by Maddy Leslie
The best day ever at the centre of the Universe
Being asked to write an article for the eye magazine about Hendrik Cootzee after his recent death on the Lukuga River, I sit in front of my computer staring at a blank screen. A 35 year old South African “great white explorer”, one of the few men who dedicated every moment and experience of his life to living and growing – this could not be an obituary, this is a life notice.
Much has been written about Hendrik’s exploration into uncharted territories; of first descents of rivers, down new lines on the world’s white water, and into the deepest recesses of the mind. But I want to write Hendrik’s Ode to Uganda because it was here that anything became possible. Hendrik arrived to Kampala in 1999, a springbuck raft guide in a Hawaiian shirt with a thirsty heart ready and chewing at the bit for adventure.
“Amongst an astonishing mix of colours, cultures and classes from all the corners of the world that congregate in places like Uganda” he found people that inspired him. With sheer enthusiasm, he created his own lifestyle and was able to live a life that he could never have fathomed as he was “kicking and screaming against society at gangster age”.
It was the new Millennium. The 7-day a week party town of Kampala was blossoming, daily runs to paddle the White Nile, pavement dinners of chicken on a stick, sleep deprived with sunrises in extraordinary places. It must have been the sunrise on a flat pool before Itunda Falls or from the rooftop of the Baha'i temple that Hendrik began truly believing that yesterday doesn’t exist, tomorrow might never happen, so the best day ever can only be today. The best day ever became his Mantra, sure in the knowledge that “we can debate life and its meaning endlessly whilst speculating on the path of happiness, but to stand any chance of finding one, it needs to be lived.”
He moved to Jinja where he centred his universe, lived and loved by this philosophy, studied, kayaked and appreciated on the banks of the White Nile. In his search for spiritual fulfilment he learnt that “in a world full of interpretations, truth only exists in nature”.
It was his respect for and curiosity of, the course of the mighty river and the stories it had to tell, that drove a determined expedition to set off from the Ugandan source on the first full decent of the White Nile. The 4200 mile journey took four and a half months down the longest river, over the largest swamp and across the front lines of the longest running conflict in Africa.
This journey did not quench his thirst; merely opened him up to the never ending possibilities of exploration. He went on to run the first decent of the White Nile’s longest tributary; the Akagera river in Rwanda, the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, the Congo River in the DRC, the Mubuku in the Rwenzoris, Ruzizi on the border of Rwanda and Congo and finally the longest tributary to the Congo River the Lukuga. Hendrik was writing a book of his journeys and jotting of his philosophies, his blog greatwhiteexplorer.com has allowed many others to travel with him.
“In a way all explorers are journalists. Reporting from places others can’t go; speaking from experience and not fiction. Blessed with no special powers or skills, often simply able to make the sacrifices needed to live and experience things others cannot or will not. We fund our passion only by allowing others to live vicariously through our eyes, our aim to experience, not explore.”
His last journey was to expose some of the unseen rivers and stories in the Congo, the “Heart of darkness”. The documentary and his writings did not focus on the sensational hype from a few historic actions that have long tainted the region. They were to dispel the myths and share his experience of some of the world’s most resilient and friendliest people, the beauty that survives the hardship and the best day ever that can be found in the most unlikely of places. Thanks for sharing.
THANKS FOR THE FLAT ROCK I SLEEP ON. THANKS FOR THE PEACE THAT I FEEL. THANKS FOR THE CHANCE TO LIVE MY DREAMS.