These days you wouldn’t choose to linger too long in Kimberley, just northwest of Bloemfontein, but if you do happen to pass through, there is one visitor attraction that will blow you away. The Big Hole. The museum, still funded by De Beers even though they’ve long relocated to London, is well maintained and quite fascinating. And in spite of the photos you’ve seen a hundred times, the Hole is truly ginormous.
Digging started on the flat-topped Colesberg Koppie in 1871. When mining ended in August 1914, a crater 215 metres deep with a perimeter of 1.6 kilometres had been dug by hand using “nothing more than picks, shovels and hope”. An eye-opening fact: the settlement of Kimberley was electrified even before London! It was the start of South Africa’s Industrial Revolution.
Quite a funky experience, especially for kids, is the underground mine experience. Led by our guide, we tucked ourselves like sardines into a rickety lift. With much creaking and trembling, it descended amidst a din of shouting voices and loud rattles for what felt like an interminable interlude. “We’re going down 800 metres,” the guide grinned at us. When we came to a juddering halt and escaped from our unstable confines into a series of darkly lit tunnels supported by steel rods, he admitted we’d only moved 5 metres.
We stopped beside a reconstructed mine shaft which had an opening leading off to our right. After being carefully instructed, then herded away from a sensor, our guide activated it. A siren blared, followed shortly by a reverberating explosion that was accompanied by flashes, earth tremors and a lot of rumbling and shaking. Very cool.
The Diamond Vault is also an experience. Protected behind solid steel doors, with a guard permanently installed outside, it’s real cloak-and-dagger stuff. A cavernous room is taken up by an enormous glassed-case display of diamonds — rough and uncut, faceted and polished; tiny to knuckleduster-size; pink-red to amber-yellow to blue. Some are the Real Thing, others are replicas because the original stones are travelling somewhere on a world tour. All are lustrous and light-reflecting and quite magnificent.
There’s the first diamond ever found in Africa (in the Orange River near Hopetown), the Eureka, weighing in at “only” 21 carats — but it was the significance of the find that was important. And the largest gem-quality diamond ever discovered in the world, the Cullinan, at a whopping 3,106 carats uncut. The Cullinan I is also known as the Great Star of Africa (today in the Queen’s sceptre) and the Cullinan II, the Lesser Star of Africa, is in the British royal crown.
You’ll also see the Tiffany, one of the world’s largest yellow diamonds famously worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And of course the pear-shaped Taylor Burton Diamond, set into a Cartier neckpiece that was worn by Elizabeth Taylor.
Also at the Big Hole are immaculately kept 19th century buildings evoking the spirit of those wild days filled with hope and promise. Wander down streets, peep into windows, venture into a minuscule corrugated iron church where organ music rings out. A bar has rabble-rousing honky-tonk music playing, with beers out ready to slake miners’ deep thirsts, and in the Sweet Shoppe glass jars brim with bright striped Victorian candies. It’s a real treat, this Big Hole Museum.
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