Nick Harding | @nickhdg | Sportscene - Sportscene was given exclusive access to the pre-published draft of Hendri Coetzee's autobiography; the South African was one of the most-respected explorers and paddlers in African history who navigated, by raft, the source of the Nile to its sea-mouth, Coetzee was sadly presumed dead in 2010 following an attack on his kayak by a crocodile.
Hendri Coetzee relives his wayward ways as a youth prior to military service as well as his drunken days that lead him and fellow rafter / best friend Pete to, in 2004, undertake a voyage of epic proportions paddling approximately 6700km from the Nile Basin in Lake Victoria to its Mediterranean-mouth at Rosetta through 3 politically-heated countries at the time (Uganda, Sudan, Eqypt). Weaving his life-tapestry Coetzee, also an exceptional kayaker, makes reference to his descents on the Zambezi River, the Congo and his first ascents on the last expedition of the Great Lakes, Central Africa.
“I would never live a better day.”
Sitting outside a café in a traditional Swiss square I find myself fully-absorbed, addicted and several hours later, many coffees down wanting to finish the book in a day – this rarely happens!
If you enjoyed watching Steve Fisher's film Congo: The Grand Inga Project (2010) or really got into Claire O'Hara's article about her Ugandan trip earlier this year, then you'll really get your teeth into this soon-to-be released book written by ex-military turned raft-guide Hendri Coetzee himself and then, following his death, edited by Kara Blackmore.
Originally thinking this story would be merely a macho testicle-driven account of an incredible and near-unrepeatable river descent, of which part of it is because Coetzee is one tough cookie with a relentless hunger to party, it far exceeded all expectations – his writing is beautiful scratching deep below the surface of many controversial issues affecting life in Africa as well as the banality of everyday life using dark humour and some unbelievable comparisons:
“Rafting on this section is like being lost without a map while driving in a foreign city at rush hour. Scattered islands mean we have to change intersections a few times to find the right turnoff, taking great care to give the hippopotamus traffic as much space as possible.”
It doesn't matter whether you are a die-hard paddler or a casual one, you will be just as captivated by Coetzee's description of the river features and scares he encountered during his expeditions; get ready for speechlessness and a lump in your throat (this one was taken from his extract kayaking the Congo):
Waterfalls sixty meters high, drift serenely alongside frenzied rapids that burst through patches of green vegetation. Eventually, tired and complacent, I make a mistake. The penalty is a few moments of dread as I paddle uphill from a section that might just kill me. It is a nice reminder. I should focus. I should know better than to give in to an inclination to rush.
Like any excursion-travelogue you want to follow the trip from beginning to end because of passing time, in this case I was drawn to: one; the Nile-trip was an unusually long-winded raft adventure and two; his personal complexes from his youth remained through his later adult years.
Part of the book's charm is that it is littered with reoccurring themes, many a professional athlete can identify with them: drinking as the ultimate goal to celebrate successfully nailing a hard-river section, drinking as dystopian escapism, chasing something (women, an adrenaline rush, a dream unshared by others), conquering and fearing death, losing and gaining faith, as he puts it sub-culture 'freaks' attracting 'freaks' - those who are all about 'the image' not the sport, the difficulty of getting sponsorship (especially when Pete is involved), macho-ism amongst your mates and what makes a 'real' man, physical strength as a benefit and lack of it a potential death-risk, wanting and getting fame, power, the deadly-rewarding sides of nature and post-high syndrome to name a few.
His writing isn't just for athletes though, anyone can really identify with what he says about having your leadership undermined because you are young or as others are close-minded, how to function in the real world, the randomness of reality, the outrageousness of daily life, not trusting people, managing your anger, doing something full-throttle, the attraction of illegality with after-drug paranoia, plus creating your own destiny.
Coetzee essentially writes about two worlds colliding whether it be being a white South African in a black world, paddling-existence fusing to become normal life and how to survive a world without structure; what do you do when you leave the military? what do you do when do complete your expedition?
He is a wizard at comparing these worlds with nature and his writing is satirically very funny too! He manages to balance the seriousness of his real-life experiences of impoverished, war-torn Africa with the strangeness of his own life; comedy and swearing aplenty!
Pete will end up buying everyone drinks and spending all our money, while using his on-board freak magnet to attract and befriend the weirdest characters in a hundred-mile radius. He will no doubt send us into worlds so strange that we will look like the normal ones!
However, beware there are parts of his life-story that are graphic because he ultimately writes openly reciting the horrors he has seen.
I hadn't seen the accompanying images of his raft-journey with Pete before I finished this section, yet I didn't need to – so visual and accurate his writing was that I was sitting right there with him, with brown shorts on the “action raft”, as he called it, or feeling like I was grimacing too when 'suicide' tequila shots were being downed!
I won't give away any spoilers but do read on.
A certainly worthwhile brilliantly-written read, time it well when to go onto the more solemn and graphic sections though. You won't be disappointed by its realistic buttock-clenching action and the humanism behind Coetzee's rendition of his expedition.
The autobiography is a eulogy, a hommage to the life and soul of an incredible adventurer who loved his continent, a man who loved the freedom paddling gave him, a man who lived for each day and celebrated his existence hard, a man who pursued and lived his dreams.
- You can buy the book here: http://livingthebestdayever.com