Well-kno­wn lo­cal ROBBED by pan­ga gang whi­le hi­king in Ge­or­ge

Graaff-Reinet Advertiser - - Voorblad -

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.

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