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Legendary Kayaker Hendri Coetzee Honored With Sunset River Memorial in Uganda

By Andrew Tolve; Photograph courtesy Chris Korbulic 

The Itanda Falls in eastern Uganda are a treacherous, quarter-mile run of rapids lined by dense jungle and heaving with Class VI whitewater from top to bottom. Hendri Coetzee, the South African kayaker killed by a crocodile on the Lukuga River in December 2010, considered this “big water kayaking in paradise.” The 35-year-old had a home in Jinja, just upriver, and had run the falls hundreds of times, including on his legendary trip from the Nile’s source-to-sea in 2004.

This past Saturday, January 8, more than 200 friends and family joined at the falls to pay tribute to Coetzee’s memory. A wooden raft filled with flowers and prayer flags, poems, hearts, and photographs, was ferried to the middle of the river at sunset, lit on fire, and set free in the rapids.

“He used to call this the center of the universe,” recalls Pete Meredith, one of Coetzee’s closest friends and the memorial’s organizer. “It was close to the heart of Africa, at the source of the Nile, the people were so friendly, and the water was amazing. This is the way he would have wanted to go.”

Many of those attending the memorial stayed until sunrise sharing stories of Coetzee, an adventurer who, in the era of Google Earth and GPS, proved there were still many beautiful corners of the world left to be explored. He had kayaked all around Africa and internationally, often alone and on lines no one had dared (or thought) to go before. And he did all this with a humility and total disregard for fame or fortune.

“Hendri was a student, and a teacher, and a devotee to his church of exploration,” says Chris Korbulic, one of the two American kayakers with Coetzee when the crocodile struck. “His exploration and adventure were his self-expression, and he didn’t need to go further with it by telling everyone about it.”

Celliers Kruger, one of Coetzee’s close friends and sponsors, recalls that Coetzee routinely turned down new kayaks in favor of an old, scratched up E Solo; insisted on learning Swahili so he could communicate with villagers during his adventures in the Congo; and pursued a degree in psychology between expeditions, not for the shiny degree but to sharpen his personal observations on life.

Coetzee once wrote me in an email, when I was hoping to feature his latest solo adventure in 2009, “As much as I like people thinking I am brave (and I do), it just seems so tasteless and used up, man survives crocodile, savages, and malaria to complete world’s hardest river bla bla bla … Fact is people live here, 50 million of them, more than half women and children. I am not saying it can’t be dangerous; there are many ways to die here, maybe more than in other places. But the fact is it doesn’t make you Superman to survive here. Grandma is doing it.”

This spirit, in an age when exploration is so often motivated by the attention it will receive, was refreshing and important and will be missed by all those in the adventure community.