An otherworldly desert
Riemvasmaak Community Conservancy
Riemvasmaak Community Conservancy chalets in the Kalahari.
© Chris Marais
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 1500 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
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.
Around the area
Traditional dancing and storytelling is offered by the Riemvasmaak villagers, during which, for example, they will tell the history of Riemvasmaak. They will come down to the springs in the wilderness area to perform. Performances cost between R500 and R800.
You're also very close to the Augrabies Falls National Park, which makes an excellent day trip.
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
You will need to pay at the Riemvasmaak Tourism Office at the entrance to the village.
Day visit: R35 per vehicle and R15 per adult and R10 per child
Camping: R35 per vehicle and R50 per night for the 1st 2 people and every extra person is R15 per person per night. The campsite is situated at the hot springs and you travel for about 5km on a gravel road into the gorge (4x4 not necessary)
Chalets – also at the hot springs (6 x 4 bedroom chalets): R375 per night, fully equipped, self-catering chalets.
4x4 trail: R150 per day per vehicle. 3 different trails varying from 41km to 79km, grades 3 and 4.
Length of stay
You could happily spend at least 2 nights or more here.
What to pack
You must take your own drinking water - set aside 4 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.
What to eat
You can cook your own food or the women of Riemvasmaak can prepare you either traditional or western meals at your chalet or at their homes.
If you prefer meals in the village, there are several venues in women’s houses or the food can be delivered to you. Meals cost between R50 and R80 per person. Traditional meals are sheephead, tripe, samp and beans and roosterbrood (hot bread baked in coals). Or you could choose a braai with chops, boerewors and salad.