Two Americans being guided by 35-year-old South African Hendrik Coetzee on the grueling trip could only watch in horror. They paddled unharmed to safety after the Tuesday morning attack on the Lukuga River in Congo.
The International Rescue Committee, which runs development projects in the Central African nation, helped evacuate the Americans to a nearby town, Ciaran Donnelly, the organization's regional director in Congo, said Thursday.
Coetzee's body has not been recovered. The stretch of river where the trio was traveling is notoriously dangerous because of its whitewater, and the high density of crocodiles and hippos.
In a blog called The Great White Explorer that chronicled the trip sponsored by the Eddie Bauer clothing and outdoor equipment company, Coetzee wrote about the thrill of taking to uncharted waters, including stretches that might soon disappear due to planned dams. He also described sometimes facing suspicion from military and other officials. One day ended in a storm:
"As hard, warm drops trashed at our little selves and a pair of goats, we stood precariously on an unknown slope deep in the heart of Africa, for once my mind and heart agreed, I would never live a better day," wrote Coetzee, who was known as Hendri.
A friend, Celliers Kruger, who owns a South African kayaking company, called Coetzee a legend.
"He was the bravest guy I've ever known," Kruger said. "But he wasn't crazy. He was very calculated and set the bar high for future exploration in Africa."
Coetzee wasn't just interested in the adrenaline rush, said Hugh du Preez, a friend who kayaked with him.
"He also had a fantastic social conscience," he said, explaining that Coetzee ran kayak trips for underprivileged kids in Sudan. "He was one of those people that would look after others not only in a physical sense but also nurture them spiritually and mentally."
Eddie Bauer said the trip was a first-of-its-kind kayaking expedition from the White Nile and Congo rivers into Congo. The three men, all experienced kayakers, were documenting unexplored whitewater and development projects in the region.
The two Americans - Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic - are currently in Congo but expect to return home to the U.S. shortly. Korbulic is from Rogue River, Ore., and Stookesberry is from Mount Shasta, Calif. Coetzee had been living in Uganda at the time of the expedition.
One of the Americans recounted on his blog how Coetzee has warned them about the dangers of the trip, including "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. Basically, stay close behind me and follow my lead. Any questions?" the blog quoted Coetzee as saying.
Deadly hippo and crocodile attacks on humans are not uncommon in Africa, though figures are hard to pin down. Johnny Rodrigues, a wildlife expert in Zimbabwe, said parks authorities there are reluctant to give out numbers for fear of scaring away tourists.
"They are the predators of the water," Rodrigues said of the crocodiles.
In his blog, Coetzee discussed the importance of trusting instincts and the group's only rule - "nobody panic."
In Coetzee's most recent entry dated Nov. 26, he wrote: "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."
"Dwarfed by lush green mountains rising up to 3,000 feet above us, we were drawn in ever deeper with a constant eye on the banks for trouble," he wrote.