Words and pictures by Patrick Cruywagen
My research had indicated that this wasn’t a tough trail – a three on the 4×4 Richter scale at worst. But what we were facing now was anything but a three – this was more like a four bordering on a five. Happily, our Jeep was fitted with the latest Old Man Emu suspension and oversized tyres so I felt up for the challenge. I put the jet-black Jeep Wrangler Sahara into low-range and my navigator, my brother Paul, climbed out to guide me over the tricky rocky descents. Amazingly, this was the first time in my motoring journalism career that I was driving a Wrangler in Africa – I was once pictured on a cover standing next to one but I was just a model in the shot!
I slowly descended a 40-metre stretch of fold after fold of solid rock. The Jeep just laughed at the challenge, even though we didn’t have any lockers and had to rely on traction control. My GPS, which didn’t know about this track, told me that we were headed in the direction of the Orange River and the Wabrand Campsite. This was our second day on the 4×4 trails of Riemvasmaak and it was our first real 4×4 action, provided courtesy of the Molopo Trail. I jumped out of the Jeep to inspect the bumpy track which lay ahead; my newfound confidence had me thinking that this too would be a breeze, and so I soldiered on.
After a few minutes Paul called another halt, gesturing with his thumb across his throat. “Carrying on is a bad idea,” he shouted, and once again I disembarked for some more inspection. It looked as if a few rounds from an artillery piece had fallen here – there was a 10-metre drop-off which had obviously been created by lots of water. This was going to take many hours of road building and a digger loader would come in more handy than a spade.
Big boulders littered the track further ahead making that impassable too. I marked the spot on our Garmin Montana and did a 20-point U-turn; even the most capable Jeep on the planet would’ve rolled down that drop-off , it was more like a cliff . We lived to 4×4 another day and went in search of an alternative route to the campsites on the banks of the Orange River.
The town of Riemvasmaak is host to three 4×4 trails of varying length and diffi culty. Deurspring Trail is the longest at 71 km, while Perdepoort trail (part of which lies on the Deurspring trail) is 48 km. Th e shortest but toughest trail is the Molopo, which is 41 km and will give you a sand and rock driving experience second to none. Part of the Molopo Trail is a section of road from the mouth of the Molopo River back towards the Hot Springs and Riemvasmaak. It’s been recently graded and repaired because it connects to the bridge that was built over the Orange River at Blouputs. So a third of this short trail can be driven quite quickly before you arrive at the tricky stuff .
To reach Riemvasmaak you drive to Kakamas, cross the Orange and head north following the Riemvasmaak signs. Your first indication that this place is anything but normal is spotted about eight kilometres before the actual town. Here they plan to put up a control gate and are in the process of tarring the road to make the Hot Springs and town more accessible for visitors. If you read forum posts and past articles about the place, most people complain about the entrance road, except people like us who’re driving suitable vehicles. The tarring process began three years ago when the contract was given to a local. To date less than one kilometre has been tarred and even that section is full of holes and problems. At this rate it will take them around a quarter of a century to tar the remaining eight kilometre stretch.
As we enter the town I see three female road builders. One is lying in a wheel barrow, another is sitting in the road and the third is leaning against her broom. I stop to take a picture and have a chat. Appolonia Katimba, who’s sitting in the wheelbarrow, tells me that they don’t have the materials to do the work and that the foreman is out of town for the day. A white government bakkie stops, and its driver jumps out and takes a few pictures before speeding off to Upington. They say he’s come to check up on how the project is going, or not going.
Next stop is the tourist office where I meet Clarissa Damara, the happy Tourist Officer. I too would be happy if a cheque for a couple of million rand from the National Development Agency was lying on my desk. “Next Thursday we have another meeting to decide exactly what we will be doing with the funds,” she informs me. Tourism here is community-run, and just like the road building project, it faces challenges. “Our biggest challenge is infrastructure. The bad road is tough on sedans, so we don’t get the numbers we would like,” complains Clarissa. She tells me that the most popular tourist attractions at Riemvasmaak are the local food and traditional dances.
While at the tourist offi ce we run into an old friend of mine, Norbert Coetzee, the man who helped set up and develop the original tourist infrastructure here. Lately though he’s achieved national fame through the Voetspore TV series. Norbert has been on the last two Voetspore expeditions and today operates as a freelance guide in his hometown of Riemvasmaak. He greets me with his toothy grin, kitted out in Voetspore branded clothing. As we drive into the village the people we pass shout “Voetspore” when they recognise Norbert – we’re hanging with the local celebrity.
At the heart of the village is the Catholic Church, the only building left standing aft er the ’73 and ’74 forced removals. It was then that people of Nama, Damara and Herero descent were moved to Namibia’s Damaraland while those of Xhosa descent had to go to the former homeland of Ciskei. Where you were sent was determined by the racial classifi cation system of the time. Coloured people were allowed to move to nearby towns. Th e Cape Times of 13 October ’73 recorded the removal as follows: “Heartbreaking scenes of uprootment… have fallen offi cially on deaf ears, blind eyes. Th e juggernaut of Nationalist Party ideology is impervious to tears. Human emotions and feelings don’t count. Only the plan, conceived in some soulless Pretoria offi ce is deemed important… It is authoritarian.
It is heartless. It is typical of so many government actions against people who cannot vote back.” Before the forced removals Riemvasmaak was already a little rainbow nation with people of many diverse backgrounds living and farming in relative harmony. Norbert was nine at the time and remembers how the elders herded the livestock to the nearby Lutzputs Station while they were taken by truck to train station. “We were young and happy as we did not know what it was like to ride on a train but our elders were upset and did not want to move,” recalls Norbert.
A year later the South African Defence Force moved into the area and for the next 20 years or so they used it for weapons testing and training as they were engaged in a bush war at the time. In ’94 when Norbert and friends returned it became a favourite pastime of the youngsters to walk in the veld and collect military souvenirs, a dangerous practice as some of this ordnance was still live.
Patrick Booysen, who was born in Damaraland, returned with his parents to Riemvasmaak in ’95. He is now a stock farmer and experienced fi rst-hand the devastating dangers aft er standing on a landmine while minding his goats – he lost an arm and a leg in the process. “I’m not angry at the South African Defence Force. I’m just unhappy that I never got a payout for my injuries. I still ride my donkey cart, roll my tobacco and work normally. I believe in God and he tells me where there is a will there is a way,” explains Patrick before heading off to chop some wood. As I greet this good man I feel uncomfortable as I’ve been told that normally when tourists come to see him they give him some money. As someone who takes pictures for a living I cannot pay everyone I photograph, so as I shake Patrick’s remaining left hand I promise to include his details in my article so readers can call on him for donkey cart rides for the kids (or adults) and fi rewood. I’m humbled by how he has got on with his life despite his disabilities.
The first trail we tackle is Perdepoort. It’s already late morning and if we plan to complete the two trails for the day we need to get a move on. Th e land belonging to the Riemvasmaak people is huge, totalling about 75 000 hectares. Th e Orange River lies to the south while Namibia, the former temporary home of many Riemvasmaak people, lies to the west. Finally, to the southeast is the popular tourist destination of the Augrabies Falls National Park. It would be silly to come to these parts without making a plan to pop in at Kgalagadi National Park or the Augrabies Falls National Park or the lovely 4×4 trail which runs along the southern bank of the Orange River. Th ere’s lots of 4×4 fun to be had in the greater Northern Cape area.
I have a special fondness for the area as back in 2003 I ran a 250 km race along these very same tracks we’re now 4x4ing on. It was in the middle of summer and all they gave us was water – we had to carry the rest of our gear on our backs. Back then I fell in love with the silence, red rocks and warm springs – I was happy to be back again.
The Perdepoort Trail name comes from an old story about locals who used to span a wire net across the poort to trap wild horses which they would then break in and use. About 12 km into the trail, we climb out very close to the poort where they used to trap the horses to look at some bushmen paintings. A rock wall has been placed around them to protect them. Norbert remembers how when he fi rst came here aft er returning from Namibia the paintings were fenced in and gated. Today the fence is gone so people just jump over the wall and walk up to the paintings. Sadly, some visitors have made their own paintings and today only a few clear original ones remain. Aft er we pass Water Kloof Camp, the fi rst of the many marked campsites, we begin to climb up onto a plateau. It’s not too technical a climb and our petrol Jeep easily makes its way to the top. We encounter what we thought to be a short muddy section, but the midday sun is playing tricks with our eyes. It’s just white glare off the hardened and cracked mud so we’re able to easily proceed. We have a short stop at the Perdevlei look-out point where one has lovely views to the south back towards the village. Little did I know that I’d be returning here the next morning…
Not long aft er the look-out there’s an intersection; there’s a 12 kilometre track back to Riemvasmaak but we choose to proceed straight onto the Deurspring Trail which continues along the plateau we’ve just come along. Just before the Roman campsite we pass another farm, one of many on the trail. People here have donkeys, cattle and goats. Out of the farmstead comes Gerald Booysen, the brother of Patrick who I had met earlier. He’s upset as he thinks people are poaching kudu to the south-west, he’s seen some suspicious vehicles and heard shots. Gerald travels by donkey cart when he has to move about and normally covers the 25 km or so back to Riemvasmaak in about two hours, not much slower than our Jeep! “I normally use four donkeys but sometimes take a spare one in case. After a tough uphill I give the donkeys a blaaskans. This donkey cart is a ’95 model and to drive over these rocks and rough tracks you need something like a donkey cart and not a Toyota,” argues Gerald before going off to oil his diff. The trail now heads in a south-westerly direction towards the Orange River. It’s late afternoon and the rocks begin to turn red in the fading light. Instead of heading straight back towards Riemvasmaak we take the turnoff to the river and Xhubuxap camp. Last year’s flooding destroyed the campsite but there are enough grass and sandy areas on which to set up. We’re booked into the chalet at the Hot Springs and head back there after dropping off Norbert in town. It’s dark by the time we get to the Hot Springs and before unloading the Jeep we grab a beer and go take a soak in the warm water which is believed to have healing powers. When I lie on my back all I can see are the stars and the sides of the Molopo River canyon. It’s been a hot, dusty and satisfying day. That evening we discover that we’ve lost one of the spotlights on our Jeep so I’m up at 05h00 to go and look for it with Norbert. I’ve studied the pictures I took and have an idea of where it might be. It’s still dark and we take the Deurspring Trail link road which we didn’t drive the previous day; after about 11 kilometres we’re back on yesterday’s track. We drive all the way to Roman Camp but there’s no sign of the spot so we give up and turn back.
By now the sun is rising and we’re on a flat plain – it’s beautiful, it feels as though we can see to the ends of the earth. A lone quiver tree, covered in a weavers’ nest, is the only thing to break the horizon. “When we are out looking for our animals we climb up the quiver trees as this gives us height. It’s the only way to find them when the bushes are high,” says Norbert. The up side of our search for the spotlight is that we drive back via the On Kais Valley, which was dark when we drove it in the morning. It was the little link road which we left out yesterday when we did the Perdepoort and Deurspring Trails. It’s a beautiful valley and the campsite here has been named after Norbert. We stop at the columns of long, thin rocks which are covered in white dassie poo – it looks as if someone has placed a single round, loose rock on top of each column, almost like the head of a giant. It’s a popular place for photographers in the evening, but as it’s still early morning the rocks are in shadow.
Just before we reach Riemvasmaak there’s a turnoff to the old army camp, there’s nothing to see there so don’t bother taking the turnoff unless you know of some buried treasure there. Before tackling the shorter Molopo Trail, Paul and I take a short stroll down the Molopo gorge, which is part of a hiking trail that goes all the way to and along the Orange River. Often with larger groups some people do the hike while the lazier ones drive the vehicles around to the river. The Molopo Trail begins near the village and is sandier, rockier and more technical than the other two trails and so we deflate our tyres a little. The first section is very much like what we’d encountered on the other two trails – that was until we came to that intersection described at the beginning of the article. After we backtracked and took the right fork the trail seemed to disappear with us again.
As hardly anyone drives this trail it was a little overgrown and at times the tracks were faint, almost non-existent. Paul walked in front of the Jeep and guided me down some of the many rocky descents. It was late aft ernoon again and the light was making a red spectacle of our surrounds. We were on top of a line of hills and needed to get down to the mouth of the Molopo River but couldn’t fi nd a bloody track anywhere.
It became a guessing game but eventually we made it down into the dry Molopo. Th ere were signs everywhere that this is where the livestock came to drink and on the other side of the river we could see the vineyards. Perfect for a campsite and so we set up, started a fi re and watched the sun set. Further downstream I could see the Blouputs Bridge over the Orange River. Our exit to tar and civilisation was less than three kilometres away.
That night as the fire roared and our sausages sizzled I had much to think about. Th ese people from Riemvasmaak have been to hell and back; now they are home but except for tourism and farming there’s no formal work here. Some cross the Orange and go work on the farms. Th e attempt to tar the last eight kilometres into Riemvasmaak has been an absolute disaster. Plus, the locals seem to have become reliant on dodgy government work projects. But poverty and political problems aside, even though the trails aren’t well-marked I would drive them again in a heartbeat. Plus, this is a very aff ordable destination, and our chalet from the night before was clean and equipped with everything we needed. So come to Riemvasmaak, I dare you. While they could use your custom the chances are actually good that you’ll fi nd yourself needing Riemvasmaak more than it needs you. Th e silence and beautiful landscapes are good for the soul.
WHERE WE STAYED
After the massive fl oods of ’11 they’ve done some serious refurbishment; there’s now a new deck and family chalets which we stayed in. Khamkirri lies between Riemvasmaak and Kakamas, making it the ideal stopover. For more details go to www.khamkirri.co.za call 082 790 1309 or contact email@example.com. Accommodation options include camping, rustic permanent tents and self catering river chalets.
There are many campsites along the three trails which are good for overnighting. The most popular ones are those next to the Orange River or the one at the hot springs. At the hot springs the campsite has water but no showers as yet. The chalets at the hot springs are fully kitted offering air-con, fridges, bedding, cutlery and crockery, fl ush toilets and showers. However, during our visit the electricity was off. As for the campsites on the trail they consist of a shady tree with a wall around it. Within the confi nes of the wall is a braai but the campsites haven’t been cared for, they’re overgrown. Still there are enough other weed-free places to braai and put up your tent. To drive the trail costs R150 per day that you’re on the trail, which includes your camping fee. We paid R300 for our night in the four-bed chalet at the hot springs. The normal rate is R375 but we got a discount because of the problem with electricity. The daily rate for guides is R150. To book call 054 431 0945 or 083 873 7715.
Need wood or a donkey cart ride for the kids? Local resident Patrick Booysen sells wood from his Riemvasmaak home. He also offers donkey cart rides for R30 per person. Contact Patrick on 071 794 0416 or via the tourist office.
We approached Riemvasmaak from Kakamas after overnighting at Khamkirri. We first drove the Perdepoort Trail and Deurspring Trail on one day before sleeping at the Hot Springs. The next morning we did some of the Molopo Hiking Trail and swam in the Hot Springs before tackling the tougher Molopo 4×4 Trail in the afternoon. Our second night was spent at Hendrik se Plat Camp. Not wanting to drive the same roads we left via the bridge over the Orange River at Blouputs so that we could stop at the Augrabies Falls on the way home.
Kakamas is the last place to fuel up. If you’re driving all three trails in a thirsty vehicle it might be a good idea to take along a jerrycan or two. WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS There is a basic shop and a vibey tavern in Riemvasmaak but you’ll only find things like a toothbrush or a can of sardines here. Kakamas is the last place to stock up on essentials such as ice, fresh produce and a bottle of good wine. We drove up along the N7 and bought potatoes, naartjies and oranges for next to nothing in Citrusdal.
A keen sense of direction, fresh water, extra fuel, swimming trunks, tyre repair kit, compressor, tyre pressure gauge and fridge.
CONVOY OR SOLO
People come here for the peace and quiet. You can do it solo. It was great being next to the Orange River and the hot springs with no other tourists about.
The trail hasn’t been maintained but is still in very good condition except for the road down to the Hamerkopnes campsite which is not passable. The gravel road from Kakamas to Riemvasmaak isn’t too bad by African standards.
MAPS & DIRECTIONS
These three trails haven’t been mapped by Tracks4Africa. The trail is badly marked and sign-posted and just about everyone who drives it without a guide gets lost at some point. So it might be good to take a guide; the only downside of this is that if you intend to stay next to the river or at one of the en route campsites then you have to take the guide back to Riemvasmaak as they don’t have camping gear.
Any 4×4 will be able to do the Perdepoort and Deurspring Trails, but if doing the Molopo Trail relatively good ground clearance and low-range could come in handy especially if you take a wrong turn as we did. (See GPS points for details on how to avoid this).
The Riemvasmaak area experiences extreme heat in the summer which is why this is a popular winter trail due to the mild days. The trail is not well marked so if you have a bad sense of direction do take a guide. If camping next to the river be sensible as it does rise from time to time.
Not applicable. A popular add-on for this destination is to head to the Botswana side of the nearby Kgalagadi National Park – for that you will need your vehicle registration papers.