South Africa: A billion-dollar diamond dig

By Chris Pritchard

Chris Pritchard digs deep into Kimberley's past.

More than 50,000 miners dug deep to create the Big Hole during Kimberley's diamond rush of the late 1800s. Photo / Chris Pritchard
More than 50,000 miners dug deep to create the Big Hole during Kimberley's diamond rush of the late 1800s. Photo / Chris Pritchard

A hole in the ground is what tourists come to see. They peer into it, shaking their heads in amazement. This strange behaviour has long puzzled me.

I promised myself that, one day, I'd visit Kimberley. I'd see the hole for myself and discover what the fuss was about. So here I am, perched on a lookout above the Big Hole with a skyline in the distance behind it.

Tourism officials say many of Kimberley's tourists are on return visits to South Africa. They've previously visited game parks, scenic Cape Town and other attractions. Now they want something different.

Back in the late 1800s, Kimberley was the scene of a diamond rush that coincided with Johannesburg's gold rush and sparked a population surge.

The Big Hole results from a frenzy in which more than 50,000 miners dug deeper - and deeper and deeper - in search of the magnificent gems found there.

It was mined to 800m, but dumped debris later reduced this depth to 215m, and an estimated 40m of water now sits on top.

These days no mining occurs at the Big Hole. However, Kimberley continues to anchor South Africa's diamond-mining industry, with many dealerships in the city.

Though the Big Hole is sometimes called the world's deepest hand-dug hole, there are other claimants for that title. But it's certainly one of the deepest ... and very impressive.

A lookout over the hole is the centrepiece of a complex encompassing an entire old town from the diamond-rush era, including shops, houses and churches, a museum devoted to the gems, a cinema with films about Kimberley's diamond dig history and underground tours.

Close to Orange River wine lands and well-stocked game reserves, Kimberley's other claim to fame is as the site of the Anglo-Boer War battles between 1899 and 1902, and you can tour the old battlefields.

On a walking tour of this pretty city, with its many war memorials and historic buildings, I'm shown where a shell slammed into a spot near the Kimberley Club, then the haunt of mining magnate Cecil Rhodes and other pro-British leaders. The club is now a stylish boutique hotel. Its corridors are a fascinating museum, with photographs of former combatants and historic weaponry. One room contains giant Ming vases donated by the Oppenheimer family, whose De Beers diamond empire traces its roots to Kimberley.

I sit alone at a small corner table in the club's ornate dining room. Diners point at me. I wonder why.

"You're occupying Cecil Rhodes' chair," whispers a waiter.

"From here, Rhodes could see everyone who came and went."

Across a street from the Kimberley Club is the Africana Library (Africana meaning to do with Africa, not Afrikaner which refers to the Boers).

Paintings and photographs of stern-looking former miners and civic leaders stare down from the walls. Yellowing newspapers and books chronicle the history of mining and war in Kimberley. Other rooms reveal much about the rest of Africa.

The ultimately successful clamour for equal rights is described at the nearby Sol Plaatje Museum honouring an early anti-racist leader. More orthodox is the McGregor Museum, with its exhibits about Kimberley's history. I examine ancient etchings by the San (bushman) people, an ethnic group whose descendants still live nearby, as well as stuffed mammals and birds found in this arid region.

There's even an Antipodean connection: one of the first foreigners to arrive after the Boers laid a four-month siege of Kimberley was Banjo Paterson, composer of the Waltzing Matilda lyrics, then a war correspondent.

I wonder if he, too, marvelled at the Big Hole... or found it reminiscent of the billabong where his jolly swagman met his end.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand, in conjunction with partner airlines, has daily services from Auckland to Johannesburg via Hong Kong. Economy-class airfares start at $2784 each, return.

What to do: Kimberley has plentiful accommodation in all price brackets, including the 130-year-old Kimberley Club.

Further information: See kimberley.co.za.

Chris Pritchard visited Kimberley with help from South African Airways and South African Tourism.

- NZ Herald

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