In defense of adventure: Some thoughts on the death of Hendri Coetzee

Hendri Coetzee

Note: Earlier this month, global adventurer Hendri Coetzee was killed by a crocodile while leading a kayaking expedition down the Ruzizi River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Guidebook writer and no-baggage travel pioneer Jonathan Yevin was friends with Coetzee, and he sent me a heart-felt eulogy that explores Hendri’s unique way of looking at the world. Here, in full, are Jonathan’s thoughts on what vagabonders might learn from Coetzee’s life:

On Thursday, November 11, 2010, Hendri Coetzee wrote in his blog that, for the first time in his life, “I walked without anything to prove to myself, and I was already where I wanted to be.” The 35-year-old South African had just pulled off a first descent down the Ruzizi River, along the anarchic borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, discovering along the way some of the most extreme whitewater on the continent. It was just the latest in a paddling career noted for tackling formidable rivers in dangerous locales.

In other entries, Hendri wrote of a tacit acceptance that his calling would lead to an early death, concluding that “life without passion holds no appeal” and “if safe was all I wanted, I would have stayed home.” A week later, Hendri was seized from his kayak and killed by a crocodile.

Was he a heroic loner on a courageous mission? Or did he have some sort of sublimated death wish? Truth be told, these two readings of Hendri’s character represent a dangerously oversimplified analysis.


Some people who read the sensationalistic news reports about Hendri’s death straight away categorized him in the Chris McCandless/Timothy Treadwell set of ill-fated explorers who saw nature as their personal therapeutic playground. Here is one comment posted on a popular kayaking site’s forum:

<< Want to mingle with man eating animals? Enter into the food chain at your own risk. Not sad. Just over confident and the odds caught up with him. >>

Others questioned whether he would have made the choices he did, in hindsight. On Hendri’s own blog someone remarked:

<< I think this guy was a meddling fool, looking for a thrill. I am very sorry for his death but his actions were extremely foolish! Is this Stanley going to deepest Africa redux? Was it really worth being eaten by a crocodile and turned into his meal? I think not! >>

And another comment:

<< Like Steve Irwin, I believe you too would have rather lived a quiet, unexciting life had you known what you do now. >>

These individuals would like to see the story of Hendri Coetzee as a morality tale, his life and death an example for people not to follow. In the rush to make sense of a horrific tragedy, some are quick to proclaim their absolute lack of sympathy for someone who didn’t fit into society’s neat little box.

Amongst those who knew him, reactions were more compassionate. His Facebook wall fast became a tribute to a hero, as well as a group commiseration, rife with heartfelt avowals that Hendri died doing what he loved; that this was the only fitting way to go for a great explorer; that he was in his happy place; that he didn’t have much fear of death. That what happened was the right thing to happen.


When all is said and done, all of these reactions—from the message board trolls to the everything-happens-for-a-reason parrots—amount to so much hot air. Hendri was no meddling fool, nor is a crocodile’s mouth a happy place. He was no Crocodile Hunter indulging a neocolonialist fantasy. The truth is Hendri wanted to be alive.

From the moment I met him, nearly ten years ago, I was awed by Hendri’s incredible physical courage coupled with his profound quest for truth and meaning in life. At the time I was working in a remote safari camp on the Tanzanian coast, living in a hut, with nothing but raw nature for a hundred miles in any direction. Hendri rolled up off the beach and introduced himself. He was sunburned and loaded down with survival gear—yet inconspicuous and nonchalant, as if on a leisurely Sunday stroll through the mall. He had trekked that wild stretch all the way from Kenya, braving every manner of life-risking obstacle (particularly the many hippo-, croc-, and shark-rich delta fordings) by himself. After I uncorked my nicest bottle of wine, we stayed up way past our bedtimes debating what was the most important invention in the past two thousand years (he suggested it was the rudder, I said printing press). In the morning we exchanged contact information, and just as nattily as he’d arrived he was on his way.

As time bore on, that trope—a man taking on the wild African coast by himself—which blessed me at 22 years of age, proved a catalyst for change in my relationship with the world. It’s a big part of the reason why I dropped the primary accessory of backpacking and headed overseas with just a passport and a toothbrush.

Fellow travelers who meet me on the road often say, ‘you are so brave, I could never do that.’ My response is to tell them about my friend Hendri, who showed me what brave is. He led the first trip down the full length of the Nile, past warring Sudanese factions and lost tribes in a marshland the size of France. He summited Africa’s equatorial glaciers, the Rwenzori Mountains, then snowboarded down them. He slogged through uncharted regions of central Africa with a pygmy poacher, gazetting a 12,000 square mile tropical rainforest to eventually turn it into a protected reserve. He owned nothing but books and an old beat-up kayak. By comparison, traveling with no bags is the easiest thing in the world.


Hendri was no grizzly man disappeared unto the wild. He was not reckless or arrogant. He was not aloof from family and friends. He was a teacher and a student. He believed life is an adventure that always leads back to oneself. He pounced on all life’s opportunities and did his best to experience complete self-expression and pursue the fullest applications of his extraordinary potential. He inspired others to move from the realm of the ordinary to that of the mysterious.

Hendri’s solo expedition was cut short. What Hendri saw as his greatest source of happiness and fulfillment ultimately destroyed him. Yet his demise has brought together many people from around the world. This past week I’ve met Gustav, a filmmaker and childhood buddy who shot a documentary about Hendri’s trip down the Ethiopian Blue Nile; Celliers, the president of Hendri’s sponsor Fluid Kayaks; and Chris, another world class kayaker who was with Hendri til the monstrous end. We grieve, we mourn, we lament—but we also remember that the purpose of exploration is so much more than navigating the physical encounter. Experience is another layer, a kayak on the first descent that is our learning process.

When I spent time with Hendri in South Africa, he introduced me to his beloved native land using not just the draw of adventure, but the people and historical context—and most resounding, his unremitting search for what he would only jokingly refer to as enlightenment. In fact, he referred to his expeditions as “boyish games,” and suggested we emulate those who could turn every day into a chance to give, to laugh, or to experience: “We come in with the death-defying stunts, but what do any of these things really count for in the day-to-day life that we are all forced to live?” This is the real tragic essence of Hendri’s abbreviated life: that, with so much wrong and unjust in the world, many of us vagabonders find it impossible to achieve enlightened states of peace in our default reality. So we head out the door with a one-way plane ticket and a contrived mission.


Hendri’s unique blog is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of this quandary, as well as a levelheaded discourse on the brute force of nature, pragmatic day-to-day life, and human hubris. Like everything he did, this was no half-assed endeavor. Hendri captured the thrill of his expeditions with acumen and humor. There are only eleven entries over a two-month period. It was written for an audience of just his closest friends and family. The concept of self-promotion was entirely foreign to Hendri. Once upon a time I sold an editor of a high profile men’s magazine on an article about Hendri’s exploits, but when I told him about it he replied: “I don’t really think the standard ‘I’m a badass article’ is what I’m after. Back in the forest tomorrow. Take care out there in the concrete jungle.” I would challenge all of you to take on a reading of his passionate declarations as the raw material to peek not only into his life, but your own.

—Jonathan Yevin

Posted by | Comments (8)  | December 25, 2010
Category: Adventure Travel, Africa

8 Responses to “In defense of adventure: Some thoughts on the death of Hendri Coetzee”

  1. » In defense of adventure: Some thoughts on the death of Hendri … | HappyTipsDaily Says:

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  2. Adriano Says:

    Any passion is likely to be considered as foolishness by those who don’t share it.

  3. Hayden Says:

    Steve – you are truly an iddiot

  4. Phil Harwood Says:

    I dont know any of you guys, but having canoed the Congo River from source to sea myself,taking five months in 2008 with numerous croc encounters … I take my hat off to this guy Hendri. He knew the risks … they all knew the risks … and nobody has any right to criticise them. Nobody ever put up a statue to a critic.

  5. Canadian G Says:

    People, stop responding to Steve–he is clearly a troll. The bad spelling and grammar, the style of writing, etc., gives it away. No real commenter would spend so much time engaging other posters but a troll.

    Hendri took his chances, and his luck didn’t hold. He was a brave man who lived an exciting life. Condolences to his friends and family.

  6. charles ferreira Says:

    Funny how we look at his life with such ridicule. As if we are immortal and this guy just blew thousands of years on this planet. Truth is this man may have been extreme but he has a lesson for all of us….. to live. Maybe if we look at life through simpler goggles, we may appreciate our surroundings and thus live a more rewarding and successful life. This man died at 45% percent of a so called full life yet his meter runs over when it comes to experiences and thrills. You my friend have lived more in your short existence than most of us ever could.

  7. Doug Ammons Says:

    I’m late in this, but would just like to give a personal salute to Hendri. It’s one thing to be a skilled athlete doing hard whitewater. Yet another to take those skills and do expeditions in the African wilderness with all its unique hazards. And yet still another to have the depth of character to reflect and write thoughtfully on what all that means. Hendri did all three and much more. He was unique. His death was a major loss to the sport and to the insightful contribution he had for us.

    The guys above who mouth off their personal opinions of Hendri should do so on their own forums, instead of using a place created to reflect on and respect the man. It’s amazing they feel compelled to pass judgment on him without knowing the basics of who he was, or what he was doing. It’s a mark of their cluelessness, and also annoying and pointless, that they want to inform the rest of us of their wise opinions.

    As far as lessons to learn from getting taken by a crocodile in the African wilderness – it’s impossible ahead of time to judge the risk of something that’s never happened before. In fact, all prior croc encounters by all kayakers in Africa had been dealt with safely, and Hendri was applying that knowledge. You can’t ask for any more, or expect any better accuracy. It is unrealistic and irrelevant to assume – after the fact – we would have made a better judgment than him. All of us make judgments all the time about familiar but potentially dangerous situations, and this was no different. It’s easy to second guess from a safe chair in front of a computer, saying somebody should have done this or that. But it falsely assumes that the great arm-chair choice wouldn’t have led to a different deadly problem, or had other unknown consquences.

    Life is filled with things like this, and nobody can foresee what will happen; we all make the best choice we can at the one moment when it matters.

    Like Hendri said, if you’re afraid of such choices then stay at home.

    Here’s to you Hendri.

    Doug Ammons

  8. Paul Says:

    It seems to me, as an interested reader of this post, that Hendri lived a full life and to suggest that, belatedly, he may wish he’d ‘lived a quiet, unexciting life’ is to miss the point of what people like Hendri think actually constitutes a life. Now, obviously, there are many that share his sentiments or, perhaps, knew him personally and, of course, they will defend him and honour his memory. On the other hand, people who value other ways of living will attack him as a foolish risk-taker who got what he was looking for. The point I would make is that insisting people like Steve (above) don’t offer their thoughts on this post and try to shout them down is just silly. It’s been posted in a public domain for people to read, think about and comment on. We’re all different, different values, different needs, different ambitions. I suspect Hendri wouldn’t have worried too much about the critics.