Angola is still scarred by a 27-year civil war. Olympic kayaker Mike Dawson thinks tourism may help heal the wounds.

Rumours of unexploded landmines, war-ravaged communities, violent crime, poverty and chaos were all common themes as American paddler Aaron Mann and I prepared for an historic kayaking expedition to Angola.

It's no wonder the brakes had been put on many an adventurous tourists' quest to explore the untouched beauty of this West African nation.

But it was the other whispers — talk of incredible rivers and stunning scenery — that captured our imagination, and any lingering fears were put to rest when we landed in Luanda, Angola's capital.

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Humble, honest faces welcomed us, smiles beaming despite years of brutal hardship and war.

Wherever we went, the Angolan people were excited to see tourists visiting their homeland, exploring the rugged beauty this relatively untouched African nation provides.

Local kids in Angola .Photo / Mike Dawson
Local kids in Angola .Photo / Mike Dawson

Luanda is like no other capital in Africa, a city of stark contrasts between those who have and those who don't.

It's a place where the oil, energy and mining companies rule — the majority of foreigners are here for business and to earn a quick buck. Skyscrapers tower above the jam-packed roads, scratching the sky like clean, shiny mountain peaks, while below shanty towns blanket the vacant land stretching for miles along the jagged coastline of the Atlantic Ocean.

American kayaker Aaron Mann with Kiwi Olympic paddler Mike Dawson. Photo / Mike Dawson
American kayaker Aaron Mann with Kiwi Olympic paddler Mike Dawson. Photo / Mike Dawson

Senses come alive with the noise, smells and vibrancy of the never-sleeping city, as intriguing markets and street vendors syphon dollars from your pockets. The hustle and bustle subsided as we left the city and horizons filled with jaw-dropping scenery.

We headed out of the chaos, travelling 70km south to the Kwanza River Lodge, a beautiful fishing location on the edge of the Atlantic at the Barra De Kwanza (Kwanza River mouth). Unspoiled and unexplored beaches stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions, bordered by rugged tree-laden forests blanketing the African plains.

The Kwanza River is the spirit of Angola, providing food, water and energy for much of the population. The river twists and turns, cutting a path through the red dirt as it drops from the highlands of the Bie Plateau.

It runs through the Kissima National Park, before meeting the Atlantic in a turbulent mess of salty waves.

The lower stretches of the river have a continual stream of locals, heading out into the Atlantic for supplies of fish to feed their communities.

But we were heading up river, where coastal plains gave way to massive rock structures climbing into the interior.

Kwanza's upper waters, which to our knowledge had never before been kayaked, are crystal-clear and home to an abundance of wildlife. Elephants from Kissima cool themselves from the harsh African sun, giraffes stroll by, monkeys roam the trees and birds sing from above. Toothier specimens lurk just beneath the surface.

Recording first descents of the Kwanza and Keve Rivers was incredible, spectacular scenery mingled with spine-tingling rapids and waterfalls and exciting moments with the crocodile population.

There is truly nothing to compare with the knowledge you've paddled somewhere no blade has dipped before you. We spent hours soaking it in, filming, mapping and documenting the rapids and flow of the rivers in these remote, uncharted gorges.

But our off-river adventures also continued to be memorable, with friendly locals — people who have so little — welcoming us into their little villages, inviting us to eat and stay. Offering bundles of kwanzas (the national currency) often caused slight offence — they were just excited to finally showcase their home to the world, quick to offer whatever they could. Their friendly natures and ever-present smiles were heartwarming.

Aaron Mann. Photo / Mike Dawson
Aaron Mann. Photo / Mike Dawson

There was only one really sketchy moment of the trip. Paddling into a fairly croc-infested section on the Kwanza, we decided to carry our kayaks around it but stumbled into an illegal diamond mine on the edge of the river.

The police were raiding it at the time and there were pretty scary moments as guns were waved around and identification demanded but some fast-talking got us out of there.

We still had time for some quick sightseeing in the Kissama National Park, crossing bridge after bridge of clear water spilling out of the high plateau, tantalising us with rivers still to be paddled.

The only scarce resource in this hidden African wonderland seems to be time to explore it all. I'm making plans to go back.

Giraffes in the wild.
Giraffes in the wild.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

flies weekly from Auckland to Luana (via Melbourne and Dubai, codeshare with Emirates).

Detail: Mike Dawson and Aaron Mann were supported on their Expedition Angola by Ortlieb. For more information, contact Kwanza River Lodge and their amazing staff who will help you plan and co-ordinate your trip.

Visa information: Visitors can get a visa on arrival for tourist stays of fewer than 30 days.