The Riemvasmaak community was forcibly removed from its land in 1973 and 1974 under unjust apartheid policies. After the democratic elections of 1994, the community could return. They now welcome visitors to enjoy their world of canyons, hot springs and Kalahari desert silence.

Did you know?

Riemvasmaak (pronounced 'reem fuss mark') got its name, the story goes, when a clan in the area stole the livestock of another clan. They were caught and tied (vasmaak in Afrikaans) to a large rock in the nearby Molopo River with thongs or rieme.

The Riemvasmaak Community Conservancy in the Kalahari has a back-story writ large in South African history. It marked the first time that land was restored to a community after apartheid ended.

The saga started in 1973, when the entire community of 1 500 people was forcibly removed from 70 000 hectares of land. Those with Xhosa surnames were sent to the Transkei area in the Eastern Cape. Others with Nama ancestry were sent to Namibia. The people suffered terrible hardships.

Meanwhile, the land they had left was given to the South African military, and it was used, among other things, as a missile testing range.

With such a clear example of an unjust forced removal, the return of the Riemvasmaak community became a high-priority project after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

The Riemvasmakers, as the community is known, again suffered great hardships when they came back to their land, although they were overjoyed to be back. Their homes had been burnt before their eyes when they were taken away, and the school had been used as a target for missiles. The land was littered with munitions.

But now the scars are well on their way to being healed, and the Riemvasmakers have added tourism to their traditional income stream of livestock farming.

Set in the Kalahari desert, Riemvasmaak has a starkly rugged beauty with unusual mineral deposits like translucent green fluorite – said to be a highly spiritual stone promoting clarity of mind – and a hot spring.

There is comfortable accommodation, several 4x4 trails, a hiking trail and a mountain bike route. You can request traditional dancing and meals too.

But the real attraction is the splendid isolation of this place, and the extraordinary rock formations, where gnarled roots wind their way around huge boulders. You feel as if you have come to a Biblical land, where life is stripped down to essentials and eagles fly like talismans of hope.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Riemvasmaak
Cell: +(0)83 873 7715 (Clarissa Damara)

Green Kalahari Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)54 337 2800

How to get here

Drive or fly to Upington. From Upington drive to Keimoes, then to Kakamas and just before the Orange River there is a large green board pointing out where to turn right to Riemvasmaak. Riemvasmaak is about 57km from Kakamas on a gravel road and about 139km from Upington. Riemvasmaak village is about 4km from the wilderness area.

Best time to visit

Summers can be overwhelmingly hot, especially in the canyon. It's better to visit from March to November. Bear in mind that mid-winter (June, July and August) can be bitterly cold at night, although mild during the day.

Get around

It's best to be in a 4x4, but if not, it's definitely advisable to be driving a vehicle with high clearance.

What will it cost

Rates are reasonable. Contact the Riemvasmaak Tourism Office for details.

Length of stay

Overnight or a couple of nights.

What to pack

You must take your own drinking water. Set aside four litres per person per day, as well as kitchen utensils, your own food and drinks, towels, and firewood. Don't forget your swimming costume for a dip in the hot springs.

Where to stay

The conservancy has comfortable self-catering chalets or camping facilities, but you'll need to bring in most of what you need. The campsite is at the hot springs and you drive about 4km on a gravel road into the gorge. A 4x4 is not required.