Hobnobbing in Rhodes’s terrain

Published Jun 12, 2014


Kimberley - Diamonds were discovered in 1871 in what was the Colesberg Kopje. It’s an oft-told story of drunkenness, flogging, shame and redemption. Suffice to say the world’s richest diamond field was discovered and the dry diggings of Griqualand West transformed into an ants’ nest of humanity as 50 000 diggers dug the kopje ever deeper until it reached 240 metres and yielded 2 722kg of diamonds.

The world knows it as the Big Hole, or more properly as the Kimberley Mine. The independent diggers were slowly swallowed up by the bigger fish until Barney Barnato owned the Kimberley Mine and his great rival, Cecil Rhodes, owned the De Beers mine across the city.

Rhodes bought him out for the biggest cheque ever drawn in South Africa up to that time. He chucked in a life directorship of the new De Beers Consolidated Diamond Mining Company – and membership of the exclusive Kimberley Club.

Actually, there’s no proof of the latter, but why spoil a good story? The club, established by Rhodes and the other upstanding (read wealthy) burghers of the new borough of Kimberley, founded the Kimberley Club on Du Toitspan Road in 1881 – 10 years after cook Esau Damoense came to prospector Fleetwood Rawstorne with a klippie clutched in his palm and sparked the greatest diamond rush ever known (in today’s terms, we might have said news of the discovery went viral).

The club was Rhodes’s retreat. He might have lived in a humble bachelor’s mess with variously Leander Starr Jameson (between them they sparked the Boer War), Alfred Beit or even one of his young male secretaries, but he made sure to always dine at The Club. Indeed, his boozy lunches were such that the committee felt compelled to inlay a lead arrow at the front door so Rhodes could weave out with some young man cradled under his armpit and point out over the threshold those legendary words: “There lies your hinterland, my boy.” Until they did so, Rhodes could just as well have been pointing back to Cape Town or even Port Elizabeth.

His presence lives on at the club today. It’s not just in the well-preserved lead arrow, but also in the life-like bust nestled inside the old front door, in the weighing chair he and his cronies would sit in and weigh themselves (which sits today below a superb portrait adorning the wall of the members’ bar). There’s also a Rhodes Room, a special annex with a luxury presidential suite – once the preserve of De Beers’ directors and wedding couples – and even a life-size statue rescued from certain destruction by a club raid of a different kind, to the Mafikeng railway shunting yards.

Why would anyone ever go to Kimberley? Don’t be embarrassed, it’s a common question. I’m glad you haven’t discovered the secret of the Northern Cape – you’re not ruining it for the rest of us.

Big skies, big-hearted people, big steaks – and an incredible history.

Let’s start at the beginning. Diamonds are discovered in 1871, the biggest ever diamond rush begins, people flock to what was once just a barren piece of veld. They make buckets of money, the colonial authorities take an instant interest and annex it for the crown. Then the fabulously wealthy emerge, chief among them Cecil Rhodes, who becomes MP for Barkly West, then premier of the Cape. He decides to single-handedly colonise Africa from the Cape to Cairo and has his minions steal huge swathes of the central African interior which he dedicates to Queen Victoria but names after himself.

Then his eye got too big for his stomach so he decided to take on the Transvaal, using his old friend Leander Starr Jameson. The raid to “rescue the uitlanders (foreigners)” in Johannesburg ended in ignominy, with Jameson and a couple of others almost being hanged.

The Boer War began three years later and Rhodes hurried back to Kimberley, where he stayed in the Sanatorium (today the McGregor Museum) and almost drove the military commander to drink with his petulant demands. The Boers returned the favour by besieging the city and defeating the cream of the British Army at Magersfontein.

When Kimberley was eventually relieved, in one of the biggest and last cavalry charges ever, Rhodes went off to Cape Town and duly died at St James in 1902, the victim of too much drink, cigarettes, good food and freebooting.

His legacy though was to ensure Kimberley’s survival as the diamond capital of the world, a role that Ernest Oppenheimer took on when his Anglo American company bought out De Beers. Harry Oppenheimer, born in Kimberley, maintained a warm relationship that endures long after his death.

Kimberley is a little city that punches above its weight. When we walk the streets of Joburg, metaphorically paved with gold, we forget it all began in Kimberley.

Remember that when you look into the bowels of the Big Hole or wash the dust from your throat at The Star of The West pub.

Rhodes always loomed large over the club; De Beers, the company he founded, ruled the world from Kimberley for at least the next 100 years, but it was only when the members decided to radically overhaul and revamp the club 10 years ago that it truly came into its own.

As the old gentlemen’s clubs began dying out across South Africa, the new standard bearer is the Kimberley Club, a boutique hotel steeped in the tradition and history of the past, with its feet in the present and its eyes on the future.

You don’t have to be signed in by a member to enjoy what it has to offer, or to overnight – that’s all open these days – and the services on offer are a far cry from yore.

Rhodes’s secretary Philip Jourdan once wrote: “One always fared well at the Kimberley Club. Everyone was kind and everything was well done… Each seemed to know each other, and we were really like a big family living together.”

The good old family cuisine, often more reminiscent of a staff room at an upmarket country boarding school, is today a fully fledged and personalised four-star offering in three separate dining areas. There is also an al fresco arrangement down the length of the veranda facing on to DuToitspan Road under the beady eye of an executive chef, with private reception rooms – all oozing Kimberley history – thrown in.

The standard en-suite bedrooms have all been jacked up to a level that would be considered luxurious in any other establishment, with the “luxury” rooms pushing the bar a bit higher and the suites providing a true home away from home for visiting businessmen or travelling families.

It truly is the oasis today that Rhodes, Jameson, Charles Rudd and JB Robinson (among others), set out to create 133 years ago.

For more information go to http://www.kimberleyclub.co.za/ - KEVIN RITCHIE, Saturday Star

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