In 2002, Celliers Kruger took a step in whitewater never before dared. It wasn’t some unexplored canyon deep in wild country, although he’s done plenty of that, too. The first to write a guidebook for Southern Africa, Celliers’ real plunge into the unknown was starting a kayak company in distant, troubled South Africa. Now in its twelfth year of production, Kruger’s Fluid Kayaks is established as a major player within the industry. It is hardly shocking that Kruger pulled this off. As a paddler, an outsider, an intellectual, and a visionary, Celliers Kruger is a man who picks his own line.
The newcomer did not instill confidence. His paddle was made of aluminum. His helmet was a thin shell of plastic, suitable for a manmade slalom course, hardly adequate for the reputable Deepdale Gorge below him. He wore a bulky old-school pfd, and his kayak was a low volume boat made for playing polo in the swimming pool. If the other paddlers’ thoughts could have materialized in cartoon bubbles above their heads, they’d have all read one thing: “Who invited this guy?”
To everyone’s relief, the guy with the sketchy gear actually knew how to paddle. He spun into eddies and surfed across waves, balanced, erect, and confident. By the end of the day he was leading the bigger drops, posting up as the safety boat from eddies below. At the take-out, trip leader Robble Herreveld offered the newcomer a sponsorship from Eskimo Kayaks. Celliers kruger would no longer be paddling a polo boat.
No one would have imagined, standing there in 1996 on the banks of South Africa’s Umkomaas River, that this outsider would soon develop his own kayak brand, but Celliers kruger was fated to flower in precisely that manner. He grew up in the garage. His dad, Sarel, was a millwright-a sort of artist/mechanic/electrician whose interests were so hard-wired that his off time was happily spent tinkering at home with his son, who inherited his inventive gene. When Celliers wasn’t making things or playing his dad in a game of chess, he was wandering the bucolic countryside around Meyerton, South Africa or floating the nearby klip River in a fiberglass fishing canoe. He went on these class ll forays by himself, at age ten, having earned his parents’ trust with good grades and uncommonly sensible judgment. In addition to his romps outside, he spent hours at the library, where his mother, Gerda, worked as librarian. Her son shared her inclination to the written word, tearing through the book stacks voraciously.
With such an intellectual base, it might seem unnatural that the Kruger family would become wrapped up in a prophecy-driven fringe religion, but that is exactly what steered young Celliers Kruger’s life. Sarel and Gerda joined the Latter Rain Mission-a branch of the Pentecostal religious family- when Celliers was a toddler. Included in his early perceptions of the world were ideas such as coffee is bad simply because the holy spirit doesn’t like its rich odor. At church, which Celliers attended with is parents at least twice a week, followers spoke in tongues, spewing jibberish as they become vehicles of the Latter Rain spirits.
As he developed into his teens, it was all too much for Celliers to swallow. “I read too many things that made me think, ‘his just isn’t right.” “At sixteen, he dropped out of a school that, he recalls, “frustrated and bored me.” He traveled to neighboring Namibia on walkabout, getting by with his craftsmanship, building tables and custom racks and even a complete home exercise gym which brought in more money than most teenagers ever see. While away, he entered a major chess tournament, and won the high school division. The crown was nearly taken away when organizers learned that Celliers wasn’t actually attending school.
He finally did return for his senior year, however, and was allowed to re-enroll only after meeting with the headmaster and agreeing to cut his hair, which had grown to rebellious shoulder-length during his travels. Not everyone would have been accommodated so readily, but Celliers was an A-student and a track star. He broke 50 seconds in the 400-meters, and threatened 11 seconds in the 100-meters. An academic scholarship paved the way to Potchefstroom University, an engineering program that funneled scholarship students like Celliers straight to the campus of Iscor Steel Company upon graduation.
At nineteen, Celliers found himself riding a powerful current leading straight into the gorge of real jobs, but a diversion caught his eye. He saw a fellow student carrying a whitewater kayak across campus, and went over to say hello. His new friend was named Riaan Steyn, and the two began learning whitewater from that day forward. They tested the currents with complete innocence, without any preconceptions or instructions to cloud their cause and effect experiments with boats and water.
There was plenty going on in South Africa paddling during the early ‘90s, but Celliers and Riaan remained isolated from all of it. “We were sort of on our own little planet,” explains Celliers. They started a kayak polo club at school. They entered canoe marathons, a popular pastime in South Africa, racing downstream for three to four days on class ll rivers. As their brace techniques improved, they began to attempt class lll and even class lV water, in their polo boats, before either of them could roll. It wasn’t pretty. Celliers estimated pinning “at least 10 times’” the worst being a several-minute entrapment with his head just above the water. Somewhere along the way, a friend who had learned how to roll from a travelling Canadian passed the technique along. Suddenly, Celiers felt nothing could stop him. By the time he joined Robie Herreveld’s group for the Deepdale Gorge, he had plenty of experience, and he was a damn decent paddler.