“No, no, the river is closed. You must not pass!” the Inspector General Commander repeated, pointing downstream below the falls and into the gorge. “There are witches there, they will witch you. If you go, I promise you will die,” he continued.
Chris, perhaps jokingly, asked, “But how can we make the witch happy? Slaughter a goat?”
“If you make one witch happy, you will upset another one,” the Inspector stoically replied.
“Do you want to see our safety gear?” I offered, desperate to change the subject. I pointed to where my brother, Sam, and father, Arthur, were negotiating with a team of locals to help complete the portage. We had no more tricks up our sleeve. It was either this or be forced to abort the Kunene River expedition.
In the preceding hours, we had been told several times what we were doing was illegal and threatened with arrest. We had called our in-country contact, who escalated the issue to the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Amazingly, we had made some progress: the Inspector was warming up to the idea of letting us put on—until a local reminded him of the widespread witch problem. I was unwilling to accept that fear of witchcraft was about to end an adventure I had spent the last three years planning and dreaming about.
We had originally planned to do this trip in 2021, but then COVID restrictions forced us to postpone. A severe drought in Angola in 2022 forced us to postpone again. In 2023, water levels fluctuated wildly between April and May from extreme drought to extreme high water, almost forcing a third cancellation of the trip.
With rumors circulating of the imminent start of construction of the Baynes Hydropower Project (a 600-foot-tall dam that will drown the 27 miles of gorges and whitewater immediately downstream of Epupa Falls), it was important to attempt the Kunene as soon as possible, and frankly, it was a miracle we had made it this far.
As we waited for the Namibian stars to align, we completed other expeditions (read: got humbled) in Madagascar, Pakistan, and Mexico. But none of these trips compared to what I imagined the Kunene River would be. I had become obsessed. As much as I was drawn to the Kunene River for its remoteness, its whitewater and its wildlife, I was intimidated and frightened of the Kunene precisely because of its remoteness, its whitewater and its wildlife.
We knew of only four other attempts to descend the Kunene. A duo in fiberglass kayaks completed the first descent in the 1960s. They portaged almost everything. In desperation, just two days from the coast, the team abandoned the river and its crocodiles, deciding a 200-mile hike through the desert was preferable. Less than three miles later, the absurdity of their escape plan sunk in, and, in defeat, they returned to the river to complete the journey to the coast.
The Namibian War of Independence stymied attempts for the next 25 years. In 1991, a team from Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand attempted the river in two bucket boats. The trip ended tragically shortly below Epupa Falls, where a missed eddy resulted in two fatalities and two near fatalities.
The following year, a team led by Sobek’s John Yost attempted the river with helicopter/plane support, four kayaks and four rafts. Despite some inexperienced team members, multiple serious injuries, and several items of destroyed gear, several team members managed to reach the coast. The fourth attempt took place in 1998 with two kayaks and one ducky. Low water forced the trio to portage the bigger rapids and increased the risk of crocodile attacks, of which they had many.
Originating in the Angolan highlands, the Kunene River snakes south to the Namibian border at Ruacana Falls. From there to the sea, it flows west, forming the border between the two countries. For the ninety miles from Ruacana to Epupa the river is wide and mostly flat, lined by Makalani Palm trees.
The journey is a peaceful one—a good excuse to row barefoot, watch monkeys and baboons along the banks, find hippo tracks in camp (on a river that supposedly has no hippos), tan, interact with the occasional Himba family, drink box wine, fish, take naps in the warm sand, and generally worry about the gorges, whitewater, and wildlife to come below Epupa.
The only portage the previous trips made on this section was a 10 or 15-foot waterfall. With our higher water levels, it was just a big ugly hole, but runnable. It served as a reminder that our trip would be the highest water level descent and prior trip reports would be unreliable. Regardless of the level, in no uncertain terms does the stretch from Ruacana to Epupa provide any sort of adequate warmup.
At Epupa, the river, several hundred yards wide at this point, funnels through a series of horseshoe-shaped falls, most just a few yards wide, and drops more than 120 vertical feet. From here, the river is no longer broad and flat and friendly. (Perhaps millennia ago, those ancient witches cursed the water and land, forming this tortured landscape.) An attempt on this section of the Kunene River requires navigating continuous, powerful Class IV, V, and V+ rapids in a series of gorges and valleys guarded by crocodiles, or ‘Kunene River Monsters’ as the first descent team dubbed them.
In the gorges, scouting and portaging are often necessary but not always possible. Narrow gorges amplify small fluctuations in water level; rapids that were runnable in the morning may not be by afternoon. The threat of crocodiles is constant; simple chores such as loading boats, filtering water, or washing dishes become life-threatening. The safest place to swim is likely through the numerous Class IV and V rapids and certainly not the croc-infested flatwater in between.
As a grand finale, toward the Skeleton Coast, sand blowing North from the Namib desert creates a vast sea of sand dunes on river left. Oryx, springbok, and ostriches thrive in these dunes, as do desert elephants, desert lions and leopards. The dunes also create a habitat that supports a seemingly impossible high density of those Kunene River Monsters. The most recent survey estimated nearly 1,000 crocodiles between Ruacana and Epupa, with 10% of them larger than 13 feet (our catarafts measured only 14 feet).
The Inspector’s safety inspection went exactly as you would expect: Lots of confused looks as we loaded PFDs, throw ropes, static lines, trad gear, slings, pulleys, radios, repair kits and helmets into a pile. A single carabiner generated the most excitement as the Inspector recognized it from his early military training days. He was also impressed with our drybags and satellite phone, both of which he requested we gift him.
After our offer to pay a ‘fee’ in front of a small gathering of villagers was ill-received, he whisked us off to the police station in the back of the police truck, presumably to complete the transaction behind closed doors. In the Inspector’s dimly lit office, we shared our phone numbers, passports and visas. It was only after the Inspector used his official police truck to help with the mile-long portage that he accepted a ‘fee.’ And with that, we pushed into what we would refer to as “Suck it Up Gorge.”
Suck it Up Gorge presented formidable obstacles immediately. We portaged or lined three rapids in a row and thought we might have been the victims of witchcraft when the rope we were using to line a Class V+ drop snapped, sending an empty cataraft downstream with all four team members upstream. Be it luck or mercy, the boat eddied out in the last possible eddy above the next portage.
A day or so downstream, we almost caused an international incident attempting to evacuate Arthur, who we suspected had broken several ribs. While we had a satellite phone, multiple InReach devices and the proper documents and visas to be on the Namibian riverbank, we didn’t have permission to be in Angola, which is where we stood.
Trying to arrange a heli evac deep in a gorge between two countries would be hard on any continent. A Namibian helicopter was unwilling to rescue Arthur from Angola. Contacting Angolan authorities whilst illegally in the country presented its own unique challenges. With the attempted evac canceled, we focused on the rapid in question and getting Arthur to a more suitable evacuation point. While Sam had a spectacular flip against the river left wall and self-rescued, the other two boats made it through upright.
It was here, after the gorge had ended, that we had our first and perhaps most serious crocodile attack. While in the lead pushing hard for camp, I saw the croc out of the corner of my eye on river left. I pushed hard to pass near the river right bank as it casually swam toward me. In a fraction of a second, it became obvious that the croc was not merely curious or territorial but extremely hungry. Pointed yellow teeth, beady eyes, and the entire scaley back of the crocodile half blurred into a two-foot-tall wake as the croc closed in.
Instinctively, I positioned the oar between myself and the croc and used it as a makeshift, albeit dull, bayonet. The first stab was a direct hit to the croc’s head. The second stab was more of a miss but close enough to cause the croc to disappear briefly.
Behind me, shouts from my dad and brother alerted me of its reemergence at the very front of my left tube. I caught a glimpse of its jaws trying to wrap around the cat tube before swinging a desperate blow with the oar. It sunk out of sight, and I sprinted downstream. At camp, we made my dad comfortable in some shade and started the next portage. Over dinner, we discussed Arthur’s best options and tucked in early.
With no marked major rapids for the next two days and Chris willing to step up and row, we hoped Arthur would recover enough to continue. We spent the days fishing, helping nomadic Himba people swim their goats across the river, and exploring slot canyons before dropping into yet another dark gorge. In the gorge, we portaged sieves and waterfalls and ran whitewater reminiscent of Alsek’s legendary Turnback Canyon.
We celebrated Arthur’s 65th birthday with two new additions to the Kunene River Swim Team. I flipped in a rapid I had scouted too nonchalantly (the swim to the bank and out of the croc-infested water was anything but nonchalant) and Chris joined after a moment of indecision while rowing his first Class V—the runout of an unrunnable 40-foot waterfall. Sam was instrumental in both rescues.
In the must-make eddy above those same falls, a sizeable croc launched into the water with a huge splash. With no other choice, we delicately paddled over him, breath held in anticipation of an attack that never came. We found oryx skulls at camp and later, around the campfire, toasted Arthur’s improvement with two bottles of wine.
The quality of the whitewater continued to amaze me, as did the difficulty of some of the portages. Where possible, we would hire Himba people to help carry our catarafts through the deep sand of the Namib desert, but often didn’t have such willing helpers available. We stumbled upon the eerie well-preserved carcasses of over 100 Himba cattle that had succumbed to drought. As we approached the ocean and the Skeleton Coast, we spent our mornings hiking into side canyons or up sand dunes to experience the raw remoteness, isolation and intense beauty of this wild and untouched place.
Cloudy, cold mornings gave way to sunny, windy afternoons as we approached the final gorge of the trip. On the maps I’d created, the gorge was labeled with Rapid #109 (V), Rapid #110 (V), and Rapid #111 (P). After a brief scout, we successfully made it through Rapid #109, a series of waves and holes that slammed into the river left wall. Scouting #110 and #111 required 5.7 climbing moves and a long walk across a lunar landscape.
Rapid #110 consisted of two parts: a large rock garden with a sizable hole immediately followed by a hard move to the left to a vertical drop with a sloping boulder on river right. I became intimately familiar with that boulder as I flipped headfirst into it. My helmet scraped and bounced violently, stuck between the cat tube and the rock.
Despite fears of being knocked unconscious, all I could do was wait to be released. Arthur had made it through upright by sliding down that river right boulder on one tube (a line that required equal parts skill and luck). He was able to pull me and my cataraft to a river left eddy. Chris and Sam could only watch the drama unfold as they filmed on a drone above the gorge, monitoring just how close Arthur and I would end up eddying out above certain death, AKA Rapid #111, where the entire river disappeared under a pile of huge, unstable boulders. Sam and Chris styled Rapid #110 and then led the complex, technical portage around the massive sieve. Meanwhile, I sat in the shade fighting mild concussion symptoms. We later anointed the gorge Suicide Gorge.
With the crux of the rapids behind us, we only had 30 miles to the ocean. As if summoned by the witches, the Kunene River Monsters appeared en masse. In one particularly ‘enlightening’ hour late in the afternoon, we spotted more than 15—most charged the boats. Chaos ensued as the wind drowned out our warning shouts. At one point there was considerable debate as to whether Chris and Sam were seeing a croc or a rock. Chris’s urgent “Just ****ing paddle, please!” settled it quickly.
It seemed like every boat for itself as we pulled hard into the wind. I helplessly watched three crocs charge Sam and Chris. In the mayhem, I had rowed myself onto a midstream rock and Arthur had passed me. The croc that had been chasing me changed directions and was now after Arthur. I had heard Arthur shouting something indiscernible about another croc on river left.
It was possible that Arthur was fighting his own battle against at least one of the monsters downstream, maybe two, but my eyes were glued on Sam and Chris. With a few well-aimed rock throws from Chris and Sam (and perhaps a firecracker launched in their general direction), the crocs disappeared below the surface. After another attacked Sam’s oar, it became hard to ignore the real possibility that a sun-charged croc would kill someone. We needed to get off the river.
As luck would have it, the eddy Arthur chose was occupied by a rather large specimen, unwilling to share. We sprinted back across the river, chased a troop of baboons off the beach, and made camp. There were no volunteers for dish duty that night.
Too scared to paddle in the heat of the day, our morning battles against the Kunene River Monsters continued into the delta. Intense wind stopped us just a few hundred yards short of the ocean. On shore, we scared away one last croc and pulled the boats out of the water. It was a fitting end to the last 19 days—a final reminder to remain humble and grateful for our experiences and companionship on our journey.
When not busy as a CPA preparing taxes, Guest Contributor Ben Orkin spends his time searching for off-the-beaten-track adventures and exploring remote rivers with family and friends. He’s led whitewater expeditions across the globe and his bucket list continuously grows longer. Photos courtesy of Ben Orkin, Sam Orkin and Chris Horsely. For more Orkin-family adventures, follow them on Instagram, @orkinexploring.