by Inge Triegaardt
Upon entering Kimberley, one might find that the capital of the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, is just another dull, dusty town with heat waves in summer and cold, winter nights with temperatures below zero degrees Celsius. The impression one gets when driving down the streets of this once “rich” town, is definitely not one of glamour and shiny diamonds. Being the host city of the De Beers Mining Company HQ, Kimberley still preserves the rich history that made this town one of the most sought after places to be during the early 1900’s.
One might think that visiting a big hole in the ground should be nothing spectacular these days, given that we have seen comets create big craters all over the world. So what makes the Big Hole in Kimberley so special that one will pay to take a selfie in front of a hole in the ground? Well, come with me on a journey where we discover the uniqueness that you will not find anywhere in the world.
Arriving at the Big Hole Visitors Centre and the Museum, a feeling of richness descends on you. You walk through the gate and arrive in the little village with original buildings that are restored, such as the diggers’ quarters, Barney Barnato’s boxing academy and the church built in Europe and shipped to Kimberley. You walk past the Tramway and into the modern Visitors Centre with it’s vast openness and in the distance a ramp starts appearing where you will soon stand to look out over the biggest hand-dug excavation in the world.
Depending on the time you have, there are different packages to meet you need:
- Full Tour (R110/person) – includes a 20min movie, a visit underground inside the mine, a visit to the museum and the Big Hole
- Tour (R60) – includes a 20min movie and a visit to the Big Hole
- Tour (R40) – includes a visit to the Big Hole
On each tour you are assigned a knowledgeable guide who will enrich you with the 150-year old story of the Big Hole of Kimberley.
But for now, tour with me on the full tour and I will tell you what you can expect. We are taking a journey back to the time of Barney Barnato and Cecil John Rhodes.
After paying your entrance fee and making your way past the entrance to the Big Hole ramp, you find yourself in a big movie theater where you are taken back in time while watching the story of the discovery of the very first diamond discovered in South Africa. I will not say to much about the story, it truly is something that you will have to see for yourself. It takes you on the journey of a mine worker as well as a journalist of the time with footage from the Diamond Rush and journey of the little stone that had given rise to the De Beers Mining Company that we all know today. The 20 min movie introduces businessmen like Barney Barnato and Cecil John Rhodes and you can very quickly decide who’s side you want to take.
Thereafter one makes your way down into the mine where you could still see the “koekepanne” (the little railway wagons that were used to carry the dirt along the railway to where it is sifted for diamonds). You feel like a miner down there as you walk in an underground tunnel and the guide explains to you what the equipment was used for. You could feel and hear the blasts of dynamite in the walls that the miners used to loosen the rocks and ground.
After your journey through the underground mine, you enter a modern, clean looking museum where you cannot believe that you were just exploring dusty, ground tunnels. The museum is a prestigious place where the history is portrayed in glass panels and scale models of the excavations on display. The guide explains to you all the equipment used to value and investigate the diamonds, before you are told to put your camera away as you enter the Vault. You stand in awe of the most beautiful diamonds. Colours you cannot think of. Shapes and sizes so unreal.
The tour comes to an end and you feel like a true explorer now that you have seen the process and the final product. You head out to the Big Hole where you have a certain appreciation for what you have see down below. Suddenly you realize all the blood, sweat and tears that has gone into digging this hole. One cannot believe that only 150-years ago it was a flat little mountain (“koppie”) which was dug out by hand to what it is today. So many lives have been lost in the hope of discovering one little stone that could change their lives forever.
By the time the mining ended on 14 August 1914, the mine yielded 2 722 kg of diamonds. When you look across the big gaping hole in the ground (214m deep, 17 hectares of surface area and 1.6 km perimeter), you see a building with a green roof – the De Beers HQ and all of a sudden one cannot help but feel like a million dollars. De Beers use pegs that can be seen from the viewpoint to monitor at what rate the Big Hole is getting bigger these days. Another thing you can see from the viewpoint, is the first electric streetlights in Africa and the Southern Hemisphere – yes Kimberley was the first town with electricity in Africa.
The Visitor Center has a few shops where you can buy a souvenir or two as well as a coffee shop where you can have a chat over a cup of coffee. After relaxing and recouping, take a stroll through the village as it was in the time of The Rush and maybe even book your ride on the tram running through the Village. When you leave the Big Hole you have one final look around and as the De Beers railway coach, used by Cecil John Rhodes to commute between Cape Town and Kimberley, catches your eye, you snap a couple of pictures and leave with a heart that is so much richer and an appreciation for those who braved the African sun to do hard labour for what we take for granted today. That piece of bling on your finger will have a “hole” new meaning the next time you look at it.