The journey – Willem van Riet

This epic journey down the Kunene River by Willem van Riet and Gordon Rowe, from Matala in Angola to the Atlantic Ocean, through the previously unexplored gorge where the river cuts through the Baynes Mountains, ranks as one of the most important expeditions undertaken in the history of African river exploration.

If we had imagined that paddling down the Kunene involved blistering heat in a country of utter desolation, hunger, attacks by aggressive crocodiles and such back-breakings labour on the portages, perhaps we would have thought twice about our plans for exploring the lower reaches of this mighty river. Canoeists, like mountaineers, always set their sights on a bigger and tougher challenge, and after having canoed down most of South Africa’s largest rivers during the last six years, the Kunene had become my personal Everest. It was something I had to do; a final problem to be overcome. The idea of challenging the 750-mile Kunene, which first occurred to me when canoeing down the Orange, grew and grew until Gordon Rowe and I decided to have a crack at it.

Dr. Wipplinger of the South West African Department of Water Affairs, although doubtful of the outcome, was very helpful in giving us aerial survey pictures showing the course of the river, but which were unfortunately taken at too great a height to show much detail. The available maps proved of little use. Then the South West African Administration refused to grant us permission for the trip as they considered our plan impossible, and was not prepared to take the risk of having to organize possible rescue operations in such a remote area. Convinced that only a canoeist could tell whether the river was really impossible or not, we approached the authorities in Angola who put no obstacles in our way.


Our two moulded fibre-glass single-seater canoes, which had been built by Gordon in Johannesburg, were shipped to the port of Mocầmedes in Angola and then sent overland by rail to Matala on the river. They were 15.5 feet long and 2 feet in the beam, with a weight of 45 lbs. Our paddles were 90 inches long with fibre-glass blades. Knowing that there would be considerable portage around rapids and falls in the mountains, only the barest essentials were taken. We took no sleeping bags or tents, merely a waterproof cover and tracksuits to sleep in. This proved to be uncomfortable at first, but we soon got used to the hard ground and were grateful for the waterproof cover as it rained almost every night on the trip. Medical supplies, cameras and food virtually completed our kit.

The box of medical supplies included a snakebite outfit, chlorodine for diarrhoea, malaria tablets and antibiotics for fever, elastoplasts, needles, blades and a preparation for cuts and bruises. Penicillin and morphine could not be excluded as we could not rely on assistance after we had left Chitado. To supplement our diets we took vitamin and salt tablets. Before the trip we were inoculated against tetanus, typhoid, para-typhoid, yellow fever, smallpox and blackwater fever. Last but not least, we took a 12-bore shotgun with SSG shells and a .45 revolver for protection against crocodiles and for use in supplementing our larder. I had learned from experience on other rivers that crocodiles are very cowardly, but if they had never encountered humans before they attacked without hesitation. Our encounters with crocodiles were far worse than we expected, and the shotgun saved our lives on many occasions.

Our small bundle of kit was packed into two double-compartment Klepper waterproof bags measuring 30 inches by 15 inches. One compartment of these bags, when inflated, provided buoyancy for the canoes.

The Kunene River

The 750 mile long Kunene is one of the only two rivers that reach the Atlantic Ocean between latitudes 12º 34´ and 32º south, and for part of its course forms the boundary between Namibia and Angola. The Kunene and Orange Rivers, 1 200 miles apart, are the only two perennial rivers in South Western Africa that flow into the Atlantic Ocean.

The Kunene rises on the continental divide in the Angolan highlands in the vicinity of Nova Lisboa. From Lisboa it flows for hundreds of miles quietly to the south through the plains of Southern Angola until it reaches Matala where the Portuguese have built a large dam. Between Matala and the coast only two rivers join the Kunene, the Chitanda from the east and the Culuvar from the west. Shortly after leaving Matala the river drops over a rapid and enters the Southern Angolan sandveld to flow sluggishly for 200 miles between a high sandstone bank on the left and a marsh, haunted by thousands of waterfowl, extending about 1 000 yards to the right.

In the past, the Kunene is thought to have flowed south into the Etosha Pan and then continued to the east. Thousands of years ago silting caused it to be captured by a small coastal river which diverted it to the west.

After turning to the south-west, the river meanders calmly about 100 miles to Erikson’s Drift (named after a South West African trader of the last century) at the western edge of the plateau. About five miles beyond Erikson’s Drift it drops over the 35 foot high Kavale Rapids and starts a 22 mile descent down waterfalls, cascades and rapids, with a total drop of over 450 feet, to the Ruacana Falls where, 800 yards wide, it falls 406 feet into a gorge.

From Erikson’s Drift the river rapidly descends an escarpment 3 000 feet high through the Kaokoveld to the coast. The Kaokoveld, one of the great wilderness areas of Southern Africa, and for long a blank on the map, lies between the Kunene River in the north, the Ugab in the south, the Atlantic Ocean in the west, and is bounded on the east by a line drawn between the Brandberg and the Ruacana Falls. Entry into this area is by permit only, mainly because it is a Native Reserve, but also because of its remoteness and inaccessibility. The 300 mile coastline of the Kaokoveld is a vague, misty loneliness. Further inland the dunes make way for ridge upon ridge of sandstone stretching to the east – a mountainous area where many periodic streams carve a way through the mountains only to find death in the endless sands.

After leaving the Ruacana Gorge, the Kunene turns to the west, flowing slowly over relatively flat country for about 90 miles until it is 130 miles from the coast; here, after cutting a valley of thousand feet deep through the Zebra Mountains below Zwartboois Drift, it pours over the 200 foot Epupa Falls. Dropping steeply, the river disappears into a wild, hitherto unexplored gorge in the Baynes Mountains until it appears again in the sandy Marienfluss Valley on the edge of the Namib Desert. Soon the river leaves the only place where it can be reached between the Epupa Falls and the coast, to disappear again in a rock channel on its last drop through the Namib Desert to the coast.

Early Explorers

In 1900-1901 Dr. G Hartmann journeyed to the Lower Kunene, but the river was still largely unexplored in 1911 when an Englishman named Maudsley Baynes embarked on an expedition down the river on foot from Erikson’s Drift. Below the Epupa Falls he was forced to skirt the river which he described as flowing far below him in a rocky channel between vertical walls of rock 1 000 feet high. Baynes only saw the river again when he crossed it at Marienfluss Valley, the only place where he could find a ford. His journey, which started in holiday fashion, developed into a struggle for survival lasting 93 days. The Baynes Mountains were named after him. It was this 60 mile unexplored gorge in the Baynes Mountains that we wished to penetrate.

The Trip

After six frustrating days waiting in Sá da Bandeira near Matala for our canoes to arrive by rail from the coast, we launched our canoes on the Kunene on January 18, 1965. Porridge oats, rice, packet soups and sugar made up our supplies. With a few Portuguese shaking their heads in doubtful fashion, we dipped paddles into the water and set off amid shouts of warning and good luck. And how we were going to need that good luck!

Above Matala, with the addition of six tributaries, the Kunene becomes a major waterway.

With every dip of the paddles we felt confidence reasserting itself in our doubtful minds, and after shooting a few rapids, we camped in the twilight that night on clean, white sand among majestic palm trees. Confident, we fell asleep, only to be awakened by a soft, drenching rain that would occur almost every night until we reached the Namib. With the sun’s golden rays shining on the picturesque surroundings, we started the second day of our adventure by cruising on deep pools and between numerous islands covered by reed and cane. Only occasionally was the calm river disturbed by rapids. No hippos could be seen, but ripples spreading from the banks of the river indicated the presence of crocodiles. Late in the afternoon, the river picked up speed and split up into several smaller streams falling rapidly between rocks to a narrow gorge between the hills as it started to enter the Kalahari sandveld.

We managed to control the small but versatile canoes through the fast rapids until on the third day, due to over-confidence or perhaps carelessness, I can’t say, we suddenly found ourselves being pushed along helplessly by the surging rapids. As if by some giant force, a whirlpool threw Gordon’s canoe against a boulder and in a moment he had disappeared beneath the water with his canoe and paddle swirling downstream. Caught unawares, he was almost drowned, but luckily he managed to struggle to the bank exhausted. I dived in and managed to recover his canoe and paddle which had fortunately come to rest on a rock further downstream.

On the morning of January 20 we shot the last of the rapids before entering the Kalahari sandveld. Rocks and boulders made way for thorn trees, mopani bush or vast swamps of reeds, watercane and water lilies inhabited by thousands of Egyptian and Spurwing geese and other waterfowl, including a few Knobnose ducks and stately Goliath herons. We had still not yet come across any hippo. I must add, ‘fortunately’, because my experience on the Sabie with one of these lumbering beasts has made me very chary of dense beds of reeds. From the inhabitants on the banks we learnt that most of the game in this area has been shot out and only a few wandering elephants and lions visit the river nowadays.

The next few days were relatively uneventful. Slowly but surely we left the Portuguese outposts behind, Capelongo, Mulonde… Now and again we met Ovambos paddling along in their dugouts. The nights were magnificent. We sat around a flickering campfire listening to the sounds of people or civilization, but the sounds of the wild. The sounds of the Africa of yesterday.

Villa Rocardas to the Ruacana Falls

After paddling through the marshes on the morning of January 24, we reached Villa Rocardas where there is a pontoon ferry across the river. We picked up supplies of bread, rice, canned meat, a few tins of sardines, oatmeal and sugar. Back on the river, we paddled past the Culuvar River coming in on the right, flowing strongly. With no crocs or hippos in sight, we had a swim at lunchtime before pressing onwards. From the summit of one of the two prominent koppies, where the river turns to the west, we could see the plains of Ovamboland stretching into the distance to the north and east. Towards the west, we could see the Sierra Cana hills about 22 miles away.

A day’s journey down river from Villa Rocardas we passed Erikson’s Drift at the end of the highveld. About five miles below the Drift, the Kunene commences, with the Upper Kavale rapids, a descent of approximately 450 feet in 22 miles down endless waterfalls and rapids until it reaches the Ruacana Falls.

We carried our canoes and equipment around the 55 foot high Upper Kavale rapids with lightning streaking through the massive blue-black thunder clouds building up to the north. After a distance of 200 yards from the upper drop, the main stream cascades down a series of rapids towards the right. We couldn’t see around the corner and continued down the left-hand channel, which is divided from the rest of the channels by a high ridge overgrown with mopani and thorn trees. After 250 yards, the river then turns sharply to the right before shooting 30 feet out in torrent into a large pool below. We saw this in the nick of time, and by paddling madly we managed to avert disaster by beaching on the left-hand bank of the river. That night we camped in heavy rain and lightning on a koppie on the left bank. We were drenched and shivering, and the fire, after a brief struggle to survive, gave up the ghost. Even in the rain, the ubiquitous mosquitoes were there to add to our misery. Next morning, the river level was high with the fast-flowing water a dirty brown.

For hours we struggled down small streams through the rocks on the right of the river, with the main stream hugging the left bank, in order to skirt the main rapids. Several portages were required, and tired and disheartened, we decided to attempt to canoe down the rapids to save carrying, a move that nearly turned into a disaster. Battling through white-water, Gordon suddenly overturned and had to swim to the bank. With dismay we watched his canoe tossed down the rapids to get stuck, by a lucky chance, on a rock island near the lip of a thundering fall. Anxiously I scrambled upstream and then drifted down to the island with a paddle in order to reach the canoe and paddle upstream and then drifted down to the island with a paddle in order to reach the canoe and paddle upstream away from the danger area. Very despondent, we camped on the evening of January 26 on the left bank with the rain again pounding down around us.

A brief reconnaissance the next morning, the 27th, revealed an easing up in the drop of the riverbed. Very tired after shooting rapids and carrying the canoes and supplies round unshootable rapids, we arrived, after covering ten miles, at noon at a discouraging scene. The river entered a narrow gorge of not more than 15 yards wide and, as far as the eye could see, there was one large rapid after another. On the edge of despair, we carried the canoes for three miles through dense mopani bush on the hills on the left bank, returning to fetch the supplies. Back on the river at last, we recklessly shot a few rapids until we reached a big pool which we knew was about two miles above the Ruacana Falls. Worn-out, we decided to camp at the pool for the night; huddled under a groundsheet, we listened to the thunder of the Ruacana Falls carried on the wind. Dozing, I was suddenly awakened by a sharp pain on the elbow and there, in the dim light of the torch, was a black scorpion. A flash of fear shot through me as the terrible stories I had heard of the fatal bite of this feared scorpion flashed through my mind. Luckily for me, as we had no antidote, the sting was on the thick skin on my elbow, and apart from several hours of acute pain and discomfort, there were no ill effects. That night we killed nine scorpions which had been hiding in a log of firewood.

Ruacana Falls

After splitting up into hundreds of channels towards the edge, the Kunene plunges some 400 feet over the Ruacana Falls into a narrow canyon. By a stroke of luck we found the track around the falls on the Portuguese side fairly easily. We fixed our harnesses, hooked on our canoes and lugged them down the two-mile detour to the bottom of the falls. We then returned to fetch our supplies. What a magnificent sight the falls are! In a shallow curve the crest of the fall stretches across the riverbed. The main channel is on the right where most of the water is concentrated in the dry season. The other large channel is on the left, and between the two, hundreds of small streams cascade down the 2 300 foot wide moss-covered face. For hours we explored the area taking numerous photographs. Needing rest, we sagged down on the sand in the shade a mile below the falls where there is a pleasant pool with reeds. Nearby there is a rest-camp on the Namibian side of the river and great was our astonishment to see a jeep on the bank. The jeep-driver, a doctor from Ovamboland, told us that he knew about us, but nobody had even given us a chance of getting this far. All too soon he had to leave for Ondangua, leaving us food and his best wishes.

After a comfortable night, without rain for a change, we floated our canoes and paddled off under a cloudy sky. The river was slow flowing without rapids. The southern bank of the river was overgrown with mopani trees, and to our surprise we spotted two herds, one of ten and one of twelve, of the rare black-faced Impala which are believed to be on the verge of extinction. After thirty miles of fairly calm water from the Ruacana Falls, we negotiated a small fall called Ondurusa and entered another stretch of rapids before arriving at the last of the Kunene drifts. Some of these rapids had to be avoided by portages and some we shot with the canoes being thrown about like matchsticks. Wet from the continuous rain, and with cut, bruised feet, we paddled into a long straight pool at the end of which laid Zwartboois Drift. At the drift the water flows fast over rock pebbles and the river is amazingly small with no falls or even big rapids. It was at Zwartboois Drift, in 1881, that the Thirstland Trekkers crossed the Kunene into Angola. We spent January 31 at Chitado, a small Portuguese settlement about five miles from the river. By now our feet had been badly cut about and bruised, so we had them attended to by a male nurse at the settlement. Chitado was the last place where we could pick up supplies; we therefore had to plan what we needed in detail. We could not carry much weight, and yet we had to take enough to see us through the unknown 175 miles ahead.

Until now we had lived on oats porridge in the morning, sardines on bread for lunch, and soup, bully beef and bread at night. When we could, we bagged wild duck (which we roasted over the fire) to relieve the monotony. In view of the difficulties ahead, we allowed food for twelve days to see us through to the coast. The most that we could carry was two tins of compressed oats, 5 lbs of sugar, twenty packets of powdered soup, 4 lbs of rice, five small rolls of Portuguese bread, ten tins of sardines and four tins of bully beef. Was it enough? It had to be. Later we would look back and realize that this provided insufficient calories for our needs. We hadn’t realized that we had been considerably weakened by fourteen days without nutritious food and that we were not nearly as strong as we should have been.

With these supplies, and our experience to guide us, we left Chitado the following morning to experience some of the toughest days I have spent in my life. Every dip of the paddle was one stroke further from human assistance.

Ahead lay the untrodden Baynes Mountains. The first day’s paddling went without a hitch. Shortly after Zwartboois Drift, the Kunene cuts into the Zebra Mountains, the striped hills named by Baynes, with slopes rising steeply from the river banks. As the river turns to the north, the Rio dos Elefantes and two other dry streams enter on the Angolan side. According to the Portuguese, these parts are frequented by elephant, rhino and lions, but we did not see any. We did, however, come on our first hippo in the Kunene, a small group of seven with another three a few miles further on.

Epupa Falls

For the 60-odd miles from Zwartboois Drift, the character of the river changes little, until about 12 miles above the Epupa Falls the river enters a rock zone with rapids. Suddenly, without any warning, we spotted a fine mist hanging above the river ahead. “Could it be the Epupa already?” I asked Gordon. We steered our canoes to the bank, and from there we beheld a fantastic sight. The mighty Kunene, which was as smooth as a mirror a short distance back and 100 yards wide, thunders down 200 feet into a slit that is only 20 feet across. The main stream enters the crest in the shape of an elongated horseshoe, but a few smaller streams enter from the side, shooting across the gorge to hit the opposite wall before disappearing in a fine spray of mist.

We carried the canoes around the falls with the help of two Ovahimbas who look after the rest huts of the then SWA Administration. Full of awe, they attempted to explain to us that it was impossible to follow the river through the mountains. We were now embarking on the most dangerous part of the trip – no one had ever been there before us, and we knew that if we had an accident in the gorges there was no way out on foot. We would be absolutely on our own. Once we set off on the 120 mile journey to the sea, there could be no turning back: we would be imprisoned by the Shamalindi Mountains on one side and the Baynes Mountains on the other.

The Lower Kunene Gorge

We refloated our canoes in the gorge below the falls. This was it! It nearly was, too, for no sooner had we entered the gorge when I saw a crocodile swimming straight for Gordon who was ahead. My shout of warning was drowned by the thunder of the falls. Luckily Gordon looked over his shoulder, saw by my actions that something was wrong, and sighting the crocodile, swung at it with his paddle. Frantically he dug his paddle in the water and shot between two boulders, inches ahead of the croc. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was short-lived, for the crocodile immediately turned around and came straight for me. “Make for the bank” was my only thought – the shotgun was completely forgotten. Shotgun in hand I leapt out of my canoe, slipped and landed up to my neck in the water. In record time I struggled out of the water, scrambled up the bank, and shotgun to shoulder gave the crocodile an overdue shot. Much too close for my liking.

Pale, we continued downstream only to be attacked shortly afterwards by another crocodile coming out of a rapid. This time the shotgun was ready and the blast scared him off. Every 100 yards or so the gorge narrowed, with rock dams forming rapids between the pools. We were unable to shoot these rapids as the maelstrom at the bottom was too rough, so time and time again we had to carry the canoes and gear around the boulders on the bank. That afternoon, February 2, we were forced to leave the river and carry the canoes up the cliffs and along the mountains for about two miles. The river curled below us in continuous rapids. We were forced to camp high above the water, clothes and skin torn to bits by the thorn bushes; our feet were also blistered and cut from jumping on to the rocks. We had been forced to fire at six crocodiles, shooting one-handed at them with the other hand holding the paddle. A nerve-wrecking experience, for they had no fear for us and sometimes the noise of the shot did not scare them off so that we had to hit them with buckshot before they disappeared.

On the morning of February 3 we were forced out on the bank again and again until at midday the river dropped into a gorge with granite cliffs rising sheer from the water. We were forced to climb 700 feet up the mountainside, pulling and pushing our canoes with our hands, hauling first the one canoe and then the other. We seemed to become breathless at the smallest exertion and it took the whole day to climb up and down to the river again.

Although we were exhausted, we made reasonable progress the next morning largely due to the river flowing out of the granite area into a valley of soft sandstone where there were a few deserted Ovahimba huts. Our relief was short-lived, for about two miles further on the Kunene flowed straight between two huge cliffs, 1 000 feet high. Should we go in? We were scared of waterfalls, but another look at the height rapids, but attacks by crocodiles continued. I shot at two close to the canoe – one grabbed the back of the canoe but let go again. That night we camped just before the river entered the last stretch of the Baynes Mountains proper. A crocodile hit the back of a canoe whilst we were getting out on the bank. Very lonely, hungry and extremely tired we sank on to the sand. It was a place of utter desolation; apart from elephant spoor and the lonely grave we discovered, there was nothing. A fearsome place in our weary dejected state.

Knowing that we had to press on, however despondent we might be, we shot rapid after rapid on February 5. Towards afternoon we entered a very narrow cut in the granite – little more than 20 feet wide. The walls shot straight up and seemed to lean inwards at the top. The turbulence of the water was incredible, forcing us to fight for our lives to remain in our canoes. After a mile we were out of the gorge, but those were the worst hours of my life. I did not expect to come out alive. We were just beginning to regain our composure when, after making good progress and shooting rapid after rapid, both Gordon and I were capsized by the force of the water. We managed to reach the bank safely and recover our canoes and supplies, grateful that there were no hungry crocodiles on the prowl! At 4 p.m. the gorge was already in deep shadow when we were forced by falls ahead to make camp in a little hollow with the thunder of the falls echoing from the high walls.

Gordon had a lucky escape during the day. While he was standing on the bank near his canoe a crocodile suddenly shot out of the water and lunged at him; just as it snapped its jaws closed, its front feet slipped on the canoe, missing Gordon by inches. On another occasion a crocodile came up beneath my canoe after I had taken a shot at it and I was lucky to avoid being capsized. We were interested to note that the floodwater level in the gorge was about 80 feet up the walls; obviously not a pleasant place to be in when the river is in flood.

Precious hours were wasted on the morning of February 6 carrying around the fast rapids and a waterfall of 20 feet; these were created by huge boulders dropping into the river from the cliffs and are not natural barriers. At least we didn’t have to carry around the waterfall, because in consternation we saw my canoe suddenly ripped by the current from its safe pool. Helpless, we saw the canoe hesitate on the edge of the fall for a moment, only to be dragged over by tons of water. For a few moments it was out of sight, and then suddenly it shot like a rocket out of the water and, as if by a miracle, came to rest in a narrow inlet.

This couldn’t go on indefinitely, we thought, as we pushed our canoes back into the river and, at last, after seemingly endless hours of struggle against the rushing water, the gorge was left behind and the now pacified river flowed out into the Marienfluss Valley. It was unbelievable – we felt as if we had escaped from a prison, and for the first time after leaving the Epupa Falls we saw a few thorn trees on the banks. With relief and in a state of near exhaustion, we headed for the bank to rest. Behind us lay the terrible Kunene gorge, we were now 220 miles from the Commissioner at Ohopo, 440 miles from the nearest town, and ahead 60 miles still to go to the mouth of the Kunene. We were at 1 100 feet above sea level with the trackless Namib Desert between us and the mouth of the Kunene on the Skeleton Coast.

Through the Namib

Extremely depressed and lethargic, we seemed to have an insatiable hunger no matter how full of rice and soup we were. We were weak from our unbalanced diet and every movement was an effort. During the night the rain poured down again; even on the edge of the desert it couldn’t leave us alone.

On the morning of February 7 we struggled with our canoes and gear around a shallow gorge for about a mile before being able to take to the Kunene again. Large grey-black cliffs enclosed the river and the only vegetation to be seen was on the immediate banks. It looked as if a tornado had hit the area, but it was clear from the tracks that a herd of elephants had been feeding. What a struggle they must have to keep alive in this country! The flat water didn’t last very long and soon we encountered another stretch of rapids in a narrow gorge. After the several hours of portage over rocks and boulders we had reached the end of our tether. We sank exhausted against the rocks. Even walking without loads had now become a torture. The seemingly endless rapids and rocks ahead suddenly looked impossible and we felt that we just could not carry around them in our present state. The only way out of our difficulties seemed to be to find the track to Ohopo from the Marienfluss Valley. With only a little porridge and no water, we set out to cross the Hartmans Mountains to try and reach the Commisioner at Ohopo. Only three miles from where we left the canoes, with the sun beating mercilessly down on us, we came to our senses and realized the foolishness of this plan. We would never have reached Ohopo. There was only one way out, and that was to reach the Portuguese outpost at the river mouth as soon as possible. So back to the canoes we went.

A short stretch of calm water revived our hopes to a certain extent, but they were dashed again by fast rapids between two almost sheer cliffs 800 feet high. I looked in despair at Gordon, and on his face I could see traces of the strain and hardship of the past two weeks. We decided to camp for the night before attempting to portage to where, we hoped, the river would become navigable again.

That night the river came down in flood and in the morning the water level was close to our fireplace. We carried the canoes, one by one, and then the supplies, to the top of the sandstone cliffs from where we could see the sand dunes of the Namib stretching to the south, and to the north, the gray-black mass of granite and other rock. Far below the river seemed to flow undisturbed through long, calm pools. With revived hope we ventured again on the river feeling that our difficulties could not last much longer. A few crocodiles emerged from the brown water in several attempts to have us for lunch, but with an air verging on disdain we fired at them to scare them off.

Towards evening the notorious desert wind sprang up and tried to blow us back from where we had come. With heads down, we battled to make headway into the wind and so we did not notice at first the entrance to another series of gorges. Too late, we saw the first of the rapids, which I managed to get through, but when I glanced back I saw Gordon being thrown out of his canoe by giant waves five feet high. Over and over he went, clinging to his unsinkable craft. Against the rock wall in the pool below I tried to pull him out, but the water was too strong and we were pulled back into the next series of rapids. The whole river beat against the sheer wall of the rock and recoiled in wild brown waves. How on earth were we going to get through this? With a cold sinking feeling in my stomach, I entered the waves and miraculously got through only to see Gordon disappearing with his canoe under water. He appeared again a few moments later. At last we managed to pull out to the right bank. As we couldn’t go any further that night we decided to camp.

We camped near the last major obstacle, a deep gorge about 30 miles from the sea. We judged it impossible to canoe through the gorge as the walls looked 500 feet high, and our aerial photograph seemed to indicate many falls and rapids. If we went in we might never be able to emerge.

Long before the sun was up on February 9, we struggled up the soft, gray, shale-like rock of the cliff on one side of the gorge. We could only manage to carry one canoe at a time and then only for a short distance before we sank on the ground exhausted. The swelling of our feet was causing acute discomfort. Four hours of agony took us at last down to the water where we finished off the last of our sugar and porridge. It was essential that we reach our destination that day.

The river was still very narrow, running between huge boulders. Crocodiles continued to attack us and since the Epupa Falls we had fired some 60 times. Towards midday the Kunene entered a curious series of reed-enclosed pools 10 miles in length, and then for the last 15 miles to the coast entered a narrow rock valley strewn with rapids. The rocks on the south bank keep the ever-shifting sand at bay, but every now and then rivers of sand flow over the barrier into the water. The north bank is completely devoid of sand and the river seems to be the barrier. The desolation of the country must be seen to be believed. To the north, the rock stretched to the gray horizon, and towards the south, sand dune after sand dune stretched into the distance as far as one could see.
Only in the last mile did the river slow down. Without warning, a white speck appeared on the right bank of the river – the Portuguese pumping station at last. We had made it! The Portuguese were at first suspicious of us, but then with typical hospitality they assisted us to the hut. From this lonely outpost the Portuguese pump water 40 miles up the coast to the fishing factories at Baia dos Tigres. Thin and physically exhausted, we were happy to escape alive.

Would I ever do the trip again? It would take a lot of persuasion, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity of seeing one of the last unexplored areas left in Africa. It is an experience and an adventure that I shall never forget.


Willem van Riet is considered the granddad of river exploration in Southern Africa. His well known book Stroom af in my Kano (Downstream in my Canoe), published in 1969, in which he described his journeys down five of Southern Africa’s major rivers, inspired two generations of paddlers to head downstream in search for their own adventures.

In 1961, Willem was the first teenager to paddle the 1000 miles of Orange River from Aliwal North to its mouth at Alexander Bay. Prior to undertaking the Kunene adventure, which is vividly described here, he also paddled down the Limpopo, Pongola and Sabie Rivers; on the latter river his canoe was actually bitten in half by a hippo.

The exposure to the wilderness on these and subsequent river journeys, both in Africa and on other continents, combined with his love of nature, led him to become a landscape architect. He continued his academic career in conservation and spent twenty years as head of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Pretoria.

Professor Willem van Riet is an expert in environmental planning and environmental impact studies, and is currently the chairman of the Transboundary Conservation Foundation.

The following account of the Kunene journey was first published in the 1965 Annual of the Mountain Club of South Africa.