Kayakers recall horror of losing leader to crocodile

Members of an expedition to explore white-water rivers in the heart of Africa by kayak pose on the banks of the Nile River near Dead Dutchman Rapid in Uganda in October. Trip leader Hendri Coetzee of South Africa, second from right with arms crossed, is p

GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- For weeks, three kayakers exploring a series of rivers through the heart of Africa had come together in close defensive formation designed to ward off hippo and crocodile attacks whenever they paddled the quiet green glides between thundering stretches of whitewater.

The boaters -- two Americans and a South African -- traveled some 1,000 miles of river this way, through the densest concentrations of man-killing wildlife in the world.

They were paddling Dec. 7 in synchronous strokes, just 4 or 5 feet from each other, on a quiet stretch of the Lukuga River in Congo when a crocodile slipped up from behind and ripped trip leader Hendri Coetzee from his tiny red plastic boat.

With no time to do anything but say "Oh, my God!" Coetzee was gone, hauled beneath the green water never to be seen again.

"The crocodile just pulled him right under water," Chris Korbulic said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Reno, Nev., where he was visiting his brother. "I think we both were just in complete shock and disbelief and absolutely horrified at what had just happened."

For about 20 seconds after the crocodile grabbed Coetzee by the shoulder and overturned his boat, the craft shook as the crocodile pulled him from the tight-fitting cockpit, Korbulic said.

Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry got off the river, composed themselves, then continued downstream, taking out at a village. Coetzee's body has never been found and he is presumed dead.

Stookesberry, 32, of Mount Shasta, Calif., and Korbulic, 24, of Rogue River, Ore., are world-class kayakers who have gone where no boat has gone before to navigate the melting snows of the Himalayas in Northern Pakistan and India, towering waterfalls in Brazil, and boulder-stewn creeks in Costa Rica, California and British Columbia.

With primary sponsorship from Eddie Bauer Inc.'s First Ascent line of outdoor gear, they had partnered with Coetzee, a top whitewater guide based in Uganda, to follow the White Nile, Lukuga and Congo rivers through snowcapped mountains, steaming jungles, and rolling hills covered in elephant grass.

They also hoped to bring attention to the crisis of millions of people dying from poor water quality in a region overflowing with water.