Chances are that if you’ve heard of the legendary South African river explorer, Johannes Hendri Coetzee, you’ve probably only heard about his death.
Until I read his memoir recently, one of the only things I knew about Coetzee was that he perished in the jaws of a massive crocodile on the Lukuga River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
While I had also heard a bit about Coetzee’s hard-partying lifestyle and African-based explorations, few of the articles I had read about him actually looked into his personal life and beliefs.
Living the Best Day Ever is a book that Coetzee compiled from his extensive private journals. Although the book was published posthumously, Coetzee completed the manuscript just a few weeks before his final expedition to the Congo in 2010.
Living the Best Day Ever is not just a book about paddling—which is kind of what I had expected coming from a professional kayaker. Nor is it simply a book about Coetzee’s adventures and explorations, even though his excursions certainly put him in the ranks of other great African explorers, such as Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone.
Throughout the book, Hendri reflects on challenging philosophical and personal questions about what it means to explore in the modern world.
He gives special attention to analyzing motivation, risk, and reward in regard to his own insatiable desire to live his life without the comforts and conveniences of the developed world.
Living the Best Day Ever also discusses the author’s philosophy on happiness, which manages to be both carefree and driven.
For example, while in the midst of planning an ambitious source-to-sea expedition on the Nile River, Coetzee and his companions struggle to find funding and begin to run out of money. Rather than counting their pennies, they decide to go out and party, with the reasoning that they will simply worry about finding the funds later.
At the same time, Coetzee is also extremely determined to “live the best day ever” every day, and sets out to challenge himself in some of nature’s most hostile environments. His thoughtful articulation of his philosophy reveals a reflective and nuanced person, rather than just another reckless thrill seeker.
Coetzee’s quest for “the best day ever” leads him to some of the deepest parts of Africa, where few would dare to travel today. Some of the adventures he talks about include a source-to-sea expedition on the Nile River through multiple war zones and dangerous wilderness areas, and a solo trip down the extremely dangerous Murchison Falls section of the White Nile, encountering hippos and crocodiles around each bend of class V+ whitewater. Hendri later heads to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he assists in Bonobo research, paddles the Congo River solo, and spends a month on a river barge in cannibal territory.
Despite his accounts of his dangerous, but inspiring adventures, Hendri does not see the world through rose-colored glasses. Dark humor and cynicism often creep into his stories, revealing his personal difficulties fitting into society and having normal social interactions. His travels in Africa exposed him to regions where people live in extreme poverty and deal with challenges that many Western outdoor enthusiasts will never have to encounter. He reminds us that, although we may seek to be challenged in dangerous situations in the wilderness, our challenges are almost always a choice. Sure, we could get in over our heads as a result of poor decision making, but most of the time we can escape back to safety and civilization to lick our wounds. Many others can’t.
This leads to Hendri’s second core philosophy: “make it harder.”
Coetzee constantly tries to escape this safety net during his expeditions, embarking on extremely dangerous trips in some of the world’s most dangerous places, including South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His mantra of “make it harder” pushes him to challenge himself more and more on these harrowing physical expeditions and spiritual quests to find fulfillment. And yet, these journeys ultimately left him feeling that nothing had been hard enough.
There was one thing that I couldn’t get out of my mind while reading the book, though: this man died in the jaws of a crocodile.
While Coetzee’s philosophies and captivating stories are exciting to read about, his extreme approach to life ultimately caused his early death. Hendri’s cynicism and inability to find happiness in the absence of the ultimate challenge drove him to constantly pursue risky expeditions, even after he had finally decided to settle down.
Before his final expedition, Coetzee talks about an experience that he describes as yet another failed attempt at fitting into a normal life. While he often ponders his readiness to die on an adventure, I wonder if his last thoughts in the crocodile’s jaw would have reflected acceptance. That is a question we will never know the answer to, but Hendri’s writing suggests that he was ok with his decisions to live a fast, short life on the edge, rather than choosing a safer path.
Coetzee’s memoir successfully combines gripping stories of his expeditions with an impressive and thoughtful personal philosophy. Living the Best Day Ever is a must-read for all river runners, and certainly worth the time of anyone thinking about finding meaning in modern life.