Two American kayakers on an African expedition who watched in horror as their world-renowned guide was snatched by a massive crocodile told TODAY Tuesday that their friend and mentor lost his life in a seeming instant.
Chris Korbulic and Ben Stookesberry were paddling with guide Hendri Coetzee along the croc- and hippo-filled waters of the Lukuga River on Dec. 7, during a trailblazing trip to map the river and also raise global awareness of the clean-water crisis in Africa.
They were paddling close together in an effort to appear larger to any potential animal threat in the river — then disaster struck.
“Chris was close enough to [Coetzee] where they were actually marking their paddle strokes so they wouldn’t hit paddles,” Stookesberry, 32, told Matt Lauer via satellite from Reno, Nev. “Chris saw the crocodile maybe a split second before it had Hendri.
“My first recognition was hearing Hendri say, ‘Oh, my God.’ I turned and caught sight of it for maybe another split second before the crocodile ripped Hendri over.”
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It was a tragic end to a brave, history-making life for the 35-year-old South African Coetzee. His adventures as a kayaker and explorer were the stuff of legend among naturalists: He led the first source-to-sea exploration of the Nile River in 2004 and opened up many waterways for kayak travel throughout Africa. He was featured in the television documentary “River People.”Video: Men recount grisly crocodile attack (on this page)
His trip leading Stookesberry and Korbulic, members of the U.S.-based Eddie Bauer First Ascent Kayak team, took them through the headwaters of the White Nile and Congo rivers into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It eventually put them into the uncharted waters of the Lukuga River, and Coetzee was well-practiced in the ways of keeping predators at bay.
Stookesberry told Lauer Tuesday that the three kayakers paddled close to each other to appear bigger. “You appear not as one 8-foot-long kayak, but as a grouping that’s larger; you appear as a larger organism,” he said.
But danger was ever-present. While the group documented its two-month journey on blogs and video reports, Coetzee posted a special warning to other travelers via video. He said, “Stay out of the eddies ... because there are 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.”
If they came across a predator, Coetzee advised the pair, “Nobody panic.” But there wasn’t even time to raise the alarm when the crocodile attacked. Korbulic, 24, told Lauer the croc “came from behind; we didn’t see anything until it was too late.”
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Searchers have been unsuccessful in recovering Coetzee’s remains. While the size of the crocodile that claimed the explorer is unknown, wildlife expert Ron Magill told NBC News it was likely massive.
“A crocodile can exceed over 15 feet in Africa, weigh over 2,000 pounds, have thousands of pounds of pressure per square inch in its jaw,” Magill said. “There is no human being that stands a chance against this monster of an animal.”
After losing Coetzee, Stookesberry and Korbulic were able to paddle to safety and contact the International Rescue Committee, which sent a team to retrieve the pair.
Still obviously distraught over the traumatic attack and losing their friend and guide, the pair said they nonetheless plan to continue their kayaking forays to shed light on international environmental issues.
“I think that at this point we would probably stay off the Lukuga River out of respect for Hendri,” Stookesberry told Lauer. “[But] I think we’re certainly interested in going back to the African continent and the Congo for further expeditions and explorations of the water crisis.”
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