Kayak The Kwanza
The first source-to-mouth expedition along Angola's longest river
In June 2016 Oscar Scafidi and his friend Alfy Weston kayaked, hiked and waded 1,300km along Angola’s longest river, the Kwanza. They raised over USD25,000 for The HALO Trust’s landmine removal work in Angola.
Oscar is a 33 year old travel writer, risk consultant and history teacher, of British and Italian heritage. He has visited 30 African countries in the last 10 years. He wrote the Equatorial Guinea guide for Bradt Travel Guides and contributed to their Angola guide.
How did he manage the money and media side of it all? The charity fundraising? The (pending) Guinness World Record? And what is happening now with the film and the book?
making a living
Oscar is a history teacher at International Schools, a risk consultant and a travel writer.
Working as an international school teacher is a decent gig, with a tax free salary and free accommodation. Risk consultancy pays well too. It's just travel writing that is the poor earner. In many ways I have to subsidise that with my other work!
HISTORY TEACHER AT INTERNATIONAL SCHOOLS
My year immediately after graduation from Oxford University was completely wasted doing menial jobs in the UK. This could have been avoided if I had started planning my post-university life before I had actually graduated! In the end, and on a whim, I took a teaching job in Khartoum, Sudan, which completely changed my life. This was my first time outside Europe and it was eye-opening. One trip to Africa and I was hooked.
Not only did I realise that I really enjoyed teaching and living abroad, but I also saw that this was a difficult job and I needed to get properly qualified! I returned to the UK and immediately set about getting a PGCE from Exeter University (the best history training course I could find). I then joined a recruitment agency called Search Associates, who organise job fairs worldwide to bring together international school recruiters and candidates. It was through going to their job fairs in London that I found work in both Angola and Madagascar.
I was hooked on the idea of Angola after reading Another Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuściński. Also I wanted to learn Portuguese and keep working in Africa, which didn't leave many options!
I worked as a History teacher at Luanda International School in Angola until 2014, when I left for professional reasons. I had been there for 5 years and it was time to move on. Also, I had an offer to write the Bradt Guide to Equatorial Guinea, which would be a full-time job.
In June 2017 I moved out to Antananarivo, Madagascar, again to teach History at an international school.
How do you get into risk consultancy? Oscar's tips for starting out.
- Choose a region and specialise in it. Ideally, a region where your insight can add some value. Nobody wants another US analyst! Do a related course on it at uni: loads of intelligence and risk related courses out there. Or, you could have a go at something like the Good Judgment Project which is free.
- Keep up to date on the geopolitical situation by scouring the news or setting up your own monitoring system on Hootsuite etc. Your social and professional network is really important here. Build it!
- Learn languages. Lot of them, preferably ones spoken in the region you want to cover.
- Prior experience of visiting, living or working in the region you want to cover is a huge bonus. Even taking a crappy TEFL role would be a potentially good career move if it put you in the right place.
- Try to get a job as a contributor for one of the major risk analysis / business intelligence firms. They are always desperate for people on the ground in the places they want to cover. This is a great way of getting a foothold in the industry.
- Apply for an entry-level contractor position. These are advertised all over LinkedIn etc.
Oscar writes travel journalism focusing on difficult destinations, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Liberia and East Timor. In 2016 Oscar wrote the first English language guidebook to Equatorial Guinea.
How did he get into travel writing?
The short version: I did it for free until people were willing to pay me for it, mainly on adventure travel sites such as Polo's Bastards.
What advice does he have for aspiring travel writers?
Make sure you're passionate about it, because there are definitely easier ways to make a living! Also, make use of social media, it's incredibly useful for building up networks of contacts and favours.
The best piece of advice I was given was by Sean Rorison, one of the authors of the first Bradt Guide to Angola in 2009. He said that travel writing is all about stacking up jobs. If you are going somewhere to write an article for someone, try to pitch different articles based on the same location to other publications. The more jobs you can stack onto one plane fare, the more efficient you are being in terms of your expense.
How did he come to focus on Equatorial Guinea?
My fascination with the country began many years ago, while I was living and working in Angola. A friend and I planned an overland expedition from Luanda. In the end we were given visas for every country except Equatorial Guinea. I was intrigued as to what fantastic sights this tiny country was hiding.
The first challenge is obtaining a tourist visa. This is such an unusual request that most embassies will have little idea how to deal with your application. Once you are in-country, there is additional bureaucracy to deal with, getting tourism and photography permits. Once you have all the necessary paperwork, you really are free to go anywhere within the territory. Outside the centres [with expatriate workers] you are generally on your own to explore the beaches, archaeological ruins, waterfalls and natural landmarks that (anywhere else) would be packed with tourists!
Planning and funding
How did the Kayak the Kwanza expedition come about?
I enjoy travel in difficult and isolated parts of Africa. I also enjoy a challenge. I had left Angola in June 2014 and wanted an excuse to go back. Alfy was still working in Angola, but had found out that he was soon going to be transferred by his work to Hong Kong. He had a two month gap before having to report for duty in Hong Kong.
He was the one who came up with the idea for the expedition: he already had the Klepper kayak in-country and had already done a shorter expedition with his brothers on the lower stretches of the Kwanza River. I guess he knew I would be the only person stupid enough to say yes to his idea of trying the whole river!
What did the trip cost and how did they pay for it?
I read a while ago that the best adventure travel sponsor in the world was JustEat (or maybe it was Uber?) Either way, the point of the comment was that nobody is going to give you free stuff to go on an expedition, so don't waste time trying to attract sponsors. Just accept you'll be spending your own money on it and then go out and earn what you need to make it happen!
Alfy and I set a budget of GBP3000 each for the trip (about USD4500 each back then). This had to cover all our expedition gear, food, transport, insurance, filming gear etc. We spent our own money on that - the USD25,000 we raised in sponsorship for The HALO Trust was not used to cover any of our expenses.
We tried hard to find sponsors to give us free gear, and we got some good discounts from Voltaic (solar charging gear), Werner (paddles) and Water-To-Go (water filtration) but generally speaking no company is going to give a pair of unknowns money or free gear to go and do something potentially dangerous! We had to save money from work to pay for the expedition.
How did they do the planning and training for the trip?
I think once you've set yourself a budget then the rest is easy: do the training, get the gear, do your research and then go out and have a go. I had never kayaked more than for about 30 minutes before this expedition. So I joined a kayaking club, told them what I was planning and did a lot of training on the River Thames in London. I also went to a whitewater rafting centre and did some safety courses. Again, they were more than willing to help.
The internet is a great resource: you can contact loads of people with relevant experience who can help you plan. We found out all about hippo populations, air evacuation and river flow rates by speaking to experts with on the ground experience before we set out. In total, the planning took us around 9 months.
The advantage of Angola was that I had lived and worked there for five years and Alfy three, so we knew the country well and had a network of contacts in-country that would help with getting permits and organising logistics. It would have been ten times harder to do it in a random African country neither of us had ever been to.
Did the Angolan government help out?
No help from the government. Although Alfy spent months speaking to various ministries to get a load of permits for us to do the trip, this ended up being wasted effort because we still got arrested!
How did they manage to communicate while travelling?
Angola was a Portuguese colony until 1975, so most people speak Portuguese. I can get by in Portuguese. Also, there were a lot of Congolese miners there working on the diamond mines along the river, so we could also speak French to a lot of them.
What was his lasting personal takeaway from this experience?
The main takeaway is the importance of mental strength. I was amazed at what my body would continue to do as long as I kept telling it to. I think your mind definitely tried to give up before your muscles on something like this.
Alfy said it best when we were discussing what to do about my feet: "It's not a mechanical problem like a busted knee, so you can just keep going." Sounds unsympathetic, but it's exactly right.
Also, it was amazing to experience the highs and lows of isolated expedition travel. It was like being manic depressive: one moment everything is fantastic and the next you are dealing with a seemingly major disaster and everything looks really bleak. It's kind of exhausting being on this emotional rollercoaster day-in, day-out.
The trip took a lot of work and would be hard to replicate. What kept us going was the fact people had paid thousands of US Dollars in sponsorship and we had stood in front of crowds of people and told them we were going to do this.
We had plastered it all over social media. We were determined not to fail. I think we're most proud of the USD25,000 we raised for The HALO Trust.
The charity side of the project
Why did they choose The HALO Trust?
In 2012 I had travelled all over Angola to write the second edition of the Bradt Travel Guide to Angola. I was able to see for myself what a huge problem land mines cause for the local communities.
It was then that I decided that it was important to support charities working on landmine removal in Angola. After all the help they gave me back then when I was doing my research, I though I should repay HALO's favour by trying to raise some money for their work.
What was their original target and did they raise it?
We are very happy to have raised USD25,000. [Their JustGiving page.] Our original aim was USD10,000, as that paid for one de-mining team to work for one month in Cuito Cuanavale. It’s nice to have a specific target for the funds.
In the end we paid for two de-mining teams to work for one month down in Cuito Cuanavale, Angola. In total they removed 214 landmines from the ground. A full report of their great work.
Oscar’s tips on raising money for a charity
- Find a charity that wants your help and is willing to support your fundraising efforts through their marketing / PR department.
- Get on JustGiving months in advance of your departure and get the word out on social media: start a blog, do interviews for podcasts, radio shows etc. I can't emphasise enough how important it is to hype up the trip before you depart. Our aim was to raise USD10,000 and we'd basically already done that before we even set out.
- Social media is your best friend in this situation. Twitter and possibly paid (boosted) posts on Facebook. I would subscribe to Hootsuite and ManageFlitter and learn how to use them effectively for social media marketing. They're great!
Risk management on the adventure
There is plenty more dramatic detail in Oscar’s Reddit AMA but here are a few highlights.
Before the trip they identified their main concerns as hippos in the early stretches. “I think statistically the biggest risk to the trip is of one of us contracting malaria or another insect-borne disease”
They were also concerned about diamond smugglers and the need to avoid them. That turned out to be the least of their problems.
“In the end there was no avoiding them, as they were dredging the middle of the river to get the silt out and sift for diamonds. We literally had to paddle right past them most days. Turns out they couldn't have been nicer! We camped with them loads and shared stories and they even sold us what few goods they had in camp (usually soft drinks). They were also a great source of information about the river layout up ahead and any dangers like rapids or waterfalls.
The most interesting cultural thing was about how information flows through rural communities with no mobile phone coverage. We were amazed at how word of our impending arrival moved down the river via word of mouth in the fishing communities!”
However, the hippos were indeed dangerous.
“Hippos can swim very quickly when they want to! They got within a few metres of our kayak, forcing us to dash to the opposite bank and climb up a tree to escape. We had to wait about half an hour up the tree before we could climb down and continue our journey. Total pain! I have a video of us up the tree looking out at the hippos.
"The exposure to risk still makes me uncomfortable thinking about it. Way too many hippos and way too many rapids. I don't think you could do that journey too many times and come away unscathed. But I cannot see how we could have researched those isolated upper stretches in any more detail without going there and walking the whole thing before starting, which is impossible.”
They were also arrested for spying.
"Local security forces got over enthusiastic and thought we were spying on a "site of strategic interest" (Capanda Hydroelectric Dam) or diamond smuggling or some combination of the two. Gun barrels in tents while we were asleep, then handcuffed and carted off to jail in the middle of the night...
"They drove us all the way back to Luanda (in custody) which was 375km in the wrong direction, then tried to deport us! It took the intervention of the British Embassy, the Italian Embassy and the Minister of the Interior to make them see sense and release us. Crazy."
In the end their most dangerous moment was when they sank.
"Sinking in rapids on the tenth day. Risk or drowning, crocodiles, broken limbs etc. Not a smart move! You can watch the whole thing unfold via our GoPro from 17 mins 50 secs onwards. (Luckily, I was filming as I thought it would be an impressive sequence, us skilfully getting through the fishing dam unscathed!)
Documenting the adventure
How did they document the journey?
We had a solar-panel charging system, and took a number of cameras, including a waterproof GoPro and a DJI Phantom 3 Standard drone.
Bring less crap! Our kit was way too heavy. We dumped about 5kg each after the first week as it was proving too difficult to carry. We mainly ditched filming equipment / electronics. Here is a gear review that we did after the trip.
Ultimately we shelved the drone as it was way too fragile and expensive to be flying down the river with us. Also quite time consuming to get it out and set it up for filming. (Which is a shame, as the footage was beautiful.)
They had a live tracking map
All of that was custom built by Anthony Goddard over at ZeroSizZero. My brother monitored it and Anthony ensured it was actually updating, but it was all automated based on an SMS we sent every night (we sent the same location message to ZeroSixZero, and to The HALO Trust's rep in-country in case they needed to send a rescue team).
It was very easy to set up, but we had no idea if it was working because it was hard to tell if our texts were getting through.
Media coverage of the project
International media coverage
We did a fair bit of social media outreach, but almost exclusively to drive donations to the JustGiving page. We never tried to sell the story to anyone before going, as it would have been very difficult.
My experience from doing other overland trips is that editors are only really interested if you can present them with a finished product (i.e. text and photos), not your initial idea. This is especially true if you are an unknown commodity or doing something where you might fail.
Once we got back we put the documentary film together quite quickly and had it in film festivals within four months of the end of the expedition. I also gave a talk about it at The Royal Geographical Society.
In the end, I did not write much about the journey and Western media did not show much interest in it. I think part of it is that people in the West generally know very little about Angola, so there's less demand for information and stories from Angola. Perhaps we could have done a better job of sensationalising the journey, Bear Grylls it up and emphasise the dangerous elements more?
The local media had no interest in our journey sadly. There was nobody waiting for us on the finish line except our friends and representatives from The HALO Trust. The only time we made it onto an Angolan news website was when we were arrested for spying! After the journey finished we got a bit more international attention and I wrote a story for the in-flight magazine of TAAG, the Angolan national airline.
The local people we met along the way were fascinated by our journey, and also helped us out loads. The further from the source we got, the more amazed they were. A lot of them thought it was impossible: too many hippos, rapids and waterfalls etc. I particularly enjoyed one comment from a fisherman we met: "Why don't you get an engine? It will be a lot quicker!"
Guinness World Record ?
We spoke to Guinness World Records before going, and discussed various records that we would break by completing the expedition. I think we discussed "first source to sea navigation" as well as "fastest navigation" etc. You can register for an account on their website and do all this before your attempt.
They agree with you beforehand what kind of evidence required. It is ridiculously thorough! No way you can lie your way into the record books. They want photos, videos, GPS trails, witness statements, so much stuff. I say our record is being considered, because we still haven't provided them with all the evidence they way (some of it sank to the bottom of the river in our crash!)
We have had issues with the types of evidence they want. For example, trying to explain to them that we were unable to get witness statements all along the river as we were alone for long stretches was quite tricky!
The 4 day delay while we were arrested and almost deported certainly affected our record. I think we are now going to apply for "longest distance kayaked on the Kwanza River" rather than fastest time-based records. We'll have to see though.
I'm not sure the Guinness thing makes much difference to how Alfy and I feel about the trip. We know we did it, we have video evidence, so we don't really need their recognition. However, if it increases the marketability of the trip, and therefore helps The HALO Trust, then it's all good.
Do you have to pay?
No, it's all free. You can pay loads extra to have your record considered faster or to have them send an official judge, but otherwise you submit and wait a few months.
What comes next: the film and the book
The trip was a personal thing, mainly for our own personal accomplishment. I thought that filming it would help generate more donations, which it did. The record and the book idea all came afterwards, although we did both keep journals during the expedition.
Here Oscar lists some of the articles he wrote about their adventure.
We always agreed before going that Alfy was happy to pick up half the costs of filming the trip, but was not keen to be involved in any sort of publicity afterwards. For him, I think completing the journey was the aim, and he has little interest in publicising it. It was a personal thing, and has little impact on his professional life. Also, he moved straight to Hong Kong and started a new job, so he was a little busy after the returned from Angola!
The film was just a personal thing to keep a record of the journey and share with friends. Alfy and I split the cost of the filming equipment 50/50 before the expedition (this was basically a DJI Phantom 3 Standard drone plus an HD camera - I already had two GoPros). My friend Carl is a filmmaker and kindly helped cut all the raw footage together over a long weekend at his home in Southampton, UK. He did it free of charge, the legend!
I paid $189.40 in total to enter it into 11 film festivals competitions. It was shortlisted in four and won two, which was great for publicising the fundraising efforts, but did not make me any money back.
Here you can see our dashboard from Film Freeway , which is a great tool to submit to hundreds of film festivals and screenplay contests in one simple place. We were one of the 2017 Seven Summits Award Winners in the Mountain Film Festival (category: action sports)
Looking back on it, we probably could have monetised the film by selling it on Vimeo or something, like Into The Empty Quarter, by Alastair Humphreys.
For a much more detailed description of Oscar's writing, editing and publishing process, go to this blog post: From Expedition Diary to Crowdfunding Publisher.]
Both Alfy and I kept journals on the trip. In December 2016 I started work on a book. I wrote about 10,000 words, then completely lost interest. For some reason, this May I decided to get the project finished and smashed out another 50,000 words in 30 days! Alfy wrote the foreword.
Based on advice from a number of authors, including the legendary Phil Harwood (first man to canoe source to sea along Congo River), the book was sent [in mid-2017] to about eight agents and publishers for consideration, including:
- Unbound: A fascinating London-based crowdfunding publisher.
- Summersdale: A great UK publisher that puts out a lot of great adventure travel content
- Janklow & Nesbit UK: One of the world’s leading international literary agencies, with the UK office founded in 2000. They represent Tim Butcher, who wrote the excellent Blood River about his journey along the Congo in 2008.
- TMA Agency: TMA is a creative management company founded by Toby Mundy in 2014 to represent authors, speakers and to help brands to publish. They represent Daniel Metcalfe, who wrote Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola in 2014.
After months of rejections from traditional publishers, we finally received some good news just before Christmas: Unbound sent us an email.
Unbound describe themselves as “a crowdfunding publisher that gives people the tools, support and freedom to bring their ideas to life.” After a few weeks of discussions, we now have a plan in place to get a paperback of Kayak The Kwanza published!
Expedition stories like this are considered quite niche, so it's very difficult to get them published unless you are already an established name or did something truly amazing (like Walking The Amazon!) Traditional publishers are not willing to take risks on something like this.
Unbound works a little better because there is no risk for anyone: either we hit the funding target and publish, or we don't and it doesn't get published. Either way, nobody loses any money!
I have no idea if the book will make us money. Royalties with Unbound are split 50/50 between them (the publisher) and me (the author) once printing fees are deducted. I am donating half of my split to The HALO Trust so that they can continue their work in Angola. At the moment we are only at 14% funding, so it will be a long way to go before we even get published!
For a much more detailed description of Oscar's writing, editing and publishing process, go to this blog post: From Expedition Diary to Crowdfunding Publisher.]
adventure in Africa
Why does oscar find africa so interesting?
This is hard to generalise as Africa is such a diverse place. I loved Sudan because the Arab culture there was so distinctive, and the people are some of the friendliest I have ever encountered. Society out there was so different to what I was used to in Europe, and it was great to dive in and completely change my social life in the absence of pubs, bars and nightclubs! The desert was also epic: they have more pyramids than Egypt and in Sudan you get them all to yourself.
Other parts of Africa have proven to be very different to this first experience, but I tend to be attracted to countries with a difficult past (i.e. recent conflict), which must be the influence of the historian in me. I like challenging destinations where I will not bump into other tourists, and Africa offers plenty of opportunities for this. It is also great to be able to travel and interact with local people.
I can speak English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian to varying degrees which has me pretty covered across the whole continent! I also like wildlife and great outdoors. Lastly, and this links back to my work as a history teacher, I am fascinated by the influence of European colonialism on modern African societies.
Oscar's advice for African adventurers
Africa definitely has a bad reputation but I think a lot of that is due to lack of knowledge. People look at somewhere like Somalia and assume that is what it's like in all 54 African nations, which is ridiculous. If you do your research, you will be fine. There's even a whole hashtag on Twitter: #theAfricathemedianevershowsyou
All the information is out there online to help you stay safe, you just have to hunt it down. Thorn Tree Forums are a great resource for this.
My advice would be go now, don't wait! Also, if you want to do it cheaply, then start obsessing about air miles. I am totally addicted and they make travel so much cheaper: credit card sign-up bonuses, superstore points schemes etc. As a former UK resident, Head For Points was my go-to resource.
Oscar’s next adventure
I am thinking of kayaking or hiking the longest river in Madagascar now, called the Mangoky. The only issue is Alfy is now based in Hong Kong, so might be a little difficult to coordinate! The good news is this river has no hippos. The bad news is that it's full of crocodiles and runs through bandit country (yes, they have actual cattle rustling bandits in Madagascar!)
All the media links for Oscar Scafidi and Kayak The Kwanza
Kayak The Kwanza Book Crowdfunder on Unbound
The Halo Trust Kayak The Kwanza JustGiving fundraising page
Oscar's Travel Guides for Bradt