By Joe Carberry
Published: December 21, 2010
During the first week of December, Canoe & Kayak reported that legendary South African expedition kayaker Hendri Coetzee disappeared on the Lakuga River, a tributary of the Congo in Africa, after being attacked by a crocodile. His body has still not been recovered.
Coetzee and his paddling partners, Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic, were part of an Eddie Bauer-sponsored expedition and had already completed a first descent of the Rusizi River—connecting Lakes Tanganyika and Kivu in the war-torn border region of Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. As previously reported, the team accessed the Lakuga from Rwanda for security reasons. Now, in a C&K exclusive, Korbulic and Stookesberry recount those tragic final moments and the aftermath of the tragedy.
Stookesberry: We were 120 miles below where the Lakuga flows out of Lake Tanganyika. We’d just finished what was considered the “unnavigable” portion, and were starting the 100 miles of flatwater before entering the Congo River, when this happened. We were half a click [kilometer] below the last rapid, paddling in tight formation specifically because we were aware of the danger and had heard stories about crocodiles in the area.
Korbulic: There was really thick elephant grass along the side and we were out in the middle of the current, paddling full pace. I was four or five feet away from Hendri, on his right side [behind him]. Ben was on his left side, just in front of him. I glanced over to make sure we weren’t veering one way or the other and staying in formation. I looked back and the crocodile was coming down onto his shoulder, at which point I heard him say something before being pulled under water. It was so fast. His kayak was almost all the way submerged. There was a struggle and it went on for a little while. Eventually, all movement stopped.
Stookesberry When I heard Hendri scream, “Oh my God,” the front of the jaws were coming down on him and they were as big as his torso. It just frickin’ stunned me. [After several minutes with no sign of Hendri, his boat or the crocodile] we were like, “This one was gonna come back.” We both wanted to get out of the river. We got to the nearby village [about one mile downstream from the site of the attack] and started communicating with the locals. Then we saw Hendri’s boat floating downstream and went after it, seeing if there was anything in it. There was no sign. We tried to get a search party together with locals but they were pretty adamant. The village put a small reward out but we hear they haven’t found anything, not even a single piece of foam from the lifejacket. They told us nine people had been taken from this community by this crocodile.
We had perfect consensus before running this river. We’d already run the Murchison Falls section of the White Nile. Murchison has the highest quantity of crocs in the world. How on earth could there be more risk with wildlife on the Lakuga River? But as we progressed downstream (on the Lakuga) it became concerning to us. We worked 100 percent to minimize our risk. Paddling with Chris and Hendri, it was one of the strongest groups I’ve ever been a part of. With all the logistics, politics, whitewater, wildlife, we had to have so much patience. I was so devastated after spending seven weeks together.
The International Rescue Committee was huge in evacuating us. We had everything we needed to get out, papers, sat phone in the bag. The IRC made sure our paperwork was distributed to the government. The provincial minister offered us his condolences.
Korbulic: This is definitely gonna take a little processing time. The experience of the whole trip—not how it ended—but before, it was an enlightening trip. I’m looking forward doing things like this again. Right now planning is definitely on hold though.
Stookesberry: We’d love to work with Eddie Bauer again, absolutely. This was the last thing any of us wanted to see happen. EB is a one of a kind company, their zeal for adventure is only matched by our own. They’re reeling by this just as much as we are. We’re so thankful that they were there for us the whole entire trip.
The unfortunate thing is the night before this happened was one of the most beautiful nights of my life. It had rained and we were all pretty happy to get cooled off by the rain. We all huddled up under the tarp on a beach and were all smiles and super happy with each other. We were overwhelmed by the place. To say that croc came out of the blue is both literal and figurative. He took us at our happiest.