It’s been more than 100 years since mining ended in Northern Cape’s capital and only real city, Kimberley. But the dusty frontier town with a lost-in-time vibe is still synonymous with De Beers and diamonds. Besides diamonds, however, Kimberley is rich in South African history and trivia. Here are 15 things you didn’t know about Kimberley — a wild west town on the edge of the Karoo.
1. Huge hole dug by hand
The Big Hole is the world’s largest hand dug mine. Before it closed in 1914, it yielded tons of diamonds (about 14.5 million carets) and 22.5 million tons of excavated earth.
2. First diamonds discovered
Diamonds were first discovered at a small hill — known as the Colesburg kopje (seen in this photo) in what is now Kimberley in 1871 — and the excavation of the Big Hole began. By 1872, the town’s population had exploded as some 50,000 miners hoping to strike it rich quick descended on the area.
3. Cecil John Rhodes arrives
Cecil John Rhodes, the 19-year-old, tubercular son of an English parson, arrived at the diamond fields the same year they were discovered. He worked feverishly, despite looking so sickly, and by 1887 he owned the Big Hole.
4. De Beers founded
Rhodes founded the De Beers Company and bought the Big Hole from mining magnate Barney Barnato in 1887. From here, he bought every claim and mine he could lay his hands on. By 1891, De Beers owned 90% of the world’s diamonds and a stake in the fabulous reef of gold on the Witwatersrand (near Joburg).
5. Touring the Big Hole
Today you can see the Big Hole on an hour-long guided tour. The coolest part of the tour is the simulated mining experience where special effects are used to give you a pretty authentic — and at times jump out of your pants scary — picture of just how bad life was for the black diamond miners.
6. Electricity arrived in Kimberley before New York
In Sep 1882, Kimberley became the first town in the Southern Hemisphere — and the second city in the world, after London, but before New York — to get electricity.
7. Historic watering holes
In Kimberley the most atmospheric places to drink are the historic pubs, many of which have been around since the diamond rush. Besides having tons of atmosphere, these old fashioned watering holes also serve cheap food.
8. Ride-in Bar
The Halfway House Inn is one such historic watering hole mentioned in the last slide. It was a ride-in bar during the Rhodes area. It was a concept invented by Cecil, who was afraid to dismount from his horse and reveal his true height. Today “The Half” is a drive-in kind of place — yes, believe it or not you can pull up front, toot your horn and someone will come out and deliver you a beer.
9. Haunted hotel
If the walls in the historic Kimberley Club Boutique Hotel could talk, what stories they would tell. Founded by Rhodes and his diamond cronies as a private club in 1881, the reputedly haunted hotel has entertained the wealthiest members of society for more than a century now.
10. Birthday trivia
Kimberley’s great diamond barons, Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato, were weirdly born a year to the day apart. Rhodes was the younger of the two.
11. Bars vs. Churches
At one time the number of bars in Kimberley doubled its churches.
12. Star of the West Saloon
The Star of the West saloon is the oldest continuously operating bar in South Africa, opened during the 1870s diamond rush.
13. A Diamond is Forever
A little over 20 years after the first diamond discovery in Kimberley, virtually the entire diamond industry was owned by one company, De Beers, which was in turn controlled by the powerful Rhodes, by then the richest man in Africa.
14. Beyond diamonds
Beyond diamond history, Kimberley is rich in South African colonial history. The Brits and Boers had it out in the land surrounding the city between 1899 and 1902. The siege of Kimberley lasted for 124 days before the British army relieved the town on 15 February 1900. Today those who lost their lives in the siege are remembered at the Honoured Dead Memorial, just 2-kilometers south of the city centre.
Kimberley is also home to one of South Africa’s oldest townships, Galeshewe. It was an integral player in the fight to end apartheid, and a visit here is very worthwhile.