|Hendri Coetzee, 2010 shortly before his death. Photo by Chris Korbulic.|
Do you remember Hendri Coetzee? I sure do. I became acutely aware of him late in 2010 when our son Chris Korbulic and his kayaking partner Ben Stookesberry launched into what was planned as a three-month circumnavigation of rivers that connect Africa's West Rift Valley. Their expedition was to end when they arrived at the Congo River. Hendri was their guide.
Who the heck is he? I asked Ben, who had searched-out Hendri online and made the long-distance arrangements. Is he legit?
Ben said, in as many words, This guy is great. And indeed he was. Hendri was a modern-day explorer, extreme kayaker, and adventurer. I later learned he was also a thinker, philosopher, comedian, and one helluva writer.
The trip would take them down the gnarly hippo and crocodile-infested Nile River in Uganda, across Lake Victoria, into the Ruzizi River and then the Lukuga River. Ahh, yes. The Lukuga, which I bet anybody who's reading this had never heard of before this expedition.
By this trio's ridiculous standards the Lukuga was tame. Most of Hendi's exploits were far sketchier, and Chris and Ben travel the world chasing waterfalls and unexplored rivers. The Lukuga was an unlikely place for any of them to die.
Hendri was taken by a crocodile on that river. Chris was just a few feet away and saw the split-second attack. Why didn't the croc take Chris? Or Ben? They will never know but will forever question: Why did I live? Why did Hendri die?
Just the previous evening, sitting cross-legged in a rainstorm while Chris and Ben huddled beneath a tarp, Hendri laughed and joked, bringing light to what could have been a miserable situation. Despite the downpour, their meagre dinner of a shared candy bar and a bit of dried fish, he was having the time of his life— another Best Day Ever. The next day he was gone.
What could be more ironic than dying when you feel most alive? From Living the Best Day EverHis memoir brings to life many of his incredible adventures, and he tells the stories with delicious detail, impressive descriptive power, humor and self deprecation. In most cases, he's aware that death is at his side, a subject he mentions time and again.
He wrote in one of numerous foreshadowings:
The lack of happy old people in my environment is a good indicator that this is an unsustainable lifestyle. Either I find something better, or I die on the river. Either way I have nothing to worry about. The worst possible scenario is that I don't let go when the time comes, that I live out my life by an empty well, depressed and chained to a dead passion." From Living the Best Day EverI was asked to give the manuscript a quick edit. (It had been edited already and would undergo a more thorough treatment before publication.)
It was sent to me from Uganda via the Internet. I printed all 296 single-spaced PDF pages, sharpened my pencil and went to work. (The boxed manuscript traveled back to Africa with Chris a couple weeks later.)
Fascination and awe grew as Hendri's life unfolded. My eyes flew over the words, stopping now and again to correct a comma, substitute a word choice, or eliminate excess. I laughed out loud, (Yes LOL!! as they say on Facebook) teared up, shouted at Hendri, talked with him quietly, and marveled that a young man bent on apparent self destruction was also sensitive, compassionate, thoughtful, self deprecating, courageous, outrageous, damn smart and funny!
With his muscular physique and history of daring adventures, you might think he was macho in the worst sense. Not at all. In fact, he was full of self doubt, always questioning, always thinking—and always writing. He began his Great White Explorer blog to chronicle what would be his final expedition. He was 35. His blog posts are part of the book.
Note: If you check out the blog, you'll find a piece written in August 2013 by his good friend Leyla Ahmet. Her piece is worth reading. To see Hendri's 11 posts, scroll down on the right to 2010 archives.
When our Chris is deep into an adventure, we are always hungry (desperate!) for news. When Hendri's blog came to light, I was thrilled to learn expedition details, terrifying as they often were. I was also amazed by his writing. He generated a flurry of words that he obviously didn't have time to labor over, let alone go through the torture of revising/rewriting. He was a natural. He wrote out of excitement and the need to tell his stories. As I worked through the manuscript, I was taken with his respect for African people, who somehow manage moments of joy in the midst of great poverty and pain. A couple of my favorite quotes:
White people are not tough enough to be black.
The Heart of Darkness is a label that will hang over the Congo for a long time. The cliché is turned on its head when you find out it is your own heart that leans in that direction.His ability to create a sense of place in the here-and-now and also in historical context is remarkable. I developed a desire to GO THERE and I am! (PK and I are soon headed to South Africa and Uganda.)
Fear, disillusionment, death, good, evil, leadership, self-doubt, haves and have-nots, joy in the moment, guilt, implications of being white—all are themes that are woven throughout the book. All this is mixed with the adventure stories that wouldn't be unbelievable if they were in a novel. Who would believe, for example, that cannibals are still operating deep in the Congo and that Hendri nearly succumbed to a group of them?
Extreme kayakers will relish the wave-by-hole accounts of class five and six rapids, and the trials of expedition leadership as well as unsupported solo explorations. The rest of us will enjoy those parts, but will be taken as well by his insights and original thinking.
Why do I care? Because I care about the people who put their hearts and resources into getting it into print, and I care about Hendri, although I never met him. And I care about my son, Chris, who could have been crushed between a crocodile's jaws but wasn’t.
Chris escaped death, and because he loved and admired Hendri, he thought about conducting his life in a more conscious way that Hendri had demonstrated, specifically about accepting the troughs that occur between peak experiences, and learning to accept and even welcome the “flat water.” He wrote about Hendri’s “best day ever” state of mind in a piece in Canoe and Kayak magazine.
Hendri's philosophy demands embracing the moment, whatever it brings.
Do I always do this? No. But I do think about it, and I do try. And I believe I have been elevated in some situations that otherwise would have been terribly dull or uncomfortable. Hendri’s memoir made me realize the role individuals can play in creating their own realities.
He caused me to think and wonder. What more could one ask from a book? Or from a person, dead or alive?
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