GEORGE NEWS - No arrests have been made in connection with the armed robbery that took place on Friday 4 January on a hiking trail in the Witfontein area, just west of Plantation Road in Heatherlands.
The victims, Leonie Fouché from Graaff-Reinet, her boyfriend, Jeff Lanham from Cape Town, and a guide from George who specialises in birding, arrived at the Witfontein Nature Reserve early in the morning.
They were robbed by a panga-wielding group of men of valuables worth more than R100 000, which included a camera, binoculars, credit cards and cash. Nobody was hurt.
Shortly after the incident the police started a manhunt looking for five men who were involved.
Capt Malcolm Pojie, Southern Cape police spokesperson, told the George Herald the investigation is ongoing. Anybody who has information regarding the incident is asked to call Jerome Malan on 044 803 4715 or Crime Stop on 08600 10111.
Several residents have expressed concern about the negative influence the incident could have on tourism in the area.
Everything taken forcefully
Fouché, a well-known Graaff-Reinet resident, told George Herald sister publication, Graaff-Reinet Advertiser, that she and her boyfriend had spent two weeks camping in Wilderness.
On the specific Friday, which was to be the last day of their holiday, they engaged the services of a young professional guide from George who specialises in birding. At the time of the ambush at 06:30, the three were standing quietly concealed in the fynbos vegetation, alongside a path near a small wetland.
A group of five men, who initially seemed "respectable", came walking down the same track and exchanged pleasantries with the birders. However, the atmosphere changed suddenly, and the men became aggressive and threatening. One man produced a panga, and "they crowded in on us like a pack of dogs," said Fouché.
"Everything we had was taken forcefully from us," she said, adding that one man had made inappropriate physical contact with her.
The group was understandably fearing for their lives, and when their attackers started walking away they were initially so shocked and petrified that they did not know what to do. When the attackers produced the panga, Lanham had managed to quietly drop his cellphone into the bushes, so he and the guide decided to search for the phone to call for help.
Fouché meanwhile started running back to the parking area, a distance of about 1,5km.
The first house she came to happened to belong to a member of the local neighbourhood watch, who immediately sent out a broadcast to members of the group. Within minutes, members arrived in vehicles and set off to look for the attackers.
It later transpired that a jogger near the Garden Route Botanical Garden had seen a group of five men behaving in a suspicious manner. Unfortunately, the police reaction was not as quick and the trail grew cold.
The nature reserve is adjacent to a residential area and is very popular with local people for dog walking, jogging, cycling and exploring the nature trails. According to police and the local neighbourhood watch, this was the first incident of its kind in the area. Many local residents expressed their shock about the events. Yet, the very next day, a youngster riding a bike was accosted by two men with a panga. He managed to run away, leaving his bike behind. Members of the neighbourhood watch later recovered the bike.
Apart from the actual equipment stolen, which can be replaced, Fouché is most saddened at losing the intangibles, including some priceless memories that had been captured on the camera that was stolen.
Video footage and photos of special and rare sightings from her recent road trip through the United Kingdom are images that cannot be replaced.
"Our lives have been turned upside down; we are still severely traumatised, but we just have to pick up the pieces and carry on. And yes, we are very grateful to have gotten out of there alive," said Fouché.