Armed with my amazing camera, a warm jacket and my intrigue, I set off into Kimberley to do my tourist deeds. Our proposed stops: The Big Hole and McGregor Museum.
Mention Kimberley and the first thing that most people will think about is The Big Hole. Hang out with the wrong people and they’ll probably go on about Kimberlite and it’s origins but we’ll assume you’re hanging with the right people. It is an excavation dug out of what was actually a hill (Colesberg Kopje) entirely by hand in the pursuit of diamonds. The hole is enormous – reaching 240m below the surface with further tunnelling down to one kilometre. This was all done is a period of just over 40 years. And, as I said, dug entirely by hand!
As is the case with most major spectacles, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen, books you’ve read, stats you’ve heard or whatever, seeing the spectacle blows you away. Coming from Durban, I am pretty familiar with the quarry just before the Umgeni Road turnoff whilst going north on the N2. That quarry is pretty enormous yet it was done mechanically – very little pick work to achieve the depth. The Big Hole is several magnitudes larger and the water now occupying it pities in relation to the amount of blood and sweat that the miners shed whilst attaining this. It shocks and awes you. To think, man has gone to such depths for a tiny little shiny rock.
The Big Hole, being not the most exciting attraction, comes packaged with a short film and a “re-creation” of mining conditions of the time. The diamond rush was frantic and ended with a few celebrities – or tycoons per se. The two primary figures were Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato. Different in personality, these two effectively started big business in South Africa forming the huge diamond company De Beers. I actually wanted to visit the De Beers boardroom but I wasn’t sure exactly where Warren Street is. Prior to diamonds being mined by the bucket load in Kimberley, not a lot was known about how these stones came into being and where to mine them. Finds were of the alluvial type happened upon by a lucky passer-by. A guard in the village of this passer-by would have happened upon the lucky passer-by admiring it one day. He would ritually behead this, well, not-so-lucky passer-by, take the stone and give it to the King and get a Knighthood or become an Earl of something. With the discovery of Kimberley’s riches, this effectively started an industry that never existed to begin with. The two men become ludicrously rich as they controlled the diamond trade worldwide – pouring money into research and then buying off all the diamond fields discovered as a result of this research. As opposed to just these mined diamonds from Kimberlite, South Africa is blessed with alluvial diamonds littering the depths of the Vaal and Gariep (Orange) Rivers. Alluvial diamonds are found along the north-west Coast of South Africa in large quantities. Diamonds are also mined offshore off the coast of Port Nolloth and Alexander Bay. Diamonds are also industrially made for use as cutting tips. De Beers have operations in all these areas.
These two were also the masterminds behind an unrecognised genocide. To get these diamonds, in a time before we had the huge Majuba’s and Kendal’s to provide power for machinery, mining was done solely by hand (um, hence The Big Hole) and this labour force was sourced from the indigenous tribes inhabiting Southern Africa. Men left their villages, walked thousands of miles in the roughest conditions and then were made to work and live in rougher conditions for a pitiful salary. Furthermore, diamond mining was a new form of mining. Very little was understood about the geology and where research had been done mining techniques for other materials – like gold, copper and coal, these techniques could not be directly applied to the Kimberlite rock that these diamonds were popping out of. As a result, an unknown number of labourers lost their lives in pursuit of the riches of two men. Nowhere in Kimberley did I even find a mention of even an estimated number of people who had died. Come to think of it, I didn’t read anything about deaths directly caused by De Beers. Mining of precious commodities is still a dangerous exercise with way too many people losing their life in pursuit of a wage that barely makes ends meet.
Speaking to people, it seems as if the town of Kimberley always has (and still is) in the grips of De Beers. Its growth kept at the rate that the company wants. Kimberley housed South Africa’s first street light. Because of the industry, it was also the first centre to use electricity. The first South African Stock Exchange was hosted here. The first flight school was here as well. The city had tramlines at a time when Jozi and Durban were still tiny outposts with not a lot going for them. It’s amazing that a town with such prestige ended up taking a back seat to the Big Three cities in South Africa when the potential for growth was there. When I drove into town a few days ago, the stars dazzled me. The reason they could do that is because there is very little industry here to pollute the sky of the Platte land. Surprising seeing that the mighty Vaal River is just a few kilometres away – unlike in Johannesburg where the only proper river, incidentally also the Vaal is almost 100km away.
The next stop was McGregor Museum. It is a museum worth a visit with it’s in depth look into how Kimberley came about from the earliest inhabitants, right through to the diamond rush, the Siege of Kimberley and up to modern times. Cecil John Rhodes has a marvellous cardboard cut-out in one of the rooms as well. We decided to attempt to get the own back for the millions that he has affected over the past century. I think the molestation of his ear helped a little. I also think his ghost will be haunting us as well.