Updated, September 2022: This story is now featured on the new documentary series EDGE OF THE UNKNOWN WITH JIMMY CHIN, which premiered September 5 on National Geographic and streams on Disney+, is a 10-part series that takes audiences inside the minds of pioneering adventure athletes as they recount the most consequential moments of their lives. And, to no surprise, paddling is featured prominently.
Original Paddling Life Story:
It was supposed to be a relatively routine exploratory expedition for Eddie Bauer First Ascent expedition members Ben Stookesberry, Chris Korbulic and South African kayak guide Hendri Coetzee down the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Lukuga River. But on Dec. 7, tragedy struck as Coetzee, who was leading Stookesberry and Korbulic through the DRC, was pulled from his kayak on the Lukuga River by a crocodile and is presumed dead….
Coetzee was leading First Ascent kayakers Ben Stookesberry and Chris Kobulic down the Lukuga when the accident occurred — a crocodile reportedly attacked his boat as he was paddling in the middle of the river, capsized it, and Coetzee was never seen again. Following the incident, Ben and Chris were able to paddle to safety and contact the International Rescue Committee (IRC) who dispatched a team to evacuate them to safety. U.S. and South African embassies were also notified. The team is completing formalities with local authorities in Congo and expects to return home shortly.
The First Ascent kayak team, including Ben, Chris, Jesse Coombs and Darin McQuoid, partnered with Hendri, a well-known African guide with many first descents and extensive knowledge of the whitewater in and around the DRC, in a first of its kind whitewater kayaking expedition from the headwaters of the White Nile and Congo Rivers into the DRC. The mission for the Africa kayak expedition was to run and document the unexplored whitewater of the region, while focusing on the people and clean water crisis in Central Africa. Jesse and Darin returned to the U.S. in November after the first leg of the trip, as originally planned, while Ben and Chris continued on.
“We are saddened by the tragic accident and express our deepest sympathies to Hendri’s family and friends,” First Ascent officials said on their blog. “We would like to thank the IRC and Solidarites International, who continue to provide assistance and support to the team.”
Those in his native South Africa were equally saddened by the news.
Below is a tribute from Fluid Kayaks owner Celliers Kruger (source: Playak.com):
“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.
“endri 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.
Info: First Ascents
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