He dodges a pod of hippos and climbs up the left bank to safety.His best friend and mentor, Peter Meredith, is there waiting for him high on a hill overlooking the river.

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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.

It's April 10, 2007, and the day's descent of some of the continent's most powerful rapids has worn him to exhaustion. The explorer is Johannes Hendrik Coetzee, 32 years old, five feet eleven, with a thick build and a receding hairline shaved to skin.

Coetzee is glad to be done, but he'll later write that he felt no relief.

In the larger sense, he hoped that this audacious solo would cure him of his obsession with huge risks.

Another South African, Steve Fisher, 34, a top pro, recalls Coetzee as an extraordinarily aggressive novice.

He'd found the thing he was truly good at—and he attacked it.

He's a former South African Defence Force medic and a giant in the world of whitewater exploration, having organized and led a historic source-to-sea descent of the Nile in 2004.

Though he's charismatic and charming, the kind of guy who changes the gravity in any room he enters, he now prefers to travel alone.

Whitewater kayaking at an elite level requires extreme athleticism and an ability to keep both fear and risk in check.