He Didn’t Like Baggage by Pete Meredith

By Pete Meredith

Hendri had never been rafting or kayaking before I hired him. The Zambezi is pretty full-on, especially in the beginning of the season when the water is high. We threw him right into the deep end. Within a month he was taking some poor unsuspecting customers down the river, and long before that he kept telling me, ‘I’m ready, I’m ready.’

He was strong, he learned fast, and he was confident. Sometimes over-confident. In that first month—I think it was the second or third time he ever sat in a kayak—he ran Number 9, which is a Grade VI rapid. I had to give him a warning to stop him from killing himself.

Right away, he was thinking off the top of the box—being improvisational, using the hand paddles in big water, and just going alone. That’s the first rule of paddling. Don’t go alone. Hendri broke a couple of rules.

He liked to go at his own pace and do his own thing. Maybe all the freaks we took along on one of our first expeditions put him off having people with him. Hendri didn’t like baggage.

We were on the Kagera, the extreme headwaters of the Nile in Rwanda. The group was all tired and complaining, and we said, ‘Fine. You get in the car and we’ll meet you downstream.’ Hendri and I went on alone. Our food and warm gear wouldn’t fit in his boat, so Hendri just left it behind without telling me. We ended up sleeping at almost 8,000 feet in just our life jackets and helmets. We spent the night spooning under a big pile of pine needles.

I had a box with the sat-phone and a GPS that didn’t help us at all, really. If we’d had matches we could at least have lit a fire, but he left those behind too. We just laughed about it. We never argued about that kind of stuff, ever. He was my best friend, for a long time.

If anyone was ready for death, he was. We’d talked about it so many times, but it’s still hard to believe. I still expect him to come walking through the door wearing crocodile shoes. Losing him was a lot fucking harder than I thought it would be.

Pete Meredith (pictured above) was Coetzee’s closest friend and partner in many of his most audacious expeditions, including the 2004 Nile source-to-sea, and the first descent of the Kagera in 2005. As told to Jeff Moag.