Asia and Africa 2004-2005 travel blog

Kimberely Bar

THE Big Hole

Panning for Diamonds

Kimberley Mine


Copyright 2004

David Rich 1100 Words

jdavidrich@yahoo.com

KIMBERLEY, SOUTH AFRICA: D i a m o n d s a r e F o r e v e r

Once upon a time diamonds were super rare, not sprinkled around every Zales on the corner. But in 1866 on a remote South African farm that began to change. The farmer's children gave a pretty rock to neighbor von Niekerk who gave it to trader O'Reilly who gave it to assayer Atherson, a quadruple play resulting in Eureka, a 21-plus carat diamond. The world's largest diamond rush began with the shout of 'Eureka', 22 kilometers (13 miles) south of 'New Rush', a town to be founded five years later.

For five years the area was covered with prospectors finding little or nothing. But on a sweltering July day in 1871 Fleetwood Rawstone's servant politely handed him a handful of raw stones found on the hillside of the farm where they'd camped. The world's largest diamond rush immediately focused on de Beers farm. In the blink of an eye the desert exploded with the town of New Rush and 50,000 brawling prospectors and soldiers of fortune.

In 1873 the name of New Rush was changed to Kimberley and the rocky hillside of de Beers farm into a humongous mole-hole. Over the next twenty years the mole expanded to a big hole a mile in circumference and two thirds of a mile deep. That same year the 1600 claims crammed into the burgeoning hole collapsed under a spider web of the 100,000 ropes pulling ore buckets to the surface for sorting by closely watched fingers. With the sudden over-supply the price of diamonds also fell into a hole. Enter John Cecil Rhodes and his De Beers Mining Company.

By1880 Rhodes had finagled away and forced out all his rivals, reducing the 1599 other claims to a single one owned by a feisty Jewish sometimes-actor named Barney Barato. The only way Rhodes could get rid of Barato, without shooting him in cold blood, was by an ordinary cashier's check for five million three hundred thirty five thousand six hundred fifty pounds, British Sterling. The value of this check in 21st Century pound sterling would be almost exactly one billion dollars.

Today tourists flock to Kimberley to see the Big Hole with its 130 feet (41 meters) of water in the bottom looking like a shimmering emerald under the blinding desert sun. Thirty thousand prospectors worked this hole day and night for ten years until the first parallel shaft was sunk to avoid the burbling groundwater. When the world's richest diamond mine's was exhausted in 1914 Rhodes had grabbed fourteen million five hundred thousand carats of diamonds worth billions of pounds sterling. Thus Rhodes got a deal from Barato though he missed out on Africa's largest gold rush a few kilometers away, the city rising in its center named Johannesburg. This uncharacteristic Rhodes miscalculation can be blamed on an American prospector who said the gold wasn't worth climbing off a horse to look for, one of the great mis-informations of all time.

For a measly four bucks you can tour the Big Hole for hours, panning for diamonds, gaping at the hole and its deep green lake, inspecting the forty original and model buildings from New Rush city with accompanying sound effects and period furnishings from the 1880s. Check out A Cirling Pawnbroker who sits woodenly behind his huge picture window stacked with solid silver and gold fancies still unredeemed. The de Beers Directors' Pullman railway coaches are tricked out in burnished leather and rare woods, hung with crystal chandeliers and bedecked with bathtubs while the pub next door rocks with popular drinking ditties. The New Rush ballroom is corrugated iron with steel walls stamped to resemble wallpaper and the band plays on. Buildings no longer in existence reflected the origins and fates of the participants in the world's headiest rush to riches: The Hard Times Hotel, Australian Inn, Café Francais, Bagoda Bar and hotels German Flag and Turkish Crescent plus the Gog and Magog Pub. De Beers Hall has been turned into a vault filled with raw stones and replicas of the worlds largest diamonds including chunks of the British Crown Jewels, Cullinan and a dozen others found a few meters away. These symbols of the last two exciting decades of South Africa's 19th Century were punctuated by the Anglo-Boer War.

On October 15, 1899 the siege of Kimberly began. Five hundred British troops defended not only the Big Hole but 50,000 civilians and Cecil John Rhodes in his sumptuous mansion. They were surrounded and trapped by 4000 Boer soldiers. But Kimberly, notwithstanding the Big Hole, held the high ground and could only be won by starving out the town. Rhodes threw the mighty resources of de Beers Mining behind the defense including the extensive food stores of the mines. Meanwhile Kimberley suffered broadsides from the Boer's 'Long Tom' gun. Not to be outdone Rhodes commandeered the De Beers foundry to make ammunition and a really big gun cryptically named "Long Cecil". This helped break the siege and allowed reinforcements to relieve the town on February 16 of the new millennium. Rhodes, because he missed out on the fabulously rich gold rush around Johannesburg, compensated by expanding his empire northward to acquire the vast lands which he named Rhodesia. Almost exactly 100 years later the name of Rhodesia's south half was changed to Zimbabwe and the north to Zambia. But three diamond mines near the Big Hole in Kimberly continue production because a Zales or any other diamond, as de Beers Mining Company says in in its famous slogan, is forever.

When You Go: You can fly to Johannesburg from any major city in the world, usually with a single connection. With recent competition among African and Middle Eastern airlines and considering the distance traveled, tickets can be gotten inexpensively. Fire up www.google.com, www.surfwax.com or www.dogpile.com, enter 'cheap airfare Johannesburg' and you'll be inundated with deals.

The best hotel, of course, is the Cecil John Rhodes Guest House in luxurious old style with all modern amenities, shady tea garden and good restaurant, $100 and up. Email ceciljohnrhodes@freemail.absa.co.za. Similar luxury accommodations are available at the Edgerton House, Diamond Protea Lodge and Holiday Inn Garden Court. The best inexpensive options are the Gum Tree Lodge 4 km out of town and the Big Hole Caravan Park across the road from its namesake. The are many choices for food and, in the grand Kimberley tradition, even more choices for pubs.

Game Parks abound within a couple hours drive from Kimberley, most emphasizing hunting: Koedoesrand Game Lodge (27 km), Rooipoort Nature Reserve and Withuis aafaris (50 km). Marrick Game Farm (email marrick@kimnet.co.za) offers photographic safaris.

About Big Hole diamonds and Kimberley generally see www.debeersgroup.com, www.kimberley.co.za and www.bdb.co.za.



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