Sunday, 27 December 2009

A friendly greeting, then a brutal attack

December 24 2009 at 10:31AM

By Craig McKune and Jason Warner

The latest victims in a spate of violent attacks in the Hermanus mountains have told how they were stabbed, stoned, bound and robbed while hiking this week.

Martin, 59, and Janet, 57, Stern, South African expats living in Canada, were left bruised and lacerated after the "completely senseless" attack on Tuesday morning, the fourth in two months at the bustling holiday town's Fernkloof Reserve.

A concerned hiker, Delia Scott, has offered a R1 000 reward for information about the attacks: "It is very close to our hearts because my husband and I often hike that route," she said.

'The next thing we knew we were being stabbed in the back'

Municipal manager Werner Zybrandts said Hermanus was stepping up its security in the area, erecting warning signs and offering security guards, pepper spray and whistles for hiking groups.

Martin said having hiked for more than half an hour from the entrance to the reserve at the bottom of the kloof, they were walking along a jeep track on top of the mountain when they passed two men walking in the opposite direction.

"I said good morning, and they nodded," he said, speaking from his hospital bed at Hermanus Medi-Clinic. A few seconds later they heard running footsteps behind them and presumed joggers were approaching.

"The next thing we knew we were being stabbed in the back. I was stabbed next to my kidney, and they stabbed Janet in the arm," said Martin. "They pushed us to the ground and picked up rocks."

One attacker smashed Martin across the face with a rock and ripped his bag from his back using his knife.

'I was trying to reason with them, but they were totally out of control'
"They had large hunting knives that looked about 12 inches (30cm) long, then they really started roughing us up.

"Janet started saying to them: 'Would you treat your mother like this?'"

Every time she said it they beat her again.

"I was trying to reason with them, but they were totally out of control," she said.

"I think they were drugged up," said Martin. "They were completely senseless - there was no rationale.

"If they had just come to us with knives I would have given them the money equally."

The attackers took a camera, Janet's watch and wedding ring and cellphone before forcing them down the slope away from the road, throwing rocks at them as they walked.

About 30m down the slope the attackers used the couples' shoelaces to bind their feet and hands.

"We were feeling very faint and we were beginning to pass out and they told us to lie down. One of them kept saying: 'Don't kill them. Don't kill them.'

"Our worst thoughts were that they would slit our throats, or rape.

"Janet said to me in Hebrew: 'We're going to pray to god,' and then they left us."

When Janet tried to raise her head, they threw rocks at her, and then the couple were left alone, dehydrated, drenched in blood and weak.

Staggering back to the road, they collapsed repeatedly.

"There were flies all around us. The blood was caked everywhere."

Reaching a bench at a viewing site, Martin said: "We can't stay here. We're losing too much blood."

Staggering again down the jeep track, they saw a group of hikers approaching - the Jouberts. They gave them water, mopped their brows, applied a tourniquet to Martin's worst wound and called rescuers, who airlifted the couple to hospital.

"They saved us," said Janet of the Jouberts.

The Sterns have visited Hermanus annually for the past 10 years.

Now settled in Toronto where Martin works in finance, they said they left South Africa in 1986 for business reasons. Fernkloof was a hiking route Martin said they hiked once or twice a year.

The Sterns said they had been overwhelmed by the treatment they had received in Hermanus and would continue to visit South Africa. He and Janet shared a ward yesterday and looked relatively cheerful.

Janet's top lip was swollen on one side, and Martin's right hand bandaged. A gash ran across the bridge of his nose.

Dried blood caked their fingernails.

Grant Forbes, reserve manager at Fernkloof, said that in the first attack two months ago, an Italian couple were approached from behind and held up at knifepoint: "They didn't see the guys' faces."

The other two attacks were similar. In the second, a woman was slapped in the face, and in the most recent attack, three weeks ago, eight hikers were mugged by two men who beat them with their own walking sticks.

In each incident the attackers were two men, although police Inspector David Payne said there was no evidence linking the attacks, which all occurred on the same trail, in the same area.

Zybrandts said two men were apprehended by baboon monitors after the third attack, but they were released due to a lack of evidence.

"Their excuse was that they were looking for jobs," he said.

A sign was erected at the entrance to Fernkloof a week ago, warning hikers to be vigilant, and offering emergency phone numbers. Martin Stern said he hadn't seen the sign and, had they been aware of the attacks, they wouldn't have hiked in the area alone.

Zybrandts said signs were now being erected at all informal entry points to the trail, encouraging hikers to walk in large groups and to start at the main entrance. Security guards would be provided for large groups and small groups would be given pepper spray canisters and whistles. While law enforcement teams did patrol the trails during the holiday season, their number was being increased.

"I just want them to catch these guys," Martin Stern said.

Anyone with information to claim the reward can contact the police on 0860010111.

This article was originally published on page 1 of Cape Times on December 24, 2009


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