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At the Kimberley Mine

The reason we had had such a long drive yesterday was to get us to Kimberley, home of the De Beers Diamond Company. There is a small museum here with replica buildings of the mining town as it was in the early days, views down into the Big Hole and you can also get underground tours of the mine and tours of the treatment works. Or at least that’s what it says in Lonely Planet.

We were up early so that we could make it for the underground tour at 7:45am. We made our way out to the Big Hole and asked at the ticket office about the underground tours. The chap behind the counter seemed clueless so bargaining that we had come to the wrong place we headed back tot eh car as time was running out to get to the right place before the tour started. In the car park I stopped a hopeful looking man and asked him if he knew about the tours. It turned out that he was the manager of the mines area so a good person to ask. Unfortunately though the mine closed down six months ago so there are no longer any tours!

He did confirm though that we could still go and see the Big Hole and see part of the museum which was behind us. The museum though is currently a building site and you can’t get around all of it. It was really frustrating for us because we’d taken a long detour to get here and pretty much everything we wanted to see was either closed or off limits. Nevertheless we decided to make the best of it and headed for the building site, sorry the museum.

Lonely Planet says that the museum has 48 buildings, some original and some copies of originals. The idea is to create the look and feel of Kimberley as it was in the 1880’s. They must now be upgrading and extending the museum as lots of new buildings are being built to the right of where the old village is. We could only really get a glimpse through a barrier at most of the buildings. There is chapel, a bar, the mine manager’s house and a variety of different shops and work buildings.

Compared to the diamond mine town of Kolmanskop in Namibia, which was founded in the early 1900’s, the mine manager’s house was a very modest affair. It was a one story building with a main living room, two bedrooms off to the side and a small kitchen at the back. It probably would have fitted into its Kolmanskop counterpart five or six times over. We were able to see into one of the small rows of shops here. There was a fancy goods store with an interesting selection of undergarments on display. Next door a musical shop had superb keyboards and next to that was the place to go if you wanted to buy your own hand rolled cigarettes. The pawnbrokers around the corner had quite a selection of bits and pieces once treasured items.

The rest of the village is now a building site and we couldn’t get in to see it. It would be interesting to come back and see it when it is finished off. Hopefully they will have character actors working here to bring it to life and to give people more of a feel for what life was like in those times. Behind the village is the Big Hole, the largest mine hole in the world that has been dug entirely by human hands. It is absolutely massive and incredible to believe that it was created without machines.

An enclosed walkway takes to you to a point where you can look down into the hole. It is a bit like a volcanic crater with sloping side leading down to a vertical shaft. The mine is 1,097m deep in total. Open cast mining took place to a depth of 240m, the rest being underground. In total 22,500,000 tons of land were excavated to extract 2,722kg, or 14,504,566 carats, of diamonds, a huge amount of earth to shift. The mine closed down in 1914 as it was no longer economically viable and today the hole has 41m of water in it creating a huge pond 174m down from the surface of the hole.

The Big Hole, incredible to think this is entirely man-made!

It is a staggering sight to see, even more so when you try to picture what it was actually like to be there and to work there. The hole is slap bang in the middle of Kimberley and would no doubt have been the hub of activity in the town. There must have been an endless stream of mule carts transporting earth, stones and rocks up to the surface to the filtering bays. Conditions must have been extremely basic and pretty grim.

Beyond the observation point there are a few tin huts set up to give you a feel of what it was like for the miners. One was about the size of our garden shed. Inside it was lined with cardboard, no doubt acting as a layer of insulation. There was a simple metal framed bed, a tiny wooden table and a three legged stool inside and that was it. It was incredibly simple. One of the old mine shaft pulleys still stands looking graceful and sleepy and as if it is about to be incorporated into one of the new buildings going up.

As well as looking around the museum and at the Big Hole you can have a go at a diamond dig. For R5 you can buy a bucket that you fill with washed stones and pebbles, amongst which you will hopefully find a bit of plastic the size of a large diamond with a coloured blob inside. If you find one, the colour determines what type of a prize you win and they are all pretty tacky like the stuff you get at fairgrounds. If though you find a bit of plastic with two spots of colour inside you win a De Beers diamond.

We got our bucket of pebbles and spent the next ten minutes or so sifting through it with fingers crossed but, in the spirit of the day so far we didn’t get a single bit of plastic in our bucket. It was a very boring process and must have been mind numbing and back breaking work for the people who worked here day in day out hoping to make their fortune. It was a very different process to Namibia where people just lay down on their tummies on the desert and picked the diamonds up off the sand.

We had a quick look in the gift shop surprised that it wasn’t full of diamonds set in different bits of jewellery. They did have a few that you could buy in a cheap plastic box with a De Beers wax seal but we resisted the temptation. It would probably end up falling out of our packs one day and we’d both be a bit miffed if we lost it. Besides which the ones we could afford were tiny and the ones I could have been happy with were a mere £20,000 each!

By 9:15am we were back at our “hotel”. We’d expected to have a pretty full day of sightseeing but having seen what there is to see we decided to head south today rather than just killing time in Kimberley. Although it seems like a pleasant enough town there is really no reason for us to stay here any more. We packed up the car and were on the road just after 10:00am.

Our route down to the coast took us through the Karoo. People we’ve met here told us that it was a very different landscape in South Africa and something well worth seeing. They are right and we would probably marvelled at it more if it hadn’t been very similar to what we had spent the best part of three weeks driving through in Namibia. We were back to very wide open plains with low scrub style vegetation growing on what looks like very sandy soil. Even the rivers here are pretty much all dried up, again like Namibia.

We passed through a couple of hundred kilometres of desert style landscape grateful that unlike Namibia the roads had been tarmaced and were in good condition. We knew we wouldn’t make it all the way to the coast today and we planned to stop just outside Beaufort West overnight. We pulled into the town which was again a mix of old colonial South Africa mixed with the new and less endearing South Africa. There were few white people around and I could sense eyes following me as I made my way into the supermarket. It was a pretty odd feeling.

Restocked, we headed out of town and found the Teri-Moja Game Lodge, our home for the night. You could barely see it from the main road. There is a main house and then six or seven small thatched cabins built on a stretch of land in the middle of the desert. We had a friendly welcome from the owner and her dogs and soon settled in for the night. There was a large kitchen/lounge area with a double bedroom and a separate bathroom. A mezzanine floor was home to two single beds and the settee also looked like it would fold down into a double bed. It was very comfortable for two, would be OK for four but I think six would be a bit of a tight fit. Outside we had a small patio with our own braai area and views out over the surrounding desert. What it didn’t have though were all the facilities listed in the AA guide we had picked it from.

Inquisitive ostrich, we named her Olivia

The wind had picked up during the day and a strong breeze was blowing outside. We were sheltering inside writing our diaries and I looked up to see and ostrich ambling about on the lawn outside. Stef grabbed his camera to take some photos and we then had an entertaining ten minutes or so. It’s hard to say who was more curious about whom. We were certainly interested in close ups of the ostrich but she also seemed very curious about us. From the ground to the top of the wall around our patio must have been at least seven or eight feet but she could still pop her head over the top to have a look.

One of the people who runs the lodge was walking past our cabin at the time and he confirmed that they have about thirteen wild ostriches on their land. The females and larger than the males and this one sounds like it is quite a frequent visitor. We have seen them from the road but had never realised how big they actually were. Its feet are huge and very solid looking and you certainly wouldn’t want to get kicked by one. The chap from the lodge said it was OK to feed it bread or dry biscuits so I went and got a slice of bread. This gave us a renewed interest factor and as I tore a chunk off the ostrich went into hyper drive action mode and almost got my fingers too!

With a clear night sky all around us we donned our fleeces to keep warm in the wind and had a superb braai dinner outside watching the stars. We had music playing in the background, too much to eat and far too much red wine to drink but it was a very pleasant evening all the same.