Friday, November 26, 2010

Feelings, do they make you soft?




As I licked my dry lips and carefully checked that my spray deck was on properly, I had the feeling I might be doing something I should not. I pushed through the doubt and when I finally shot out the bottom of the rapid I was happy I did. It was just paranoia after all.
Two nights later another doubt surfaced as I lay safely in my sleeping bag. This time about running a proposed ferry above Murchison falls, a move I thought I could do in my sleep. I put it down to too much coffee and ignored it.
The next morning, my mind occupied with logistical issues, I hardy gave the matter anymore thought and was just about to put in when Ben called me over to look at the line again. Either it had changed, or we had all misread it the day before. From a different angle it seemed near impossible. It is doubtful I would have made it and the consequences would have been fatal.
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. The difference in the three, are often forces outside of your control. But this is the nature of the beast: Risk. 
Anyone who is good at what they do, be it marketing, sports or hairdressing will tell you they trust their instincts. There are rational explanations for people making the right choices based on information they could not have known beforehand but only because we live in a rational world. If you chose this option and believe that all that all there is to know is already known, then that is your boring truth, keep me out of it. Whatever the real reason, I think we all agree that people who can go successfully beyond facts are the ones who excel in any, and all fields.  
There are ways to sharpen these skills, such as practicing to trust your feelings.  Personally I have found meditation extremely helpful but I am yet to find a definite answer on when to choose fact over instinct. But due to necessity I am often forced to choose none the less.
Never has this been more so than over the last week.
Our goal for the week was a first decent of the river that forms the border between the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Due to some recent rebel activity, we cut plans for the last 80km between Burundi and Congo (it was flat water anyway) and focused on the prize, 15km of what we believed could be some of the steepest, big volume creaking in Africa(meaning: more water going over more rocks at a faster speed). About the only thing going for us was that the left side of the river belonged to Rwanda. (African politics 101: Rwanda, size of Wales, densest population in Africa, relative fortress of stability in central Africa, army with lack of humor that kicks serious ass, when and too whom they see fit.)
After a frustrating morning trying to find the exact put in at the second of two hydro stations, we were halted by a soldier who refused to let us proceed without permission. Given where we were, a reasonable request. We would have loved to have had permission, but no one wanted to take responsibility for something they could not grasp. Being possibly the only country in Africa where a US bill can’t negotiate and will offend by trying, we got back in the car.
After trying several avenues, and two days of delay, we were no closer to knowing who was actually qualified to give such permission. Enough reason to walk away from the project, you would think. Unfortunately the goal of advancing river exploration in central Africa was always going to involve some bending of protocol and the line was looking as blurry as ever. With a new dam proposed to be built and the area likely to remain on a political knifes edge, we realized that this might be the last chance anyone gets... That and we really, really wanted to.
I knew as expedition leader that ‘want to’ was probably not enough and after being blown off by the mayor, I started to make alternative plans as I waited for the boys to return from a scouting mission with hired some motorbikes.
They reported that the locals seemed calm enough and after seeing photos taken from the rim of a truly spectacular canyon and monstrous rapids, desire took over common sense again. Ben was keen and Chris undecided.
As leader I would have the final say but for once it was a decision I did not want to take. We still had preciously little info on what we would find down there. Our greatest alley, the all mighty Rwandan army had become an obstacle to be avoided, their reaction to us found in a delicate area with bags full of cameras and no official papers was expected to be less than accommodating. If caught we would be on our own, unable to drag the names of our ‘friends’ into our mess. With all this on the table, and my mind made up, I was surprised that I still wanted to have a crack at it.  
The river and the area would be enough challenge under any circumstances, with the added element of doing it without permission we all knew that we were on the line, possible past it, and we had not even started yet. We promised ourselves that if anymore complications arrived we would back down, pack up and go our way.
The plan was simple, we would go down, nice and slow and as far from the soldier who stopped us as possible. Unfortunately the only put in we could find was within sight of the dam; and as soon as we were on the water, we could see people watching us from there.
This really should have been the end of the trip, but I was again surprised on how easily we decided to run the first drop and then see what happened. The river was beautiful but I have walked away from beauty for a lot less and rationally should have done so again. My mind was spinning with the decision, the repercussions and the consequences but strangely inside it felt right.
So we went.
The first rapid lasted 5 minutes, we stuck around for a few minutes waiting for hell to break lose, when it didn’t, we did another rapid and then another and another. The whitewater was everything we had hoped for and more. The rapids flowing into one another in uninterrupted continuity.

Our suspicions of the locals lessened as an ever growing mob cheered and encouraged us down the river. Once they realized what those plastic boats were capable of they even started making suggestions on how to approach future obstacles.
I thought I had been to most of the big gorges in Africa but it turns out only to the known ones. To find myself in something of that scale, almost unknown, was worth every drop of sweat, every public bus ride, every fly infested nowhere border town I have invested time in, ever. Dwarfed by lush green mountains rising up to 3000ft above us, we were drawn in ever deeper with a constant eye on the banks for trouble, by the river with every foot of is relentless gradient.
Only one portage was required on day one, and the three of us quickly fell into our roles, leapfrogging, filming and scouting without instruction. Keeping an eye on each other, but hardly ever talking, the hush of the river static thick and comfortable over us in the narrow valley only occasionally broken by short sentences of appreciation.
We spent the night under a overhanging cliff, waking sporadically to stare at the full moon and the silhouette of the mountains overlapping in the cut behind us rising with the sun that signaled the start of another big day.
Below our camp, I changed my line to accommodate the camera, making the schoolboy error of not scouting around the corner for the variation and paid the price. Ahead of the boys and knowing that swimming was not an option, made the beating easier to handle, but being rag dolled in a fully loaded Creek-boat is an experience I found unpleasant.
More portages appeared on day two and I was struggling to get to grips with the unusual reactions of a heavy boat, being a bit too fast or to slow for the majority of the day, at times I was annoyed, at times I was scared, but most of the time I would be nowhere else.
To avoid detection from possible soldiers downstream, we took out at the last big rapid. An army of impromptu porters were eager to carry our boats out what seemed to me a challenging affair. ¾ up, the storm unleashed, dragging a curtain of water towards us through the warped valley. As hard, warm drops trashed at our little selves and a pair of goats,
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.

66 comments:

  1. So this means you had the "best day ever" ? ;) Once again, I'm taken to a far off place by the beauty of your words....

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  2. Always great reading your words, Hendri.
    A true adventurer and one of the boldest spirits whitewater has ever known. RIP.

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  3. "Live every day as if it was your last, and one day you will be right". Thanks again for the time we shared and all those Best Days Ever. RIP

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  4. I was recently reading and become inspired by your adventures and stories. RIP

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  5. Like so many of the people that inspire me, I discover them after their passing.

    How Ben described your mastery & nonchalant handling of the turbulent issues arising during your last adventure in the middle of a volatile war zone in the Outside article, left me inspired & waiting to hear more of this impossible yet made possible by you epic undertaking.

    I hope others not familiar with your native continent discover the same hope & joy in seeing even those devastated by a war beyond their control, showing the same excitement, good will & well wishes to those from far away safe places traveling through their homelands by "beyond their world" means! You were a great ambassador for kayaking, as well as a peaceful existence amongst people of different cultures.

    Condolences to your family & friends.

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  6. I Have had fortune to spent lots of time with u talking, kayaking and thinking to the future...i'll always be ispired by you, Hendri....rip in the heart of your loved Africa. i'll be missing you.

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  7. An inspiration to everyone, always burning brightly and bringing Great White Explorers into the 21st century

    Jinja is completely gutted by the news we are hearing

    Shine on, you crazy diamond.
    Chris & Georgie

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  8. RIP in the Great river in the sky, keep an eye out for all us mortals below, we will be thinking of you!

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  9. My deepest Condolences to Hendri's Family and Friends! You were a great explorer, and a pleasure to meet you. RIP

    Andrew Colvin-Smith

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  10. Hendri, I only got to know you a few days before your tragic death, when you were in Congo already. I only spent a few hours talking to you, but this was enough to grasp how inspirational you were. Was looking forward to visit you in UG in February, and the news of your death moved me more than expected. RIP Big Man, and I hope you continue enjoying your passion wherever you are. Peace and condoleances to your family and friends. Alex

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  11. Well done kindred spirit!

    Peace (and inspiration) to us left behind.

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  12. Today I read a story about your death that lead me to this blog...obviously I don't know you nor your history, but based on what I've read in your posts...you are extraordinary (wherever your incorporeal essence is now).

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  13. I think this guy (Hendri) was a meddling fool, looking for a thrill. I am very sorry for his death but his actions and those of the two americans were extremely foolish!! Is this Stanley going to deepest africa redux? was it really worth bing eaten by a crocidile and turned in to his meal? I think not!!!

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  14. Although the quantity of your days on this earth were cut short, the quality with which you lived them is unparalleled. My hope is that your life will serve as an inspiration for others to see each of their remaining days as a gift and an opportunity for adventure. Rest in peace, Hendri.

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  15. Anthony, first, I'd like to address you. After working in the medical field for a few years, I can tell you that I'd rather die doing something I love that gives my life meaning than die old and without having enjoyed the one life we get to live.

    This explorer is inspiring and my condolences to all the people that love him. It sounds like he has left his mark in this world.

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  16. Like Steve Irwin, I believe you too would have rather lived a quiet, un-exiting life had you known what you do now..

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  17. I only wish i could write as eloquently you did about life and our passion for exploration and water. I will one day explore the land of Africa which you were so passionate for and I will always remember the thrill for life.

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  18. I admired your zest for life. You truly lived each day to the fullest. I am sorry that you lost your life. Having read through your blog, you showed so much promise. You had a real gift in your writing. Wherever you are, others there with you are lucky. They will hear tales of great adventure from a man who truly DID live each and every single day as if it was his last. My condolences to his family and friends.

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  19. RIP - you had a lot of fun while you were here. May the afterlife be equally as fun!

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  20. An incredible man. An incredible life. Even more incredible, he knew he "would never live a better day." I wish I had known him.

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  21. I had the great privilege of being a good friend and colleague of Hendri Coetzee. When we first met, Hendri had never sat in a kayak. Yet in the space of a few short years he became one of the most renowned, respected and trusted safety kayakers, rafting guides and expedition leaders on the African Continent. This is testimony to his focus, drive and determination; just a few of his many admirable qualities. The river team Hendri and I belonged to were a ‘band of brothers’ who contributed to the best years of my life in Africa. They will always hold a special place in my mind and heart.

    There are people (who obviously did not know Hendri) who have criticised the way he lived his life. I find this deplorable and, quite frankly, ignorant. Those of us who have explored remote, wild areas of the globe and have pushed ourselves mentally and physically in harsh, hazardous, often hostile environments truly appreciate Hendri’s herculean accomplishments and his tremendous contribution to exploration and the paddling world. Through his exploits Hendri exposed the plight of impoverished people in numerous regions to a global audience. As a result areas once devoid of clean drinking water and sanitation now benefit from these most basic of commodities. This is just one example of the many ways in which Hendri’s expeditions benefited remote communities.

    Hendri often quoted the phrase, “The gift that keeps on giving.” Though not (always) speaking about himself, the phrase aptly sums up the man Hendri was. His adventures directly improved the lives of countless people. In his short life Hendri experienced and achieved more than most of us will do even if we live twice as long. He lived life to the max and died whilst doing what he loved most. He was an inspiration and a cherished friend who is sorely missed.

    Some say ‘Rest in Peace’. I say “Hendri, wherever you are, paddle hard and take chances. Some days are diamonds!”

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  22. I and many other's probably dreamed of being an explorer in our lifetime and one point or another. It's a good thing to see that their still are some of you.

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  24. Off to the next adventure you are. We're not far behind ya mate! See you when we get there....RIP

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  25. I wish to echo all of the above sentiments. Condolences to the family.

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  26. RIP Hendri, and cheers to all you have done for Africa.

    As to the bloody croc...you picked the wrong lunch.

    To future paddlers of the Congo & Nile, never underestimate these creatures. Portage infested regions of the river or take a whitewater raft. Great explorers like John Goddard and Pasquale Scaturo know first hand what it takes to survive. Respect the beasts or pay the price.

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  27. I didn't know you personally, and I'd never heard of you before reading the news of what happened, but it seems as if you've lived a wonderful life, full of adventure. Paddle in peace, wherever you are.

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  28. Anthony... you must not be much of a man , to have expressed your opinion in the way that you did. You without a doubt are a lowlife !!!

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  29. I just wanted to second "Brave's" thoughts. Although I did not know Hendri personally, he is the 2nd person I've known in the past 4 months to die while Living the Dream kayaking, and not a day has passed where I've not thought of the other kayaker who passed doing what they loved, what I love more than anything.

    If you have never kayaked, I do not know if you can fully comprehend the feeling one has on the water.... living life at the fullest, fully engrossed in the moment in your personal "battle" against the best the world can throw at you, challenging all your senses & your true being. Albeit scary at moments, fully knowing this could be your last seconds on Earth, you push forward with a grin of happiness unmatched by any other event of life and are completely inundated by the rush, the amazing world around you & a zest for life incomparable to any other life experience.

    Seconds prior to their last horrifying moments, we can all be assured Hendri was living life at his happiest & how he had wanted to live fully engrossed in truly being, just as those with my other friend witnesses her last moments LIVING life as we all should hope we live ours.

    To the Croc responsible, may you have many years indigestion & tell all your other Croc friends to leave us paddlers alone! Ditto to you damn Hippos too!

    If we all lived life to the fullest potential as Hendri did, the world would be a much better place.

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  30. What a wonderful writer Hendri! You brought an experience to me as though I was there, an adventure which would never have been part of my life. There is great peace in your writing, peace that most people will never know. My blessings to your family and those who love you.

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  31. Wow..what an incredibly inspiring,life-loving,and insightful entity this man was in his earthly form. I'm sure his spirit lives on.

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  32. Ongelooflike ervarings en 'n vol lewe is wat ons almal na strewe, meeste eindig op in 'n vervelige dag tot dag bestaan met die doel voor oë om genoeg geld te maak om die rekeninge te betaal. Almal se tyd is afgemeet en niemand kry meer of minder daarvan as vooraf bepaal deur die Allerghoogste nie - dit kon 'n motorongeluk op die N1 ook gewees. Dit was jou tyd. Ek is trots om te verneem van al jou ervaringe na ons paaie geskei het as twee klein seuntjies van Ottosdal waar ons saam op die trampolien op die plaas gespeel het. Tannie Mari (Hendri se ma) , baie sterkte in hierdie moeilike tyd en ons bid vir julle hele familie en dink aan julle.

    Liefde en groete. Ricus

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  33. In response to Anthony and Janne's comments in particular, I urge you to read Mr. Coetzee's blog entry from October 22nd, just as the expedition was getting underway. It's titled "Because it is there" and provides his personal answer to the question why -- why risk one's life undertaking such a dangerous venture?

    It is well worth reading and one of the best explanations I've come across of the motivation behind inveterate explorers and adventures such as Hendri.

    I discovered his "greatwhiteexplorer" blog only after reading about the circumstances of his death, and I plan to read it all now and delve more into his previous adventures as well. What a life he led!

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  34. You lived life whilst alive. Not many people do that. RIP.

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  35. Sad to read this but you lived a life enjoying what you wanted to do. RIP

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  36. ahh, Hendri, of course it wasn't the river that took you, it could only have been a croc!! it is crazy now to read your last post and your declaration that you would never live a better day... especially as so many of us know you had many remarkable days in your life... may your story inspire us all to revel in the things that make us feel most alive in this life and bring more attention to the stories of the Congo... goodbye, friend... greet those ones there...

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  37. What an awesome person. So sad the news of his death has made many of us aware of him. It would have been great if his blog and exciting adventures were brought to our attention while he was alive. He would have had the gift of knowing how many lives he's inspired and touched.

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  39. I will be on the Nile in 6 days and i wish i would have been able to learn from you.

    As someone once said, there is no shame in dieing doing what you love.

    rest in peace hendri

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  40. The epitomist of river & cultural exploration, discipline & dedication, selflessness drive, inspirational leadership and genuine courage.

    Going to miss you for now, but will catch up with you in the next eddy my china.

    long live the great white explorer

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  41. Cara, fica com Deus aonde estiver. Que vc tenha a luz e muito obrigado pelo que vc foi nesta terra. Seu trabalho ajudou muita gente e o meio ambiente. Silvio, Gravatai, RS, Brazil.

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  42. Hero, you will be remembered...

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  43. Out think the smartest. Out party the wildest. Hendri Coetzee was the best example of a man who knew that life can only really be lived when you are doing what makes you happy. He tirelessly achieved this through dogged determination, self discipline, humility, experience,knowledge and a smile!

    Thank you my friend for the times we have shared. You taught me so much about myself and always had the time to discuss things in depth.

    Thank you for your level headedness in times of crisis, grit in times of hardship and most of all, Thank you for the countless times above rapids, in an eddy or at the bar for your wry humour, unflinching confidence and wicked smile. Even in the face of adversity. Enjoy the party with the rest of the RIP club, quite a rowdy gathering now.

    You are already missed.
    go well.
    Lee.

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  44. Keep holding space brother... Hendri knew that death was only the start of another great adventure, and if there was ever anyone qualified for adventure.... Hendri knew that you could be paddling the deepest gorges, climbing the highest mountains, or sitting quiet on a beach watching the sun go down... it didnt matter as long as you were present and aware in the here and now... All there is is now folks, and right now Hendri is doing what he does best, holding space for the rest of us and waiting for us to catch up.. Sitting in grace in the eternal now must be something else bro... looking forward to low down when we next meet.. blue skies my friend...

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  45. Way to put yourself in unnecessary danger for no reason. Don't heroize him. Learn from his mistake and implement those lessons. Be smart when you adventure. He left behind a lot of friends and family I assume because he had too much faith in luck and was careless with his life. All of you people doing the same will probably have the same fate sooner or later.

    This is tragic.

    Don't repeat it.

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  46. Thank you, Hendri. I did not know you, but your actions appear to be an example of "truly living." To pass away while doing what one loves is to walk the path of truly living. So many people do not have the courage to walk this path for they are too busy trying not to die, which is not living at all. My words are not meant to be a glorification of "death" but rather a salute to your courage that allowed your life's actions be full of purpose and meaning. Your passing was not a waste but a poignant reminder of why life is so precious...

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  47. Luke! You obviously are not an adventurous soul, at least not out in the "real world." Your words come from a place of ignorance and confusion about life in general, but are not unique in this era of arm-chair adventures that live through a virtual world. I find it interesting that you speak so boldly but hide behind privacy settings, this is very revealing of the kind of person you probably are. Please be aware that your ignorance is coming across as arrogance and disrespect to those that know the "reason of life."

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  48. The little I knew about you makes me sorry we never met, your spirit will live on in the waters and the mountains if this world.

    Vaarwel my vriend, roei in rustige waters

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  49. I saw you just last week in Kalemie. Stunned. You were a fantastic guy. We shall meet again one day boet.

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  52. Sorry about my deleted post above.Its hard to find right words...
    I knew Hendrik from his time in Norway.
    He will be missed and I know he became a big inspiration to many!
    I hope you rest in peace.
    My condolences goes to Hendriks family and friends

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  53. Farewell Hendri - your confidence and determination was unwavering and your personality loomed large. Many live their lives half asleep at the wheel - you life was rich and full of wonder, discovery and happiness. You will be sorely missed x

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  54. Beautifully written. Prayers for your family and friends...

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  55. I'm amazed how people can always find something negative in ANYTHING. For god sakes Anthony, Janne, and Luke, the guy lived his life to the fullest doing something he was passionate about. His death is tragic and untimely, but for whatever reason he has moved on from this earth and who the hell do you think you are to criticize how a person passes? Stop being judgmental and get out and live your life already. May he rest in peace.

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  56. I do not know much of anything about you but have stumbled on this through happenstance. I'm much younger but have begun attempting to place myself within the spectrum of uncomfortable enlightenment that accompanies the exploration of the world and have lately found it quite difficult. Yet after reading this I have a renewed confidence, perhaps not yet in my self but in the endeavor, for the mere existence of this post seems to validate the actions of everyone who's come before, taking risks for the sake of living. May you rest well and your family and loved ones know that even in your physical absence the world is not out of reach from your touch.

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  57. "I would never live a better day" - staggeringly apt, prescient, inspiring, sad, fulfilled last words...

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  58. While I have never met Hendri, I so enjoy his amazing writing. He was able to almost make us as readers feel as though we were there with him.

    The "Monster in the River" story in the March 2011 issue of Outside was absolutely inspirational on many levels. When I first began reading the article I felt the monster was the croc; however, after reading I realized the true monster was what we all love reading about, desire to tame the unknown. Just from reading his blog and the article you can easily tell that he knew this monster and battled it everyday. Some fear it, others dream it, and Hendri faced it head on.

    Hollywood creates the face of adventure through fictional characters such as Indiana Jones. Man takes on adventure, conquers everything and then meets the woman of his dreams. Sadly, Hendri was so near that perfect ending only to have a big dumb eating machine end it so prematurely. One can only imagine the amazing adventures Hendri would have given the world had his story unfolded differently, one of adventure, life and above all the woman who was always so near and dear to his heart.

    I apologize to Ms. Buhring if I am stepping into territory that is none of my business. I started reading a story about a man and his adventures and ended reading about a man so full of love for life and the woman that gave his life true and inspirational love.

    Ms. Buhring, I do not know if you are able to or can even bring yourself to read all these kind words left by friends, family, and strangers; but, if you do believe me Hendri is always there for and with you. I am a firm believer that a love and devotion such as the one you both shared can NEVER die!!

    So to everyone reading this testimonial in sadness please also remember to celebrate the man and who he was on earth and is now in spirit. To you Ms. Buhring please take notice to anytime you see a shooting star or blinking light Hendri is there with you holding you, loving you, and growing old with you.

    My prayers, love, thanks, and wishes go out to Hendri, his family, and all his friends. May his spirit stay within our hearts and and continue to inspire and guide every human to not just dream it; but, DO IT!!

    RIP Hendri

    Robert Flammia

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  59. I used to keep myself updated on your adventures upontil the begining of 2010. I just found out ... Im truly shocked and sad - you were a great adventurer and writer. My thoughts goes to your family and friends.

    Your "best day ever" has given me prespective - thanks you for that!

    RIP dear Hendri

    Love from Hanne

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  60. Sure, there were risks involved with kayaking on the river and unfortunately the risk came to pass.

    For posters being critical, if you seek to avoid all risk then you will never do anything. Swimming in the ocean involves a known risk that a rip current could occur and suddenly pull you out to sea and drown you. Yet we do not criticize people who drown in such a manner. A surfer could get attacked by a shark - that is a known risk - but we do not criticize the surfer.

    I wouldn't kayak on a river in Africa, but some people would and thank God for that. It takes guts.

    RIP Hendri.

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  61. It would be sweet if these posts could continue, but they cannot, and we must grow old while he remains always young and in the midst of adventure.

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  62. wow great i have read many articles about this topic and everytime i learn something new i dont think it will ever stop always new info , Thanks for all of your hard work!teddy bears for babies

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