the most remote parts of Africa, surrounded by canyons. I thought, 'this guy may never have seen kayakers, and he's angry'. Then the most amazing thing happened. We started yelling at him to find out what he was on about, and discovered he was warning us. He was terrified we would kayak off the waterfall."

Dawson and American adventurer Aaron Mann pulled their vessels from the water and ventured on to the man's farm. The Portuguese-English language barrier meant charades was the preferred dialect.

They discovered the man, Tony, was tending an acre of land and living with his family in mud huts with no power or road access. Tony cleared one of the shelters and indicated that's where they should stay. He then delivered a fresh fish as part of the room service, which his visitors politely refused.

"We told him, 'no mate, we're not taking dinner away from your family'," Dawson says.

Instead they ate their own freeze-dried delicacy, slept, spent a day in the fields, gave Tony's family some money for their help and headed off after skirting the river drop.


Dawson loves his lifestyle but it comes with a price - $40,000 to be precise - if he wants to reach the Rio Olympics. He topped qualifying at last year's world championships in Britain, but a mistake between the 12th and 13th gates saw him slip to 28th in the semifinals. He qualified New Zealand for the Games but the gaffe spoilt any chance of maintaining his high performance funding, a decision he accepts is fair.

Innovative thinking was required. It came in the form of a cookbook.

Dawson must sell 2000 copies of Eat Like the Locals: Healthy Recipes From All Over the World to meet his funding shortfall. No Angolan recipes - not even nude fish - feature but other overseas escapades compensate. The tome includes Czech goulash, Mexican tacos and the Italian creations which emerge from the homemade pizza oven he built in his parents' backyard.

"One of my best mates Vavra [Hradilek] was a silver medallist in London and we've known each other since we were juniors," Dawson explains. "The first time I went to his house, a villa in the Czech countryside, his mum had this pot cooking on the stove. It was homemade goulash with dumplings. Topped off with a pilsner and it's the most delicious thing I've eaten overseas.

"There are a few Mexican recipes in there, too, from kayaking along a river which felt like it flowed off the side of the Earth. You'd paddle all day, and stop off for soft homemade roadside tacos for a couple of pesos apiece on the way back."

Dawson is in the business of creating memories and describes his gastronomic digest as "an athlete story tale". He is this generation's Barry Crump, but drives a station wagon rather than a ute, and wears a spray skirt rather than a Swanndri. Last week, he shot down the West Coast to train with and film material for Brit rival Joe Clarke's Olympic campaign.


Intrepid conquers all for Dawson. He knows the cost of pursuing his Olympic dream and is willing to pay the price. He cites a mantra from American Sterling Hayden's book Wanderer.

"Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?"

Dawson says he takes safety precautions but not at the expense of experiencing how people live, as he discovered in South America when he broke his back and inhaled so much water he lost consciousness.

"It was just after the last Olympics and took me a good year or two to recover. I arrived at the hospital flat out in the back of a car. They chucked me in an ambulance and took me to another city.

"I didn't know exactly what was wrong, because the doctor was speaking Spanish, but it was scary. That's all part of the game. You realise you're not invincible. I'll always remember the chill of that water. It's a comfort zone thing and, the way I see it, that should help at the Olympics."

Dawson came 15th at London where he described going to the opening ceremony with his team manager father as his most rewarding moment in sport. His mum worked as an official at the same Olympics and famously marked her son down for a touch on the fifth gate of his heat.

Dawson once championed holding the Olympic canoe slalom in a natural environment, but the fairness and accessibility of man-made courses has changed his view because they showcase the sport to a wider audience. Nature provides places to explore; slalom courses offer arenas to compete.

"I also feel like I've made so much progression in technique on water with my coach of two-and-a-half years. I now love racing on artificial courses because they are so consistent. Nature is more changeable and unknown as a racing environment."

The Bay of Plenty native believes challenging life experiences should help condition him to adapt at Rio. That returns us to Angola.

In circumstances more akin to a James Bond MI6 operation than National Lampoon's Vacation, Dawson found himself wincing amid a posse of illegal diamond traders.

"Angola endured a 27-year civil war [1975-2002] and it's still not a country open to tourists. In Africa, you're at the mercy of things outside your control and we stumbled across a diamond mine trying to get around a section of river full of crocs and hippos.

"We drove down a track into a camp of about 250 people, some of whom were allegedly in the market to steal diamonds, a crime punishable by life in jail. That wasn't the problem so much as the fact the police and officials were trying to break it up. I spied a few handguns and things started getting pretty real."

Dawson and Mann's chutzpah saw them talk their way out, but it was a lesson which contrasted wealthy minority decadence and shantytown majority desperation.

An open mind is essential in Dawson's business, so the plan after the Olympics is to go higher. . . in the direction of K2 to be precise. He will paddle the Indus River near the Karakoram mountain range spanning the borders of India, Pakistan and China. It's the modern equivalent of Ed Hillary's 1977 Ocean to the Sky jetboating expedition up the Ganges.

"We'll be in north Pakistan, where the Indus is a key corridor as the biggest river on the Subcontinent. It'd be cool to go to those places because there's a lot of misunderstanding about the cultures and the people. We can go there as explorers and share their story while kayaking."

It seems regardless of the circumstances, Mike Dawson is immune to taking easy options.

- Herald on Sunday

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