'Devastated' American Kayakers Survive Congo Croc Attack

Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic watched in horror as guide was killed.

December 10, 2010, 1:27 PM

ABUJA, Nigeria Dec. 10, 2010— -- A pair of American kayakers who escaped a crocodile attack that killed their famed guide are "devastated" by the death of Hendrik Coetzee.

Ben Stookesberry and Chris Korbulic could only watch in horror as a crocodile snatched Coetzee, 35, from his kayak on Tuesday as the three men paddled on the Lukuga River in Congo.

"They beached their boats about 500 meters from the incident in a very remote area," Ciaran Donnelly of the International Rescue Committee told ABC News. "They found villagers who lent them a cell phone to call the IRC."

The IRC and another humanitarian organization working in the area Solidarites International dispatched teams to evacuate them. Both men are still in Congo meeting with local authorities, but are expected to return the United States soon.

"They're obviously devastated and in shock over what happened," said Donnelly. "The reaction has been normal for anyone in that situation, but they also are reacting with a degree of professionalism."

The body of Coetzee, an acclaimed outdoorsman who wrote a blog called "The Great White Explorer," has not been recovered. The stretch of river where the trio was traveling is notoriously dangerous because of its whitewater, and numerous crocodiles and hippos.

The three men had been on a kayaking expedition through Africa's Great Lakes region and the rivers that run through Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The expedition was sponsored by the outdoor clothing company Eddie Bauer, which issued a statement saying that the company is "saddened by the the tragic accident and express our deepest sympathies to Hendri's family and friends."

The men, all experienced kayakers, were also visiting development projects in the region and making a film about access to clean water.

Stookesberry, from Mount Shasta, Calif., is an international filmmaker who's company Clear H20 films documents "kayakers, filmmakers and photographers in search of the last unexplored regions of the planet" according to the film company's Web site.

Korbulic is a photographer from Rogue River, Ore. His parents Mary and Paul told the Associated Press that they had been following the expedition through blog postings and a tracking device, but had grown concerned when the updates stopped. Korbulic sent an email to his family letting them know he was OK.

Two Americans Survive Congo Crocodile Attack

"All of us with loved ones engaged in extreme risk as a lifestyle and vocation live in dread of getting bad news," they said in an email to the AP. "But at the same time we are wildly proud of our sons for their courage and determination to be explorers in a time when most people think terrestrial, social, and environmental exploration is over."

The men knew of the risks of crocodile attacks on the expedition. In a dispatch sent by Stookesberry to Outside magazine on Nov. 19, the kayaker wrote, " T]here is a crocodile at the river's mouth named Gustav that is an ancient, well-fed man eater. If you are as worried about this next week of the expedition as we are, please take Hendri's advice and refer to Rule #3. [No matter what, don't panic.]"

While it's unlikely that "Gustav" is the crocodile that took Coetzee's life, the dispatch reflects the warning the guide had given the expedition team from the beginning: these waters would be dangerous.

But danger was something Coetzee, an acclaimed outdoorsman, was used to. The South African was viewed as a throw-back to the great explorers from centuries ago. He was one of the first to document a rafting trip from the source of the Nile to mouth of Africa's great river.

On his blog "The Great White Explorer" Coetzee wrote about his experiences going to these remote places. His writing is about the joys and terrors of rafting through Central Africa, from witnessing beautiful scenery to negotiating with rebel leaders in the rain.

"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," Coetzee writes in his last blog post two weeks ago. "For once my mind and heart agreed, I would never live a better day."

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