Did you know that Kimberley (in the Northern Cape) was the very first city in the Southern Hemisphere and one of the first cities in the world to have electric street lights? It actually had electric street lights before London.
This “Strange but true” fact was imparted to us by our tour guide, Frank Dippenaar, as he gave us a tour of The Big Hole Museum in Kimberley.
“I hear they’re bigger than us these days” he continued in a dead-serious tone and everyone burst into laughter.
I’d been to Kimberley about 5-6 years ago and did a tour of the Big Hole and the Diamond Mine Museum then but our guide at the time was not as entertaining or informative as Frank. He greatly enlightened us on the history of the Diamond City while simultaneously treating us to a laugh a minute.
Brief history of Kimberley
Diamonds were first discovered in Hopetown in the Northern Cape in 1866. Then, in 1871 a diamond pipe was discovered at the site of the Big Hole in Kimberley, triggering the diamond rush which drew people from all over the world. They descended on the small town in droves, dreaming of fabulous fortunes to be made. Some did, but many others were disappointed.
The Big Hole was originally a small hill. As diamond prospectors dug furiously, it became the large crater that it currently is. Millions of tons of kimberlite ore (the type of earth in which the diamonds are found) were removed from it yielding 2722 kilograms of diamonds.
The Kimberley diamond industry was eventually controlled by two famous tycoons of the day – Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato. They were at loggerheads at first, but eventually De Beers of which Rhodes was the chairman, bought Barnato’s holdings and made him a governor of the new De Beers Consolidated Diamond Mines. Their head offices are now in London but every year the directors from all over the world return to Kimberley where it all started to hold their Annual General Meeting (AGM).
We had stopped over for an excursion in Kimberley while en route to Cape Town on the Rovos Rail. Our arrival into Kimberley was heralded by the spectacularly memorable sight of thousands of pink flamingos upon Kamfer Dam. The dam is one of only four breeding sites for lesser flamingos in Africa and six in the world, making it a precious sighting.
Train staff gave us ample notice that we were approaching the flamingos so that we could gather on the open-air balcony for the best view on the train and it was a spectacular sight. Kimberley is most famous for the Big Hole and many people pass through it without knowing about the flamingos. On our previous visit, we tried to see the flamingos but couldn’t find the exact location so we left disappointed. This time, the train route passed close to the dam and offered us a superb sighting.
At the Big Hole and its Diamond Mine Museum, we were first treated to a fascinating video on Kimberley’s history including the development of the mine and the working conditions of the miners. South African soapie viewers (I hereby admit that I am one of them) will recognise several of the actors from the different TV soapies. Then we went on to the viewing platform, to view the world’s biggest hand-dug excavation- 580 feet of turquoise water filling a hole as wide as eight football fields. It has now been turned into a world-class tourist destination, courtesy of De Beers. It is absolutely mind-boggling to imagine how a small hill was turned into such a huge hole by blood, sweat, tears and hard labour. The Big Hole was recently in the news again when a dog fell into it and was rescued a few day later by a policeman after a 15-hour rescue mission.
When we finally tore ourselves away from gawking at The Big Hole, we descended into an underground mine which later led into the diamond vault, a diamond-lover’s paradise containing some historic diamonds and some important replicas. Here we saw the largest uncut octahedron diamond in the world. I had no idea that diamonds came that big!
We stepped back in time to explore The Old Town with its buildings recreated in the style of the Diamond Rush period. It was more like a huge open-air museum and we marvelled at the auctioneers, mine manager’s house, Barney Barnato’s boxing academy, the wagon museum and many other representative buildings of the period.
All too soon, it was time to head back to our train for the journey onward to Cape Town. Kimberley is one of South Africa’s historic gems but it often gets overlooked by tourists more attracted by the big cities of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg. Take a detour to Kimberley on your next road trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town. You won’t regret it. For more information on The Big Hole museum, visit their website.
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