— This story originally ran in C&K’s 2011 issue of Whitewater, now available on newsstands.
By Gustav Nel
The river, according to the locals, was flooded. It was higher than it had ever been, and we reached the first rapids in about three hours. You could only scout from the top, so Hendri got on Joe Henry’s shoulders to try and pick a line. He couldn’t see the bottom of the rapid, but he wanted to run it first. I got on the raft with him and Becky Armitage, who says to me, ‘You’re going with Hendri? Kiss your ass goodbye.’
It was pretty nerve-racking. We’re already in the middle of nowhere and this is our first rapid and it’s huge. But we are going to run it, right? And if we’re running it I want to go with Hendri. We start down this rapid—they called it a rapid, to me it was more like a waterfall—and as we get near the bottom the raft starts flipping around. The only thing I know about rafting is to hold onto the raft. The raft has flipped, Becky is gone, Hendri is gone. I hit my leg on a rock and it goes to the bone, but I’m still holding on and heading downstream. Suddenly Hendri appears out of nowhere and pulls me aboard. He was a medic in the Army, so he looks at my leg and says, ‘Oh, that’s fuck-all, bru,’ meaning it’s nothing. Just a scratch. He knew better, because I later spent 11 days in hospital and could have lost my leg. But I guess he was trying to calm me down.
That night it rained and we were just lying there in my tent. We didn’t say much to each other, just both staring up to the ceiling with the rain pouring down and enjoying that moment—that true feeling of being alive. I knew Hendri all my life, but that night I felt like I really understood him for the first time. It was the first life-or-death experience I’d ever been through, and it felt like the best day ever. That’s Hendri—when you’re tired and hurt and hungry and alone, that is the best day ever for him, because you learned something different about living. You learned more about the experience of life.
The funny thing is Hendri never slept in a tent. The fact that he came to sleep in mine was just to let me know, ‘Look man, I’m here. Everything’s going to be Okay.’ Not that he ever actually said anything like that. It was just his way. I don’t think he ever saw the outside of a person. He went straight inside a person. He threw the bullshit off. You could be a king or a bum off the street, but Hendri saw you for who you are, not who you were trying to be.
— Gustav Nel was a childhood friend of Coetzee and a member of the 2006 Blue Nile expedition. His film, River People, recounts the adventure. As told to Jeff Moag.
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