This isn't about "accidents", nor white-water kayaking (a sport I once partook in), nor rivers. This is about the downstream current of life. This is about death. This is about getting to the point where one fully trusts that gravitational pull in the black hole of your belly. This is about how I never surrendered to the divine, to that black hole, last year. Maybe once. Okay, maybe twice. Piss poor for an explorer, really.
I watered down every single idea I had last year to make it palatable to investors or voters (think Pepsi Refresh or Kickstarter) or potential clients. When the whole point in the first place was the first descent--an expedition that had never been attempted before, not pursuing the safe and sure. This is about how the real danger is resisting where the flow takes you. This is about being gutsy.
At least that's what I thought this post would be about.
I still don't know why, yet this story about Hendri Coetzee captured me when I read it on December 25, 2010. I figured I'd write a post soon after about adventure, risk, life, death. I haven't been able to do it justice.
I give up. It's just going to be a small tribute from what Hendri himself and a friend wrote of his life.
What comes next in the weeks and months ahead shall be infused with some of his spirit and joie de vivre.
Hendri Coetzee was kayaking in Africa with a few other world-class river runners on a private expedition. "He led the first source-to-sea exploration of the Nile River in 2004 and opened up many waterways for kayak travel throughout Africa." - MSNBC, 12/21/10
"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: Success, quitting, or serious injury and beyond." - Hendri Coetzee's last post on instinct and "feeling" one's way
I believed it'd be all icing on the cake after near death on December 26, 2004--and all my days ever more would feel like an "extra" extension. Yet it is easy to take life for granted and to settle into other people's rhythms even for someone that writes a post titled, If Not on the Day I Die, Then Not Today."
"The highest form of bliss is living with a certain degree of folly." - Erasmus
I originally read of Hendri's life, and his death on the Vagabonding blog. The entire post is worthwhile, and this excerpt of his friend's first meeting with Henri touched me:
"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.
- "In Defense of Adventure: Some thoughts on the death of Hendri Coetzee", Vagabonding blog, Jonathan Yevin
One of the parts I loved about Peter Pan (I only read it for the first time in 2009) was a scene where Peter believes he may really die as tidal water rises around him. The boy huddles on a small knoll. Suddenly, the avid and daring adventurer in him brightens up at the prospect of a new adventure--he's never died before, he realizes.
Henri tries to answer that quintessential (and exasperating) question asked of every explorer, Why? about his expedition. (Explaining kills art, is my typical reply.)
"In a world filled with interpretations; truth exist in only in nature. There you cannot even lie to yourself. She does not tolerate bullshit. You come before Her with respect, fully present and ready to give a 100%, anything less and She will have your head.
Ultimately going on a journey that puts your life at risk is not a decision made by the mind. Reason does not support it. When Edmund Hillary was asked why he climbed mountains, he said “Because it is there.” I wonder if he knew he was talking about the need not the mountain.
My current view on the matter is that the issue of motivation is indeed beyond words or even petty needs. When we surrender to the unknown, faced with the magnitude of the powers that lies ahead, it forces the realization of how insignificant this body is compared to the forces that lie in our path. Someone recently pointed out to me that our greatest moments are the ones where we lose ourselves. Moments when we become not only more, but become everything.I have breathed in life in its purest form a few second here and there and all I want is more of it.
These moment by themselves are inadequate, they offer only brief respite. Grabbing onto them can be as destructive as any addiction. Their value lies in the glimpses they provide of what is possible. I have come to hope that perhaps the intensity and clarity of these experiences can be used for more than cheap thrills. There is more to this world than what we perceive and perhaps one day I can slip through the gap these experience briefly provide, to live permanently in that place of Boundlessness, also know as Happiness. Not the superficial ‘satisfaction of needs’ happiness, but the real thing. The happiness of Being one with the moment, no matter how it presents itself. Ultimate freedom." - "Because it is there," The Great White Explorer blog, by Hendri Coetze
Thank you, Hendri.
p.s. Crocodile symbol via BellaOnline.com: "[Although the crocodile signifies hidden danger, it can be transmuted into an ally.] If you can identify the emotions or situation that is lurking under the surface of your conscious mind, you can use that powerful energy as protection rather than experiencing it as a hidden danger. You can harness the energy and use it as a source of inspiration and creativity."
p.p.s. The blog headline is the very last sentence of the last post Henri wrote.
Bonus: Supposedly, my horoscope for 2011:
"The Strait of Gibraltar is the narrow passage between Europe and Africa where the Mediterranean Sea joins the Atlantic Ocean. According to legend, in ancient times the Latin phrase "ne plus ultra" was inscribed in the rock overlooking this gateway. It meant "not further beyond," and served as a warning to sailors not to venture out to the wild waters past the strait. Eventually, that cautionary advice became irrelevant, of course. With a sturdy vessel, skilled crew, good preparation, and expert knowledge based on the experience of others, venturing out past the "ne plus ultra" point wasn't dangerous. I hope you'll take that as your cue in 2011, Gemini. - freewillastrology.com for January 5th, 2011
At this point, I don't even care if venturing past the "ne plus ultra" signage is dangerous or not. The safe choice will surely kill me.
art credits: Scout of the Rusisi River, photo by Henri Coetzee from his The Great White Explorer blog; The Fool, from the Phoenix Tarot deck; 1810 postcard of the Rock of Gilbraltar issued by L.J. Stagnetto from Wikipedia