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The death of South African explorer and whitewater kayaker Hendri Coetzee has shocked our small kayaking community. On Tuesday morning, 7 December 2010, Hendri was taken by a crocodile whilst paddling in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Hendri was perhaps not very well known by many and by nature never advertised his exploits - most people would not have known that in 2004 he was the leader of the only source to sea expedition of the White Nile. But he was as hard as they come and represented a rare breed of modern day adventurer. Those in the know openly acknowledge Hendri as being one of the world’s best big water paddlers and fearless in his expeditions. He paddled the fabled Murchison Falls section of the Nile more times than anyone else, including a trip down there alone in under 24 hours.
Having only paddled with Hendri once - and in true fashion he arrived with hand paddles only to discover it was a 20km paddle, he decided to use my split paddle instead - I felt my lack of being able to offer anything more and my feeble words would serve no meaning to those that really knew him well. That is why two good friends, Michelle Basso and Celliers Kruger, have written the following touching words. Thank you.
From Michelle Basso:
I will miss you. I remember with a sorrow tinged smile the days we spent together, both on and off the river. You have the spirit of an adventurer of old, with the desire to go where no one has gone before, see and do things no one else has. Never one to back down from a challenge you set goals for yourself that were virtually impossible, yet somehow you pulled them off. You are tougher than anyone I know. A legend, an explorer, a hero.
Yet there was another side to you. You questioned and searched not only the outer world but the inner one as well. You were constantly in motion, not only physically but mentally too, searching for harmony in your soul. Many long conversations I had with you on books, life, ideas, what direction to take, how to find peace, how to deal with conflicting desires. Your thoughts in words are beautiful and thought provoking.
Your smile - I am going to miss your smile. You did not just smile with your mouth. It began there, and then it spread to your eyes, a light shining, sparkling through, infecting all with your happiness. The delight you took in life was evident to everyone. You truly lived as if every day was the best day ever.
Thank you for being my friend.
Love you always, m.
From Celliers Kruger:
Hendri walked into my office a couple of years ago, asking for sponsorship. By that time we knew about each other for a while already, but haven't met yet. My answer was an obvious yes, his reputation for running the hardest stuff was already growing. Since then a close relationship grew between two paddlers who discussed everything except paddling. Our connection through paddling was too obvious, there was no need to talk about it. Instead our talks were about life. Hendri was a keen observer of life's nuances and how people react to it. He tried to make sense of it all, and managed to do it in a way that few people are privileged to do. He completed a degree in psychology, part time, in-between his expeditions. To him the degree was never a big deal, the theory was merely another tool to observe life.
Hendri was never a guy for half measures. When he decided to do a source to sea, he chose the longest river in the world, the White Nile. The journey took a few months to complete. When he decided to run the major part of the Congo River solo, he spent a few months in the DRC ahead of the kayak mission to learn to speak Swahili and to get to know the area better. When he has done the Murchison section of the Nile a few times as expedition leader, a continuous class 5 section of big volume rapids with countless hippos and crocs, every time taking a couple of days to do it, he decided to do it solo in two days, a feat that is unlikely to ever be met. When he went to Thailand for some yoga, he didn't go for a week or two, he went for three months. When he went to Norway to run some steep stuff, he did it with hand paddles. When he landed in Uganda for the first time to paddle the Nile, he wasn't content with the lines that everybody ran, instead he opened many of the back channels with much more challenging rapids.
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 is. It took me years to convince him to share some of his exploits and thoughts to the world, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who tried. When he did it finally by starting his blog http://greatwhiteexplorer.blogspot.com/ a few months ago, his writings were an inspiration to countless people. His view on life was unique, his quest for the best day ever was relentless.
When Hendri told me about the ambitious project he would embark on with Ben Stookesberry and kie as expedition leader, which would turn out to be his final mission, I wanted to send him a new boat. Any other paddler would have said yes, but Hendri's answer was no. He told me he has never been one for shiny stuff, he was happy with his trusty, scratched old E Solo that he used during his Congo mission earlier this year. In fact, when I sent him the E Solo early this year for his Congo mission, he asked for a second-hand boat that has been scratched already.
Hendri was a great chess player. Our count on matches won was even, and we were constantly planning to get together for the ultimate game to see who is really best. It hurts to know that game will never be played.
Hendri was more than just a Fluid team paddler. He was a great friend, a great expedition paddler and a true legend even in his own lifetime. He was the bravest of us all. Rest in peace, Hendri. No one will ever stand in your shoes. May you have the best day ever, forever.
Hendri was 35 years old.
He was on an expedition on the Lukugu River in the DRC.
He was accompanied by Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic.
He was attacked by a crocodile two days ago while they were paddling in the middle of the river. The croc pulled him over and they never saw him again.
Although his life was cut short by more than half he led one fuller and freer than most of us would dare to do. He will certainly always inspire me, now and forever. Hendri could certainly teach one a lot about kayak, and life. On behalf of the Playak community I send my deepest condolences to all of Hendri’s family and friends.
- Adrian Tregoning
December 9 2010.