Film captures famed adventurer’s final trip

The film "Kadoma" tells the story of famed explorer Hendri Coetzee's final trip.

Explorer Hendri Coetzee was killed when a crocodile surfaced and pulled him from his kayak, never to be seen again, in the depths of the Congo Basin. Lost in the sensational nature of his death, however, was the story about the man himself. That’s the story Chris Korbulic — a 2004 Grants Pass High graduate — and Mount Shasta, Calif. native Ben Stookesberry have brought with their short film “Kadoma.”

Below is a question-and-answer with Korbulic and Stookesberry. The award-winning film can be bought online here.

By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

The story of Hendri Coetzee’s death is nearly impossible to forget.

In December 2010, the South African explorer was kayaking on the Lukuga River in the Congo basin when a crocodile silently surfaced and pulled the 35-year-old underwater, never to be seen again.

The dramatic nature of his death captured national media attention and sent a collective shiver down the spine of everyone who’s ever floated a river.

Lost in the sensational headlines, though, was the story of the man himself, and what he was doing in that remote part of Africa.

That’s the story expedition kayakers Ben Stookesberry and Grants Pass High graduate Chris Korbulic will present in a special online screening of the movie “Kadoma” tonight. The award-winning film will be shown today at 5 to 8 p.m. on the Outside Magazine website.

To watch the video tonight, visit The link to the film is featured on the main page, but you can find it as well by typing the phrase “Kadoma Screening” into the search function at the top of the website.

Both Stookesberry and Korbulic were alongside Coetzee on that remote African river where he was taken — so close they were trading paddle strokes — yet the film focuses less on the circumstances of his death and more on the famous explorer’s final trip, a journey originally intended to cover 1,200 miles of the Congo basin.

Given the tragic outcome, most of the film is surprisingly fun and humorous — rollicking even.

The trio paddle through massive rapids, traverse crocodile- and hippo-infested waters and struggle with the inherent issues of traveling war-torn countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They stop at remote villages and meet new friends, spotlighting the fresh water crisis in Central Africa while tumbling through waves the size of small skyscrapers.

Through it all, Coetzee leads the way forward. The gravitational force of his personality carries the film to the point that, when he’s finally snatched from his kayak, the moment arrives as an unexpected punch to the stomach.

There isn’t much from the incident itself, just jarring footage of an upside-down kayak and the panic of the aftermath. It happens so suddenly, the audience barely has time to gasp.

Coetzee’s African friends called him “Kadoma,” a name that in translation holds meanings of both bravery and traveler.

And while his death is nearly impossible to forget, the film makes clear it was his life that’s worth remembering.

o o o

Stookesberry, of Mount Shasta, Calif., and a graduate of Southern Oregon University, was the primary filmmaker. Korbulic, a Rogue River native who graduated from Grants Pass High School in 2004, was the photographer.

While he leads a semi-nomadic existence, Korbulic maintains a home base in Gold Hill, where his parents live, and also spends a good part of the year in Reno, Nev.

Daily Courier outdoors writer Zach Urness spoke with both Stookesberry and Korbulic about the film.

Was it difficult to create a film out of a trip that went so wrong?

Stookesberry: It was an extremely daunting and emotional process, because I really wanted to do it correctly, in a way that Hendri’s family would appreciate and that paid homage to his memory. Going through the footage was an extremely difficult, emotional process, but it was something I knew had to be done well.

In the film, the attack on Coetzee seems to come completely out of nowhere. Was that how it felt when it actually happened?

Korbulic: Up to that point, it had been the best seven weeks of my life. The last day we were talking and laughing all morning. We were right in the heart of it. We’d just finished a long section of whitewater and were feeling super strong and inspired.

And then it came like a strike of lightning. Totally out of nowhere.

We didn’t see anything until it was happening. Then he was gone.

Do you ever look back on that moment and think: “It could have been me?”

Korbulic: Yes, because we were so close. I was five feet away from him. It could have been me so easily, and that sticks with you. It’s something I think about every day, and I still haven’t gotten used to watching the film, to seeing (Hendri) on screen.

What do you think would surprise people about Hendri?

Stookesberry: One thing people miss is that he wasn’t a daredevil. He was very contemplative and, if anything, more of a philosopher. He was a person that walked with his eyes wide open, understood the danger, but still loved it.

Was there a moment on the trip when you thought: “Wow, I’m a really long way from Oregon?”

Korbulic: There was a camp we made on the Nile River in Uganda where, for that moment, I really felt totally at the mercy of the environment. There was a hippo right there, a crocodile right there. There was the huge river and on each side of it 100 miles of jungle, followed by savanna beyond that. In those moments, you feel pretty small.

There are a couple of scenes when you guys are running some absolutely massive rapids near a village, and there’s a bunch of local people watching you. How did they react to you wanting to kayak through those really dangerous sections?

Korbulic: You couldn’t share many words with them, so they’d just give us a look or hand signal as if to say: "What the (heck) is going on? What are you doing? You can’t go down there." And that part is a lot of fun. Because generally people along these rivers see (the rapids) as deathtraps, as places you can’t go. So when we’d go in and paddle down, they loved it. They started running along the river and cheering us on. It was a lot of fun.

What do you want people to take from the film?

Korbulic: It’s definitely easy to look at this from the outside as simply: Man gets eaten by crocodile. But I hope that what we’re presenting is more about Hendri’s amazing, powerful personality. That’s the story we want to share.


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