Well-known local ROBBED by panga gang while hiking in George
Well-known Graaff-reinet resident Leonie Fouché was one of the victims of a horrific robbery in the peaceful Witfontein Nature Reserve in George on Friday morning, 4 January.
Fouché and her boyfriend, Capetonian Jeff Lanham, had spent two weeks camping in Wilderness, enjoying a restful break and indulging in their mutual passion for birding.
On Friday 4 January, 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. They arrived at the Witfontein Nature Reserve early in the morning and were delighted to see many interesting species early on.
When the incident occurred, at about 06:30, the three were standing quietly concealed in the fynbos vegetation, alongside a path near a small wetlands. They were waiting for the males of the Red-chested and Striped Flufftails to show themselves after a female Striped Flufftail had been seen on the path just a few minutes before.
A group of five men, who initially seemed “respectable”, came walking down the same track and exchanged pleasantries with the birders. However, suddenly the atmosphere changed, 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. The five men grabbed the birders’ backpacks, binoculars and cameras, and then went through their pockets to check for cash and cellphones. “Everything we had was taken forcefully from us,” said Fouché, adding that one man had made inappropriate physical contact with her.
The group was understandably in fear for their lives, and after their attackers started walking away 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 be able 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 of the watch group arrived in vehicles and set off to look for the attackers. It transpired later that a jogger near the George Botanical Gardens saw a group of five men behaving in a suspicious manner.
Unfortunately, the police reaction was not as quick, and the trail grew cold. According to a statement issued on the day of the incident, police spokesperson Captain Malcolm Pojie said that George police officers, reinforced by the Outeniqua dog unit and other units, responded to the robbery, but the gang had already fled without a trace.
Contrary to the police’s initial report, the robbers took two backpacks, three top quality digital cameras, three pairs of binoculars, three cell phones, a wallet containing credit cards, cash and the keys to a bakkie, all valued at around R140 000. Unfortunately, the young guide’s equipment was not insured.
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 SAPS and the local Neighbourhood Watch, this was the first incident of its kind in the area, and many local residents stopped to express their shock while the traumatised victims were being questioned by the police. 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.
Fouché had been due to return to Graaffreinet the next day, to return to work on Monday. Numerous logistical problems needed to be sorted out (not least of which was getting into the bakkie after the keys had been stolen), and on Friday evening they were still in deep shock and feeling very fragile.
They spent a quiet day on Sunday in the Plettenberg Bay area, trying to relax and recapture some inner peace, but even in a safe and familiar environment, a group of strangers approaching made them feel decidedly uncomfortable.
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 traumatized, but must just pick up the pieces and carry on. And yes, we are very grateful to have gotten out of there alive,” Fouché concluded.
Leonie Fouché and Jeff Lanham, photographed at a market near Plettenberg Bay a few months ago.