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"He was really talented, but I had to hold him back." On one commercial trip, while the rest of the guides and clients portaged the rafts along the bank of a Class VI rapid called Number 9, Coetzee, without telling anyone, ran it in his kayak."He barely made it through and thought he was the bee's knees," says Meredith. I told him that if he did it again, he was going to get fired."According to Coetzee's mother, Marie Nieman, her son had always been both fearless and attention-hungry.Coetzee balances through the tumult of 80-degree water in part with forward momentum, like a skier, but mostly by heaving his 195-pound frame, forehead tucked behind his leading elbow, into wall after wall of unrelenting chaos. Crocodiles are stealthy and indiscriminate, charging fearlessly at anything resembling a meal with only their eyes above the water. It gave up the chase shortly thereafter and swam toward my helmet.On Coetzee's 2004 Nile expedition, one launched itself out of the water at a crew member sitting on board a raft before the team hammered it back with paddle blows. Two hours later, Coetzee reaches the pool above the massive falls.Now he sparks his fire in the quickening equatorial dusk, a lonely prick of light in a nearly 1,500-square-mile "chunk of untamed African savanna bisected by the mighty river Nile," as the park's literature proclaims.Below him, the river drops ferociously over a roughly 30-mile stretch before abruptly reaching the unrunnable 140-foot Murchison Falls itself, at the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment.The lone African explorer drags his kayak ashore and begins to collect firewood from around the little beach on the left bank of the White Nile. He's also careful not to stray beyond the jungle's green curtain—this is Uganda's Murchison Falls National Park, after all, home to the world's densest populations of hippopotamus and Nile crocodile, one an extremely territorial 4,500-pound vegetarian with six-inch dagger tusks and the other a voracious 12-foot-long opportunist.
He'd found the thing he was truly good at—and he attacked it.
Coetzee is glad to be done, but he'll later write that he felt no relief.