What started as a relaxing holiday at the Kruger National Park ended in horror as three friends were hijacked and robbed of their valuables by four men posing as police officers near Delmas in Mpumalanga on Monday night around 20:00.
Ian McCuster, 31, his girlfriend, Robyn Pretorius, and his friend from school and university, Ricardo Dickson, were on their way back to Johannesburg after holidaying in the park when they stopped at the Total Petroport on the N12 for a bathroom break. Dickson is on a visit to South Africa from London, where he now lives.
Shortly after getting back on the road, McCuster was pulled over by a car with flashing blue lights.
McCuster recalls: "About five minutes after leaving the garage, a car pulled up behind us and flashed its lights and turned on blue lights as well. I naturally assumed it was the police and pulled over. Four guys got out dressed in full police uniform - I thought they were definitely policemen."
One of the men then asked McCuster for his licence, but he explained that his licence was stolen along with his Toyota Fortuner at his home in Fairland, Johannesburg, in December. McCuster said he had an affidavit to that effect and was asked to produce it.
"Then the one guy leant through the window on the other side and held my wrist so that I couldn't put the car into gear. The 'policeman' at my window then pointed a gun at me and said he would shoot us."
Looking for tracking device
McCuster then realised they were being hijacked. The two men's hands were tied with cable ties and they were forced into the back of McCuster's new Fortuner that he had received three weeks before.
"They drove us into the bundus and told us to get out. We had to lie down on the ground and they covered my girlfriend with towels. They made it clear that they didn't want us to look at them."
McCuster said the three cooperated fully with the hijackers and complied with all their requests, such as giving them the passwords to their phones.
"They went through our luggage looking for valuables while one guy was stripping the car looking for the tracking device, which he found."
Hijackers 'even advised us to get counselling'
The men then announced that they were leaving and gave them directions to nearby smallholdings.
According to McCuster, the hijackers treated them well throughout and apologised to them for the ordeal. "They even advised us to get counselling. They said they hoped we would find it in our hearts to one day forgive them."
Carrying what was left of their luggage, the three then came upon a farmhouse in Sundra.
"A farmer with a bulletproof vest and rifle came out and then we knew we were safe."
McCuster's father rushed to the farmhouse and drove them back to Johannesburg, arriving at around 02:45 on Tuesday morning.
Asked how he felt now, McCuster said "extremely lucky".
"I got a lot of perspective on what's important. I don't have anger in my heart for [the hijackers], I'm really just grateful that they didn't harm us in any way."
He said he would never again pull over if approached by a police car. In fact, as they arrived back in Johannesburg, McCuster got a panic attack when they were pulled over by a metro police vehicle. My dad told them we had just been hijacked by fake police and the [officer] said: 'Just go, just go...'"
Warn the public
"What concerns me is that this is apparently a well known syndicate operating in that area. Why doesn't someone warn the public? These guys have the perfect plan - 99% of people are going to pull over. Why are there not signs up warning people that this is a notoriously dangerous area?"
McCuster said he is now thinking about buying an oldish car. "I want to buy something that nobody wants."
Mpumalanga police spokesperson Brigadier Leonard Hlathi told News24 that blue-light hijackings were a "scourge" in the Delmas area.
"We have a problem of people posing as law enforcers. Some pose as traffic officers and others as SAPS members. They have been robbing trucks in the Delmas area."
Hlathi said it was difficult to police these incidents because there are so many exit points in the area.
"However, we are doing our best with our flying squad to patrol those areas. We have made arrests in the past and investigations are under way."
'Drive to a safe place'
According to Hlathi, the police in Mpumalanga are working with their counterparts in Gauteng. "Most of the suspects flee to Gauteng after robbing our people. We are working with flying squads in Gauteng as well as other units."
Hlathi advised motorists not to stop for what appeared to be a police vehicle if they felt unsafe or were in an isolated area.
"Rather go to a police station or petrol station to be sure." He also said people should not stop by the side of the road to urinate but to rather stop at appropriate places.