'We were robbed by knife-wielding thugs in the blue mountains'

Photographer Jen Pan and her husband were on holiday, hoping to enjoy the tranquillity of the wilderness. Instead, they fell prey to thugs - who robbed them, and sent them on a terrifying race to escape. She tells Hoe I Yune about her ordeal.

Earlier this year, my husband and I decided to go on a three-day getaway in the Blue Mountains, while on holiday in Sydney.

It would be a good break from city life, we thought.

On our first day in the mountains, we decided to explore the plunge pools of Empress Falls - which we had chanced on while booking our homestay online.

Reviews described the tourist attraction as both tranquil and beautiful.

We didn't need more convincing.

After checking into our accommodation at around 5pm, we set off.

It was a 30-minute hike across rocky terrain, down to the plunge pools.

We made it to the fi rst pool and were enjoying a leisurely soak, when six men suddenly clambered in.

It was hard to ignore them because they were talking loudly, while intermittently spitting in the water.

Their poor hygiene and little respect for their surroundings made us uneasy.

It was getting dark and we wanted to leave, but were afraid they might accuse us of being racist if we made an abrupt exit.

I told myself not to judge others so superficially - even as they seemed to close in on us in the small pool.


My husband had moved towards the edge of the pool, and was sitting on a rock snapping pictures with his smartphone, when one of the men suddenly leapt from the water, grabbed my husband's phone, and dived back in.

I was dumbfounded.

The man resurfaced and told us he had lost the phone.

I had a feeling that was far from the truth.

He appeared way too calm for it to have been accidental.

The iPhone 7 Plus is water-resistant, so I suspected that with some sleight of hand, he had stuffed it into the back pocket of his board shorts.

My husband calmly asked the man to stop fooling around and return the phone.

But he continued to laugh at us.

I grew angry and raised my voice.

"Either return the phone or compensate us," I said.

"Our photographs, business contacts, and e-tickets back to Singapore are stored on that."

On hearing we were from Singapore, the man seemed to perk up, and said: "Singaporeans are rich. Today's your lucky day, you can claim insurance."

For the next few minutes, the men spoke in a language I didn't understand, as they made a show of climbing in and out of the water, supposedly searching for the phone.

When they didn't find it, we demanded compensation Switching back to English, the man who pilfered my husband's phone said: "Okay, let's go to the ATM."

He motioned to the next plunge pool - which was some way downhill, and indicated we should follow him.

This did not feel right, because going back uphill was obviously the way out.

The group slowly began moving downhill, but I noticed my husband pulling away to approach two girls who were chilling out nearby.


We hadn't noticed the girls earlier, but my husband had hoped to borrow a phone to call the police.

They seemed calm, so we weren't sure they'd witnessed what had happened.

In any case, neither of them had a mobile phone.

As we turned away, we were suddenly face-to-face with the perpetrator and another man from the group.

Before I could even register shock, they whipped out what looked like fruit knives and pointed them at us.

"If you want your money, then come down [with us]!", he barked.

I was shocked speechless.

If they wanted us to feel threatened, they had certainly succeeded.

A bad feeling began to gnaw at me - perhaps we should quit pursuing the phone while we still had a chance to run.

In a foreign country, how far could we assert ourselves without compromising our safety?

"They're bigger [than you], and they have knives. Your best bet is to run," one of the girls said.

That was when reality hit - the fact that things could take a dangerous turn was sobering.

So we turned and ran.

As I looked back, I was horrified to see that the men had begun to pack their things, and were about to give chase.

We ran even faster.

As we scrambled uphill, desperately trying to put distance between them and us, we bumped into an elderly couple.

I was already crying, and after briefly telling them what had happened, I begged them to call the police.

They assured us that they would, and we legged it - not daring to stop for too long in case the men caught up with us.

I heard angry shouts behind me.

I could sense the men gaining on us.

I wasn't sure what they were playing at, and I realised then that sometimes, the greatest fear is that of the unknown.

The men taunted us, calling out "We're near, we're near!", which only sent us into a greater panic - especially since they had knives.

It felt like a game of cat and mouse.

It was terrifying.

At that point, all I wanted was to get out of there.

I didn't think we were going to die, but neither did I want to be toyed with further.

I was also terrified that in our haste to get away, we could slip, tumble down the steep slope, and get hurt.

We have two young children - we could not let anything happen to us.

Anger, frustration and fear came in waves.

I hated the men for what they were putting us through, yet at the same time, I felt so vulnerable.

It's incredible what pure adrenalin can do.

A climb that would typically have taken us 30 minutes, we managed in 10.


It was late and almost dark, so the main visitor area was devoid of people.

Only a few cars were parked there, including a BMW.

I recalled one of the girls we had approached earlier saying she reckoned some of the men had arrived in a BMW, so I tried to memorise the licence plate number to report it to the police later.

Shortly after, the men appeared.

But before I could react, I heard car doors slamming and the shrill screech of tyres as they drove off.

I saw the BMW hurtling towards me, narrowly missing me as I jumped to one side.

The windows were tinted, so I couldn't clearly see the faces of the people in the car.

The next thing I knew, the police had arrived and were recording our statements.

I remember reciting the licence plate number of the BMW to them.

It wasn't long before another officer sent an update over the walkie-talkie to say that the car had been found.

Later, we found out from the officers that neither the knives nor our phone had been found in the car.

We could only guess that the men had discarded both in the forest before making their getaway.


Even though we were fine, my husband and I were traumatised by the ordeal.

It was a rude awakening concerning how I had always taken my safety for granted and paid so little attention to strange surroundings.

In my fear, I had been unable to remember if the perpetrator had facial hair, or what colour his shirt was.

Since then, we've stressed more to our kids that they should not just be aware of their surroundings, but should also remember specific details - the make of a car, the name of a cafe, or the details of a person's face.

As Singaporeans, we often take safety for granted.

I had to learn not to do so the hard way, and I don't want my family and friends to go through what we did.