Remembering Hendri Coetzee

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Kayaker Chris Korbulic returns to Africa to take part in a unique memorial service for his friend and fellow paddler Hendri Coetzee, who was killed by a crocodile in Congo in December 2010.

Itunda Falls, Nile River, Uganda
8 January, 2011

Hendri had called Itunda Falls the “center of the universe”, and it certainly felt like that on January 8th this year, when hundreds of friends gathered to celebrate and commemorate his extraordinary life. The rapid itself, much like Hendri’s life, is a complex, thrilling ride when on line, but ferocious if pushed just off to either side. The line falls and twists by giant holes and surging waves before ending in a calm pool surrounded by thick jungle; nearly paradise. The banks are lined with trees and flowers and open rock, and on this day, just as the sun set, hundreds of eyes watched and hands waved as Hendri took his final ride down his favorite rapid.

Earlier in the day, a wooden raft had been covered with prayer flags with personal notes, mementos, and anything friends wanted to send with Hendri down the falls. I sat by the boat a little longer, feet in the water, feeling the Nile’s warmth and pulsing flow. I thought about the amazing seven weeks I had with Hendri, and how until the last day, they had been the best seven of my life. They wouldn’t have been possible, and certainly not the best, without Hendri and his excitement, passion, and love for what we were doing. We became fast friends after he first picked us up at the airport, and it only grew on every one of our “best days ever” on the expedition.

I was brought back to reality and opened my eyes when I was called up the hill to join everyone in planting three muvule trees overlooking the rapids. They were planted just behind a bench etched with Hendri’s name and a short poem he wrote. The bench had the best view of the rapids. The trees went in as the sun was falling quickly, so we returned to the river to send the wooden raft down the falls. I joined long-time friends and expedition partners Pete Meredith and Jane Dicey on the oar-boat to pull the wooden pyre to the middle. Pete set fire to the pyre as Jane cut it free from the raft, and I finally felt like there was getting to be some closure.

We silently watched as the flames grew and engulfed all of our written memories and mementos. The sunset beamed through the flames and smoke. As we entered the current by the pyre's side, I just thought, This is perfect. We followed until Pete pulled us into the last possible eddy, and as the flames disappeared over the falls I raised a fist to Hendri’s life and last rapid, and to his spirit and the adventure it took him on—like the perfect line the pyre followed.

Beautiful line, Hendri. Beautiful.

A bonfire and celebration continued through the night, with tears and laughter and stories recalling the great impact of Hendri’s nature, adventures, and achievements. The group was as varied as Hendri’s path through life, from local village friends to Kampala businessmen to acquaintance drivers to foreign doctors and writers. It was not just a river community memorial, and it was clear as no speeches were given or heralds sung that he had surrounded himself with like-minded people—those who came for the experience and the friends, not their own song and dance. It’s a group that will memorialize through action, without needing to tell the world about it.

I rose with the sun and passed the fire, smoldering with the night’s dew. Leaves and streaks of sunlight blew along the ground as I took a seat on Hendri’s bench, watching as the sun’s penetrating rays lit the far side of the river and a new day. Sunrise was Hendri’s favorite part of the day, seeing the world wake up, empty, but echoing with waking life.

“You ready for the best day ever?” This was Hendri’s daily morning salutation, and thinking of it in the cool morning breeze, my mind soon cleared and I felt better. Wind, blowing leaves, rushing water, sun; the newly planted trees and notes of tropical birds in the morning sky were no more fleeting than the river-worn rock itself. It was all the same. My tears and my breath were the same.

Much can and has been said about Hendri, but to me it’s simple. Hendri was a friend I grew to love and learn from immensely. I appreciated his exploration of not just the physical expedition experience and the surreal moments that experience offers, but his love and enjoyment of all the unextraordinary moments between those epic ones for which we are searching. He loved each moment, and will always push me to do the same.

–Chris Korbulic

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