Explorer feared dead after Congo croc attack

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The Independent Online

A renowned outdoorsman who wrote movingly about testing himself against nature was feared dead today after a crocodile snatched him from his kayak while he led an American expedition from the source of the White Nile into the heart of Congo.

Two Americans being guided by 35-year-old South African Hendrik Coetzee on the gruelling trip could only watch in horror as the attack took place on Congo's Lukuga River on Tuesday morning. They paddled unharmed to safety.

The International Rescue Committee, which runs development projects in the Central African nation, helped evacuate Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic to a nearby town, Ciaran Donnelly, the organisation's regional director in Congo, said.

Coetzee's body has not been recovered. The stretch of river where the trio was travelling is notoriously dangerous because of its whitewater and numerous crocodiles and hippos.

In a blog called The Great White Explorer that chronicled the trip sponsored by the Eddie Bauer clothing and outdoor equipment company, Coetzee wrote about the thrill of taking to uncharted waters, including stretches that might soon disappear due to planned dams.

He also described sometimes facing suspicion from military and other officials. One day ended in a storm and he wrote: "As hard, warm drops trashed at our little selves and a pair of goats, we stood precariously on an unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed, I would never live a better day."

A friend, Celliers Kruger, who owns a South African kayaking company, called Coetzee, who was known as Hendri, a legend.

"He was the bravest guy I've ever known," Mr Kruger said. "But he wasn't crazy. He was very calculated and set the bar high for future exploration in Africa."

Mr Korbulic's parents Paul and Mary Korbulic, of Rogue River, Oregon, said they were on holiday in Costa Rica when they got an email from their son saying he was safe.

"You just can't even think how terrible that is," Mrs Korbulic said of the crocodile attack.

The couple 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 received the email 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 email.

"We didn't know Hendri, but will miss his presence on earth and in the life of our son."

Hugh du Preez, a friend who kayaked with Coetzee, said he was not just interested in the adrenaline rush but had "a fantastic social conscience".

He said Coetzee ran kayak trips for underprivileged children in Sudan and "was one of those people that would look after others not only in a physical sense but also nurture them spiritually and mentally".

Eddie Bauer said the trip was a first-of-its-kind kayaking expedition from the White Nile and Congo rivers into Congo. The three men, all experienced kayakers, were documenting unexplored whitewater and development projects in the region.

Mr Stookesberry, from Mount Shasta, California, and Mr Korbulic, of Rogue River, Oregon, were expected to return to the US shortly. Coetzee had been living in Uganda at the time of the expedition.

One of the Americans recounted on his blog how Coetzee has warned them about the dangers of the trip, including "three-ton hippos that will bite you in half".

"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 blog quoted Coetzee as saying.

Deadly hippo and crocodile attacks on humans are not uncommon in Africa, though figures are hard to pin down. Johnny Rodrigues, a wildlife expert in Zimbabwe, said parks authorities there were reluctant to give out numbers for fear of scaring away tourists.

"They are the predators of the water," Mr Rodrigues said of the crocodiles.

In his blog, Coetzee discussed the importance of trusting instincts and the group's only rule - "nobody panic".