— This story originally ran as an online exclusive on December 9, 2010 and is featured in C&K's 2011 issue of Whitewater, now available on newsstands.
Editor’s note: Accomplished South African paddler Hendri Coetzee, 35, was killed earlier this week during an expedition on the Lukugu River in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Story »
By 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 hadn’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 had done the Murchison section of the Nile—a continuous Class V section of big-volume rapids with countless hippos and crocs—a few times as expedition leader, 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, and 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 was. It took me years to convince him to share some of his exploits and thoughts with the world, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who tried. When he did it finally by starting his blog, 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 Chris Korbulic 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 had 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.
— Celliers Kruger is the owner of Fluid Kayaks.
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