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TThe Riemvasmaak Community Conservancy in the Kalahari has a back-story writ large in South African history – the conservancy marks 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 in Eastern Cape; those with presumed Nama ancestry were sent to Namibia. The people suffered terrible hardships.
Meanwhile, the land they had left was given to the South African military, to be 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 the end of apartheid in 1994.
The Riemvasmakers, as the community is known, again suffered great hardships when they came back to their land – in the newly created province of Northern Cape – 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 4-wheel drive 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.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
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 in Northern Cape. From Upington drive to Keimoes on the N14, then on to Kakamas. Just before the Orange River, there is a large green board pointing to the right-turn to Riemvasmaak. Riemvasmaak is about 57km from Kakamas on a gravel road and about 139km in total from Upington. Riemvasmaak village is about 4km from the wilderness area.
Best time to visit
Summers (December to February) can be overwhelmingly hot, especially in the canyon. It’s better to visit between March and November. Bear in mind that winter (June, July and August) can be bitterly cold at night, although mild during the day.
It’s best to be in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. If you’re driving an ordinary sedan, make sure it has a high ground clearance.
Length of stay
One or 2 nights.
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, and a hat and sunscreen.
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.