Kimberley – a diamond in the wilderness!
On the border of the Northern Cape and Free State, 177km west of Bloemfontein, lies Kimberley, the capital of the of the Northern Cape. When you think of Kimberley and its Diamond fields, it is easy to imagine a wonderland of romance and riches. And yet, the reality is that Kimberley and its surrounds are mostly dry and uninspiring; it is unlikely that the city will again experience the glamour and importance that it had for two decades at the end of the 19th century. For this reason, many tourist by-pass Kimberley and it was this self-same reason that I decided to purposefully travel to this city. In doing so, I found a well-hidden gem beneath the dusty surface of the region, simply waiting to be discovered by the intrepid traveller!
My arrival in Kimberley did not bode well. I arrived later than planned, and found myself bedless-and-breakfastless too. After several calls to hotels that were full, I found a room in a religious establishment of sorts. The greeting at the establishment was less than warm, to put it politely, however the room was clean and the bed comfortable and I was too tired to go elsewhere.
After a refreshing shower, I found myself in better spirits and it was with a spring in my step that I once again located my little run-around and headed into town. It was thus in a chirpy frame of mind that I found, and thoroughly enjoyed, what I believe to be Kimberley’s best kept secret. The Star of the West!
Just around the corner from the Big Hole, the Star of the West is a pub that draws its clientele from the locals. It is Kimberley’s oldest pub and it still serves beer to diamond diggers after the diamond markets on Saturdays. As a female, I was a bit concerned as to whether I was welcome when I noticed several worrying, framed newspaper cuttings – all dealing with the objection of the local drinkers (men) to allowing the weaker sex (women) into the pub. Fortunately, these do seem to be more of a decorative touch than a not-so-subtle warning, and I felt very welcome in the sparsely decorated interior.
The food was possibly the best that I had tasted in several weeks. I had eaten several steaks in Johannesburg, many at some of the priciest places in the city, but not one could compare to the steak and salad that I enjoyed in the Star of the West. And at a quarter of the price of my previous steak-encounters – a mere R40/ £4 – my credit card didn’t complain either!
You may think that this is enough for me to rate the place so highly, however it was the customers that made the evening for me. My neighbours at the bar comprised a priest and two diamond diggers, and they were some of the best live entertainment that I have witnessed in a pub for a long time. I was treated to some beautifully sung Afrikaans songs, a rousing rendition of Shosholoza – on the bar, no less! – and I was whirled around the “dance floor” (I use the term lightly) in a rapid, albeit drunken, two-step.
By the time I left to return to my little room, I felt quite at home and it was a heavy heart that I waved goodbye, knowing that I would not sample the fare or the entertainment of the establishment again. (Location: Near the big hole, on the corner of West and North Circular Roads.)
As sad as I was to leave the Star of the West the day before, I was quite happy to pay my bill and leave my accommodation in the morning after the night before.
I was looking forward to some seeing some of the mining sites, and the first on my list was a tour of Bultfontein Diamond mine. At nine o’clock sharp, I presented myself to a cheeky Yorkshire man who had been working in Kimberley for the longest time, having fallen into the trap of getting married.
After a brief video about diamonds and mining, I donned a very attractive, bright orange jumpsuit, a hard-hat and several heavy boxes attached to my belt which were to power my light. As promised, instead of wandering around a sanitised visitor centre, I found myself travelling 825 meters into the depths of the earth to the depths of the mine, where tourists weren’t of much interest to the miners.
Amid the noise of the turbines and engines, the dust, the mud, the heat and the heavy air, I and 10 others watched (and felt!) kimberlite being loosed with some form of explosive device, dragged out by trolleys, crushed and then transported to the surface for cleaning and sifting. And throughout, we enjoyed the friendly and informative banter of our guide, our Yorkshire man, asking both technical and social questions, receiving a range of answers that were both politically correct as well as those that were less so.
A reflection on real life, and a welcome change from the “politically correct, we’re reformed” burble that you so often find in countries that have had problems like those that South Africa has had.
The experience was fascinating and informative, highly recommended to all and sundry although probably not a great idea for the timid and claustrophobic! Tours last 3-and-a-half hours and are conducted Monday-Friday. Call +27 (0) 53 842 1321 (R75/ £7.50).
After this, I decided to stick with the mining theme and headed for the Kimberley Mine Museum, which is the only official way to get a good glimpse of the hole. Kimberley actually has five big holes, not one as many visitors think. The De Beers mine, which is situated a few steps away from the old De Beers boardroom, is larger than the Kimberley Hole, but the Kimberley hole is special because it was carved out of the earth entirely by brute manpower: pick and shovel. That's some 250 million tons of rock removed basically by hand to produce three coco pans of diamonds!!! (The three other mines belong to De Beers and are found in the South East of the city).
The mine museum has several attractions other than the Big Hole, so don’t be put off by having to pay to get in. The mine has two viewing platforms from which you can peer down into the gaping hole beneath the platform. It is partially filled with water, offering spectacular photo opportunities for happy snappers like me!
The cost of the ticket includes a free bucket of alluvial soil, which you can then sift through in search of a genuine Kimberley Diamond! This was great fun and I spent a thoroughly enjoyable 15 minutes crossing my fingers and toes before finding nothing at all, much to my disappointment as all the other “diggers” to my left and right were discovering mock diamonds left, right and center! Their discoveries led me to grumpily acknowledge that the claim of the museum that “your chances of striking it lucky are one in five” was probably a true claim.
The rest of the museum comprises a large collection of historic buildings including shops, banks, photograph shops, and even a ten pin bowling alley! With many authentic artifacts and original buildings rescued from the main Kimberley city center, this truly is a living museum! A word of warning though – try to avoid the midday heat! (Opening hours: daily from 8am – 6pm.)
Viewing these mines, one current and one historical, was an all day affair! Before I knew it, I was back in my car, heading away from Kimberley, on to my next destination.
Kimberley had made a significant impression on me. Dusty, yes. Glamorous and important? Perhaps not. But friendly and interesting and fun, yes. A recommendation for your South African tours? Definitely! I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suzanne Whitby is the founder of Naturally Africa (http://naturallyafrica.org/). It contains a wealth of information for both South Africans and travellers to South Africa. She loves South Africa and hopes to convey this in her writing and her web endeavours.