This year’s turning out to be a diamond jubilee not just for Queen Elizabeth II but for the people of Kimberley too.
Long famed as the diamond capital of the world, it’s the 60th birthday of Kimberley’s equally famous Open Mine Museum.
For those who have never been to Kimberley or think it’s famous for being a third of the way from Joburg to Cape Town, think again.
For those of us who come from there, we know it’s the centre of the known universe. Literally, since the geographical centre of South Africa lies a couple of kilometres west.
The discovery of diamonds on Colesberg Kopje on July 16, 1871, sparked the biggest diamond rush the world has ever seen. Ultimately there would be five major diamond mines in and around the city, three of which are still operational, but it is the Big Hole of Kimberley Mine that’s the most famous.
It’s there that Cecil Rhodes finally wrested control of the mine from Barney Barnato with the biggest ever cheque drawn at the time and laid the foundations for a South African diamond company that until recently ruled the entire diamond world.
But it wasn’t just that. The money that the other big diggers made before being forced out financed the deep-level gold exploration on the Witwatersrand, unlocking the El Dorado of southern Africa. You don’t just have Kimberley to thank for Joburg, there’s a host of “firsts” too, from the stock exchange to electric street lights, the birthplace of the once mighty SA Permanent Building Society and, through its school of mines, the seed that would ultimately become the University of the Witwatersrand 480km to the north.
All this and much more is captured in the Open Mine Museum, on the bank of the largest hand-hewn hole in the earth’s surface – and visible from space.
The museum was established in 1952 with an appeal to De Beers (as almost everything in Kimberley was) to help save certain historic buildings in the city centre that faced being destroyed in the name of progress.
The company provided a site on the edge of the Big Hole since the mine had stopped operating in 1914 and its grassy embankments were already a popular picnic area for the townsfolk.
Complete with a tea room and curio shop, the museum operated as an attraction – as well as a terminus for the restored Kimberley tramlines running to the City Hall on Market Square – until the early part of this century, when De Beers launched a massive multi-million rand revamp of the entire complex.
What had been a twee little outing was transformed into a hardcore corporate museum, inside an interactive replica mining village – where the pubs (most important) aren’t static displays but working establishments with exotic names like the Occidental.
The best of the old, like the traditional bowling alley with wooden skittles and bows and a serious jewellery shop with blindly bright gems, was retained and added to with a reproduction of an underground mining experience and an eye-watering display of diamonds (real ones) as well as scale replicas of all the world’s most famous ones.
Now there’s a four-day festival, the brainchild of legendary Kimberley tourism entrepreneur Steve Lunderstedt, to celebrate the museum’s 60th birthday from Thursday. There’s everything from an arts and crafts market to fashion shows, lectures, guided tours, game drives and the opportunity to hit a hole-in-one into the Big Hole itself, complete with a special certificate.
There’ll be lots to eat and drink, with two legendary bars, the Star of the West and the Half (Halfway House) a short drive away. You can stay at the authentic Kimberley Club, a revamped boutique hotel, or the Big Hole Protea Hotel, which feels like a reprodux version of the club, or choose from a whole gamut of accommodation in the city.
It ends on Sunday with a service in Kimberley’s oldest church, the old German Lutheran church which was transported by ox wagon from the coast to the diggings in prefabricated panels, culminating in a diamond rush with a R25 000 diamond up for grabs, as well as a pair of diamond earrings worth R5 000.
If you’ve never been to Kimberley, the museum jubilee is as good a reason as any to visit – and realise that next time you drive to Cape Town, it’s worth breaking your journey there for a night or two, rather than braving the congestion of the N1 – and Bloemfontein.