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+27 53 839 4600 www.thebighole.co.za
The Big Hole and mining village museum serve as a nostalgic reminder of the diamond rush days in Kimberley during the last quarter of the 19th century. This is the world’s largest hand-excavated hole - 17 hectares in extent (the size of 34 football fields) - from which 22,5-million tons of soil were removed along with 14,5-million carats or 2 722 kilograms of diamonds.
The De Beers Group recently spent millions of rands upgrading what is Kimberley’s top tourist attraction, with the result being an improved and interesting museum. A visit takes as long as you want it to, strolling the streets lined with shop fronts containing museum displays, or having a meal or drink at one of the eateries.
The guided tour of the main tourist centre includes a walk onto the cantilevered platform. This offers a thrilling view while suspended over the edge of the hole. There is also a simulated underground mine tour and a look at the range of diamonds, including the famous 616-carat stone, in the high-security vault. The tour takes about an hour.
To round off the experience, visitors can board the early 20th-century tram that sways gently along its rails to the city hall and back.
The Diamond Fields is a relatively small region of the Northern Cape, encompassing the province’s capital city, Kimberley. Its enviable title stems from the large quantity of diamonds found here during the last century and a half.
Although the first diamond in South Africa was discovered just outside the region, further south at Hopetown, the area where Kimberley stands today is where diamond fever really took off. By 1870 fortune seekers were arriving in increasing numbers to scour the riverbanks of the region.
Then diamond deposits were discovered at Colesberg Kopje - until today this is the richest diamond deposit ever found - and by 1872 the mining town of New Rush was home to 50 000 diggers living in tents and shacks.
In 1873 the town was renamed Kimberley. When the mining stopped in 1914, 14.5 million carats or 2 722 kilograms of diamonds had been extracted.
What was once a koppie had become a deep hole! Today it is known as the Big Hole and is Kimberley’s main icon. The towns of Barkly West, Delportshoop and Windsorton also started off as diamond camps.
Today the sought-after gems are still mined in the region, albeit on a smaller scale, and the Diamond Fields are far from barren.
Accessed along the N12 from Gauteng via Warrenton the region is blessed with another sparkling commodity; water. A number of rivers including the Vaal and Harts combine to create a verdant and fertile environment in the Vaalharts Valley in the north of the region. T
he irrigation scheme here incorporates a network of canals that lead water from a weir in the Vaal River to over 1 250 agricultural holdings. It is the second largest irrigation scheme in the Southern hemisphere. Local produce includes olives, stone-fruit, pecan nuts, cotton and citrus. The main urban centres are Hartswater and Jan Kempdorp.
Moving west, away from the N12, and across the Vaal and Harts rivers, the landscape becomes more arid and less populated. In the far west of the region a long rocky ridge, known as the Ghaap escarpment, dominates the landscape.
Further south the savannah, green after summer rains and beige during the dry winter, is dotted with Camelthorn trees.
Here the Mokala National Park - Mokala is Setswana for Camelthorn - prides itself on being a place where endangered species roam.
Look out for
The Big Hole - in 2006 the old Big Hole Museum underwent an extensive upgrade. The result is a much-improved facility. Visitors can now walk 90 metres along a cantilever to a viewing platform, the latter being the exact size of a 19th Century mining claim (10m x 10m). From this location, suspended just over the edge of the Big Hole, visitors get a good idea of its immense size. Another attraction is the underground mining experience, complete with simulated dynamite blasts and mine dust. There’s a display of authentic diamonds, an exhibition centre and an audio-visual theatre. When one has exhausted all this, a wander through the streets of the museum village is a trip back in time.
Kimberley - besides the Big Hole, Kimberley as a city has a lot to offer the visitor. One of the better-known attractions is the McGregor Museum which has displays ranging from archaeology to zoology. Neighbouring the McGregor is the Duggan-Cronin Gallery that houses an incredible black and white photographic collection depicting indigenous cultures and lifestyles from the early 1900s. Then there’s the William Humphreys Art Gallery with its representative collection of South African works, 16th and 17th century Flemish and Dutch Old Masters; and British and European Masters. Amongst the city’s wealth of historical sites is the suburb of Belgravia with its grand old houses from Kimberley’s romantic past, as well as the Kimberley Club, which once boasted more millionaires per square foot than anywhere else on earth.
Mokala National Park covers 21 000ha in extent and is accessed from the N12, 57km south of Kimberley and a further 21km on gravel. There are several circular drives, accessible to all vehicles. Species to look out for here are black rhino, white rhino, roan antelope, tsessebe and Cape buffalo. The park has been proposed as the new birding hotspot in the Northern Cape with species numbers estimated at around 200. Accommodation options include three lodges, a separate cottage, and campsites.
Wildebeeskuil Rock Art Centre - 16km from Kimberley on the R31 to Barkly West has over 400 petroglyphs created by the Khoe-San on a sacred hill.
Anglo Boer War - the Diamond Fields played a big part in the hostilities during October 1899 and February 1900. Kimberley itself was under siege during this period. The result is that there are many memorials, historic sites and battlefields from these times in the area. The N12 battlefields route is signposted from Hopetown, 120km south of Kimberley.
Bird watching - there are a number of popular locations for good sightings. At Kamfers Dam, 2km north of Kimberley, up to 30 000 lesser flamingos as well as large numbers of other water birds can be seen.