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May 2012

It was sweltering hot and I could smell and taste dust filtering through the air vents into the car as we bounced along the dirt road. Through my sleepy daze I saw typical Karoo icons – flat-topped hills, donkey carts, railway tracks, rusty old windmills and lonely looking Boer war memorials. As I daydreamed I could almost hear the crunch of the wagon wheels and horse hooves as droves of fortune seekers armed with picks, shovels and lots of hope descended on Kimberley between 1868 and 1870. It was the biggest diamond rush in living memory. Today the place is filled with ghosts, faded photos, rusty old wares and a very big hole waiting to be explored.

Speaking of ghosts - don’t miss the Kimberley Ghost trail, an eerie way to whet an appetite for history – at night, of course. Every shadow wakes up and old buildings creak - especially the stairs at Rudd House, once owned by diamond magnate C.D. Rudd. Steve Lunderstedt, well-known historian, author and our tour guide for the night, has not only seen the various ghosts; he says he’s filmed them. He had me riveted with tales of local sightings. The riderless horse that runs at Carter’s Ridge each year. Mr van Praag who haunts the cafeteria at the Kimberley Club. The lone bagpiper who’s still seen trying to motivate soldiers into action at the Magersfontein Battlefield. If this appeals to you, contact Tourism Kimberley for a list of the private guides who run the tours.  Website:

Kimberley is filled with museums, as you’d expect from any historical destination, but some stand above the rest. The Big Hole of Kimberley is without a doubt the most visited attraction in town. Altogether over 2 700kg of diamonds were extracted, leaving a massive crater 214m deep, surrounded by old buildings from its heyday. A platform has been added for grander views over the hole that’s now partially filled with water. A new feature is the ‘underground experience’ – enter a 19th-century mineshaft and relive the mining conditions. A surprise awaits, but I won’t ruin it for you. The short Diamond’s Destiny film will take you back to 1876, the early diamond days on the Orange River. The exhibition centre includes photographs and archival material, but it’s the vault that blew me away with genuine gems and scale models of some of the more famous stones removed.

The McGregor Museum officially opened its doors in 1907. Before that it had a chequered history. It was once a sanatorium, later the Belgrave Hotel, then a convent school, and Cecil John Rhodes’s suites during the Siege of Kimberley. Various relics were saved from those eras, including Rhodes’s memoirs, and human and natural history objects dating back three million years. More recently a section that documents the contemporary Northern Cape has been added.

Being a photographer, one of my all-time favourites is the Duggan-Cronin Gallery – a photographic museum that mainly displays the ethnographic works of Alfred Duggan-Cronin, Aubrey Elliot, Jean Morris and Alice Mertens. The essence of their images is the illustration of indigenous South African people between 1919 and 1980. This includes their tribal dress, celebrations and traditions – most of which are long lost. The collection includes negatives and prints, as well as artefacts from the various tribes – beadwork, costumes, pottery, iron tools and woodcarvings. I was so excited by the gallery that I managed to twist the curator’s arm to allow me behind the scenes into its thermo-controlled room with masses of archival images and ongoing studies. Website:

Out of town must-sees include the Magersfontein Battlefield and the Wildebeestkuil Rock Art Centre. The latter is a community-based public rock art project and is home to 400 rock engravings. The Magersfontein Battlefield is 31.5km out of town on the Modder River Road. It’s here that the Boer troops defeated the English forces on their way to relieve a besieged Kimberley. The battlefield exhibition includes a particularly evocative audio-visual presentation. On display are examples of the uniforms worn during the siege and a selection of firearms used by the British and Boer forces.

Further afield, some 80km out of town, is the Mokala National Park, the newest SANParks park. Mokala means ‘camel thorn’ in Setswana – a common tree in the area and host to a number of bird species including the beautiful martial eagle. White rhino, Cape buffalo, springbok, gemsbok, roan antelope and tsessebe can be spotted on the grassy plains. The cherry on top is a glimpse of the endangered black rhino. Guided tours are on offer to San rock art sites and engravings as well as the Anglo-Boer War battlefields. To me there is nothing as special as an African night sky, and to really bring it alive, try the Astronomical and Southern Night Sky Edutainment Experience. You hop onto an open game drive vehicle armed with a large telescope.

On the cards for the park’s future are guided horse trails and mountain biking. The park has three separate lodges. Mosu Lodge is the more luxurious, Mofele Lodge has a rustic farm style and Lilydale Lodge comprises 12 self-catering units overlooking the Riet River. For something a little closer to earth, book the Haak-en-Steek camp – a rustic cottage. Of course, no bush experience is complete without a campsite and sparks from the fire dancing into the black night sky. Website:

Part of my Northern Cape visit included a brief trip down to De Aar on the Shosholoza Meyl, a train named after a popular traditional African song favoured by migrant workers and locals who slogged to establish our network of railway lines. Fashionably late the train thundered in and we boarded, filled with excitement. I was in De Aar to attend this small town’s tourism day. Clouds of braai smoke filled the air as larger-than-life rural characters fired up the Karoo lamb competition. The key flavouring ingredient is ‘veld’, I was told, as it’s filled with wild rosemary. One woman in the crowd stood out with her red hat and red shoes, dancing along in her own world while various performances got underway. There gumboot dancers, the Hoërskool Phakamisani opera singers, jazz singers, and up-and-coming local ‘Idols’.

But it was Ouma Grietjie from Garies who received the standing ovation. At 82 years old and standing little higher than 5ft, she captured the hearts of both young and old and had the crowds roaring in delight. Her music tells tales of times past, fun had, cultures lost and, appropriately, good skaapvleis (mutton) eaten. Another soul to win the locals’ hearts was little Thato Mlolyana, a 14-year-old African equivalent of The Kite Runner. I saw him from a distance, running across a massive field with his kite soaring, arriving all smiles and just in time to join the kite competition. He ‘always makes kites,’ he told me, not just for this competition. I’m glad to say his little kite made of clear plastic found in a bin and tied together with various bits of string won the prize for the most original kite – and it flew brilliantly.

A rare wind wiped out my chance to test my nerve at paragliding with Desi Pansi. In addition to being the driving force behind Fly de Aar, local heroine Desi is a flyer of note having been on the podium at the World Paragliding Series. With stars like her it’s hardly a wonder that De Aar is fast becoming known as one of the best paragliding spots on the international map. Website:

Nightjar Travel