News of adventure kayaker Hendrik Coetzee's death this week has shocked friends.
News of adventure kayaker Hendrik Coetzee's death this week has shocked friends.

Killed after his ‘best day ever’

By Bronwyn Gerretsen Time of article published Dec 10, 2010

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Ii was an adventure to top all adventures. A kayaking trip on the unexplored white waters in Central Africa.

But it ended in tragedy on Tuesday when a crocodile leapt from the water and dragged South African adventure kayaker and white water rafting guide Hendrik “Hendri” Coetzee, 35, from his boat.

Coetzee, an experienced paddler, was making his way along a tributary of the Congo River on an expedition through the Great Lakes region of Central Africa.

On his blog on November 26, just a few days before he was killed, Coetzee wrote about the journey – and the challenges.

“It is hard to know the difference between irrational fear and instinct, but fortunate is he who can. Often there is no clear right or wrong option, only the safest one. And if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home in Jinja.

“Too often when trying something no one has ever done, there are only three likely outcomes: success, quitting, or serious injury and beyond. The difference in the three are often forces outside of your control. But this is the nature of the beast: risk.”

Ending off the blog, the last he would write, Coetzee said: “We stood precariously on a (sic) unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed, I would never live a better day.”

Coetzee’s death has shocked his family, friends and fellow kayakers.

Coetzee, who was born in Ottosdal in North West and did much of his schooling in Centurion, Pretoria, was leading a team of four American kayakers on the expedition, which was running and documenting the region’s unexplored white waters.

Two of the four had returned home after the first leg and were to rejoin the expedition later, while Coetzee, Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic continued.

Expedition sponsor Eddie Bauer said Coetzee was pulled from his kayak on the Lukuga River by a crocodile on Tuesday and was presumed dead.

Stookesberry and Korbulic were able to paddle to safety and contact the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which dispatched a team to evacuate them to safety.

They are in Kalemie, a Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) town 150km from where the accident occurred, and are to return to the US.

The IRC’s regional director in the DRC, Ciaran Donnelly, said Stookesberry and Korbulic were “physically fine”, but “shocked and distraught” by the incident.

They reported that the trio were paddling down a section of the Nile in close formation when a crocodile “leapt” from the water and dragged Coetzee from the boat.

They were unable to recover his body and paddled to shore, where they were eventually assisted by villagers to contact the IRC.

Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for the International Relations Department, said the country’s consular services would assist Coetzee’s family if requested to do so.

Coetzee was a highly regarded paddler who had run a 200km section of the Congo River and the Murchison Falls section of the Nile River solo and unsupported. He also led the first Source to Sea expedition of the White Nile in 2004.

He had been living in Uganda before embarking on this expedition.

His mother, Marie Nieman, was highly emotional yesterday when speaking to The Mercury, but said he would have liked to have been remembered as someone whose legacy was about who he was and what he had done for other people, as opposed to material things.

“The only things he had were books. He didn’t even own a bicycle; he never left anything behind. Wherever he went, he just sowed a bit of who he was… He was always so humble, and never spoke about his expeditions or accolades or achievements; he was just Hendrik.

“He was such a special son, and I had such a special relationship with him. He was just awesome.”

Nieman said the family would hold a memorial service in Centurion on January 28.

Coetzee’s friend and sponsor at Fluid, Celliers Kruger, said: “Hendri was without doubt one of the greatest river explorers of our time. He was also the most humble of them all. He didn’t know what self-promotion was… His view on life was unique, his quest for the best day ever was relentless.”

Comment posted on websites and blogs by people who knew Coetzee also testified to his humility and passion.

The expedition had started on October 19 and the team, who initially included Jesse Coombs and Darin McQuoid, had hoped to be finished by Christmas.

The route planned was to be circular, around the Great Lakes of Central Africa. - The Mercury

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