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The view from the Igababa cabin where Hans was staying to the location where he was finally found last Thursday evening. Photo supplied.

Teamwork leads to safe return of missing Dutch tourist

Date: 23 February 2024 By: Andries van Zyl

“It was a remarkable experience, I mean, other than it being terrifying to start with.” These were the words of Ms Gail Maytham of Zvakanaka Farm to describe the overwhelming community support they received in finding and safely returning a 71-year-old Dutch visitor home who went missing in the Soutpansberg Mountains last Thursday, 15 February.

The 71-year-old Dutchman and his son-in-law (who preferred to stay anonymous, apart from the father, whose name is Hans) were staying at Zvakanaka as part of a brief visit to South Africa and the region on a friend’s recommendation. Zvakanaka is situated just off the N1 north along the Witvlag gravel road and offers accommodation to visitors and tourists. As part of the Africa experience they offer, a number of rustic and more luxurious cabins, as well as a couple of clearly marked hiking trails, are on offer.

As for the Africa experience, the Dutchmen got more than they bargained for. The elderly man was staying in the Igababa cabin, while his son-in-law stayed in the farmhouse. On that specific day, the son had visited a local high school on invitation as he himself is an Afrikaans teacher back home in the Netherlands. His father-in-law stayed behind in his cabin.

By the time the son got back at around 15:00, however, no sign of his father-in-law was to be found. At first, the son thought that his father-in-law had gone to the WiFi café on the farm, but he was neither there nor anywhere else to be found. That was when he alerted Maytham.

“After looking as far as he could, the son-in-law contacted me. He was sure Hans wouldn’t have wandered too far as the two of them had walked the Loop road the day before and Hans wasn’t keen to explore further,” said Maytham.

The son-in-law contacted Maytham at 16:49. They immediately started driving around on the farm to search for Hans. He was nowhere to be found.

At 18:05, Maytham decided to ask for help. She contacted the Witvlag Farm Watch on their WhatsApp group, who in turn immediately started to mobilise assistance. Within minutes, the support started arriving. “Many bakkies arrived. We estimate maybe 30 responders came to the farm. It was very hard to know who was arriving and where to tell them to go,” said Maytham.

As well organised as the Farm Watch is, those in charge immediately got everyone linked on radios, and off they went. “Those who arrived a bit after headed off into the dark to walk the trails of the mountain,” said Maytham.

The Farm Watch members, which included reaction and task team members, came well prepared and even had the services of a drone and sniffer dog.

By 19:30, messages started coming in from a group already up the mountain. One message stated that the searchers thought they had heard Hans up above them in the cliffs.

Then, at 19:50, the search parties finally caught a break! Hans had finally turned on his cellphone (which he had kept off most of the day) and phoned his daughter in the Netherlands. She, in turn, managed to get a pin location of where her father was and sent that location to her husband (the son-in-law), who communicated the location to the search parties.

Twenty-three minutes later, at 20:13, Hans was found. By that time, he had made his way up some steep cliffs.

“He was a bit disoriented and thirsty and complaining of sore ribs. They started the slow process of bringing him down – he could walk but had to stop very regularly. It was so steep they were holding onto the back of his pants,” said Maytham.

At 21:27, the search party had finally linked up with a quad-bike squad, who transported Hans further down to safety. From the farm, he was taken to the Crestcare Zoutpansberg Private Hospital for a check-up. By 23:25, Hans was declared fit to go home, and by 00:45 that morning, both Hans and his son-in-law were in bed. By 07:30, the duo were already on their way to Pretoria as they had to fly back to the Netherlands.

“He was cheerful, strong, and very appreciative. The son-in-law was completely blown away. He just kept saying, ‘I can’t believe this! I can’t believe this!’” said Maytham.

As to how and why Hans got lost, no one really knows. “He was certainly not intending to go on a hike, that's for sure,” said Maytham. She suspects that Hans lost his way en route to the WiFi café, although all routes on the farm are clearly marked.

“We cannot thank enough all the many people who came to help! We are overwhelmed - what a community!” said Maytham. Although they were already back in the Netherlands this week, Maytham said that Hans and his son-in-law were also extremely thankful. “From the words they said to us, they were absolutely in awe of what had happened and could never, ever imagine something like this happening in the Netherlands, where a whole community pulls together like this. They did ask me to please thank everyone involved,” said Maytham.

Maytham firmly believes that the whole thing could have ended in tragedy. “If he hadn’t phoned his daughter telling her that he was lost, she could not have sent us a pin of where he was. If he hadn’t done that, because his phone had been off the whole day, then we would never have found him,' said Maytham. She said that thanking all involved personally was impossible, but assured everyone that they were grateful.

In response, the chairman of the Vhembe Rural Safety structure, Mr Christo Snyman, also expressed his gratitude towards all who had assisted. “It was once again a very good example of what can be achieved when people work together,” he said.

Snyman attributed this success story to teamwork. “We are a team, and in the end, it came down to good coordination, following a request from the Witvlag Farm Watch chairman and vice-chairman, which got the ball rolling,” he said. The use of technology further contributed, such as the use of two-way radios with new technology in an area where little to no cellphone reception exists. “It was not even necessary for them to use the helicopter and plane that were available to them, because the team that mobilized managed to find the person quickly enough," said Snyman. Regarding this incident, he again emphasised the importance of becoming part of rural safety structures such as the farm-watch structures.

 

 
 
 

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Andries van Zyl

Andries joined the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror in April 1993 as a darkroom assistant. Within a couple of months he moved over to the production side of the newspaper and eventually doubled as a reporter. In 1995 he left the newspaper group and travelled overseas for a couple of months. In 1996, Andries rejoined the Zoutpansberger as a reporter. In August 2002, he was appointed as News Editor of the Zoutpansberger, a position he holds until today.

 
 

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