An acclaimed South African outdoorsman who was leading a kayaking expedition from the source of the White Nile into Congo was dragged from his craft by a crocodile as two Americans watched, horrified. The guide is presumed dead.
The two Americans paddled to safety after the Tuesday morning attack on the Lukuga River in Congo. The International Rescue Committee helped evacuate the Americans to a nearby town after the attack, said Ciaran Donnelly, the organization's regional director in the Central African country.
The body of 35-year-old Hendrik Coetzee, who was living in Uganda, has not been recovered.
The two Americans — Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic — were "physically unharmed but shaken up by the incident," Donnelly said Thursday. They are currently in Congo but expect to return home to the U.S. shortly. Korbulic is from Rogue River, Ore., and Stookesberry is from Mount Shasta, Calif.
Paul and Mary Korbulic of Rogue River, Oregon, parents of Chris Korbulic, said they were vacationing in Costa Rica when they got an e-mail from their son saying he was safe, but had no details of the attack.
"You just can't even think how terrible that is," Mary Korbulic said of the crocodile attack.
They had been following the expedition through blog postings, and a tracking device activated every few days, and were becoming concerned that there were no new postings when they got the e-mail from their son.
"All of us with loved ones engaged in extreme risk as a lifestyle and vocation live in dread of getting bad news, but at the same time we are wildly proud of our sons for their courage and determination to be explorers in a time when most people think terrestrial, social, and environmental exploration is over," they said in an e-mail. "We didn't know Hendri, but will miss his presence on earth and in the life of our son."
The expedition was the latest in a string that Stooksberry and Korbulic have mounted exploring remote and dangerous rivers. In recent years they have been in the Himalayas, Brazil, Pakistan, Mexico and North America. Stookesberry has a production company, Clear H2O Films, that makes DVDs about the expeditions.
In one blog post from the leg of their trip that took them down the White Nile, Stookesberry described Coetzee as "extremely blunt, especially when it comes to setting up protocol" on the trip.
"Stay out of eddies … because there are three-ton hippos that will bite you in half," Stookesberry quoted Coetzee, who was also known as Hendri, in a post filed on Nov. 3. "Stay off the banks because the crocs are having a bake and might fancy you for lunch. Basically, stay close behind me and follow my lead. Any questions?"
The trip was a first-of-its-kind kayaking expedition from the White Nile and Congo rivers into Congo, according to a statement from Eddie Bauer, the trip's sponsor. The company described Coetzee as "a well-known African guide with many first descents and extensive knowledge of the whitewater in and around the DRC."
"We are saddened by the tragic accident and express our deepest sympathies to Hendri's family and friends," the statement said.
'I would never live a better day'
The three men, all experienced kayakers, were part of a mission to document unexplored whitewater and development projects in the region, the statement added, noting that another focus of the project is to highlight the clean water crisis in Central Africa.
In his online blog, Coetzee discussed the importance of trusting instincts. "Expeditions should not have many rules, but since there is nothing common about sense, some have. Our only rule is jokingly quoted but of the utmost importance. 'Nobody panic,'" he wrote in a Nov. 17 post.
In Coetzee's last entry, dated Nov. 26, he wrote: "It is hard to know the difference between irrational fear and instinct, but fortunate is he who can. Often there is no clear right or wrong option, only the safest one. And if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home in Jinja.
"Too often when trying something no one has ever done, there are only 3 likely outcome (sic): Success, quitting, or serious injury and beyond. The difference in the three, are often forces outside of your control. But this is the nature of the beast: Risk."
After describing some of the geographical and political perils of the day's journey, Coetzee summed up his realizations about the experience as the team looked ahead:
"We stood precariously on a unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed, I would never live a better day."