Rock engravings at Wildebeest Kuil.
The famous Big Hole is one of the largest hand-excavated open-cast mines in the world.
South Africa’s national animal, the springbok, roams freely around the Northern Cape.
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• Northern Cape Tourism authority
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Stepping into the Northern Cape is much like walking onto the set of an American western. There are the acres of arid land, mostly desolate landscape, and sparsely populated, far-flung, tiny, old towns. Indeed, this picturesque province is South Africa’s most unusual travel destination.
The province is renowned for its breathtaking southern Kalahari scenery and Richtersveld mountain desert landscapes, and, of course, its diamonds. It is also the home of the world’s “first people” – the enigmatic San-Bushmen, as well as the Griqua, a subgroup of South Africa’s heterogeneous and multi-racial coloured people; and the Nama or Namaqua, an African ethnic group spread across South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Northern Cape is filled with uncanny surprises.
It is a prime destination for adventuring outdoorsy types, and it should be at the top of the list for travellers curious about indigenous people and archaeology. Then there’s the interesting geology, diamonds, architecture and Anglo Boer War history, as well as cultural and liberation history. It is also home to two of the country’s biggest rivers, the Orange and the Vaal, and has the world’s largest wild flower display.
Between July and September, Namakwa, the only arid hotspot in the world, sheds its dry and desolate facade and is covered by a duvet of wild flowers of every hue, drawing tourists from across the country and around the world. Namakwa is part of the Succulent Karoo biome and contains more than 6 000 plant species, 250 species of birds, 78 species of mammals, 132 species of reptiles and amphibians, and an unknown number of insects.
With its capital in the old diamond-mining town of Kimberley, Northern Cape is 362 591.41km² in size, making it the largest province in South Africa. It has a population of approximately 1.058-million.
Stepping into Kimberley
Kimberley, which was founded in 1871, is set against the backdrop of a flat landscape with no prominent topographic features in its urban limits.
The sights and sounds of the original diamond rush – when up to 30 000 miners furiously worked some 3 600 claims using rudimentary equipment and living mostly in tents – have long gone, but memories of the town’s glory days linger. Many of the old buildings still stand, and museums lend a historic ambience to the modern city. There is also a reconstruction of the original town alongside the famous Big Hole.
Located at the intersection of the N12 and N8 national roads, Kimberley, known as the “City that Sparkles” or the “Diamond City”, is a gateway to other Northern Cape destinations, including the Mokala National Park, nature reserves and numerous game farms and hunting lodges, as well as historic sites. Today, the town is the seat of the Northern Cape Provincial Legislature and the Provincial Administration, and services the mining and agricultural sectors of the region.
The city has considerable historical significance thanks to its diamond mining past and the siege during the Second Boer War. Notable personalities such as Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato made their fortunes here, and the roots of the multinational De Beers Company can be traced to its early days.
From humble beginnings
It all began in 1866, when Erasmus Jacobs found a small pebble on the banks of the Orange River on his father’s farm, De Kalk. The pebble was bought by Schalk van Niekerk, who later sold it. Not so much a pebble, this sparkling stone proved to be a 21.25 carat diamond, and became known as the Eureka. Three years later, Van Niekerk sold another diamond, also found in the De Kalk vicinity, the Star of South Africa for US$17 000 (R158 000). It was promptly resold on the London market for $38 000 (R353 000).
Also in 1869, an even larger 83.50 carat diamond was found on the slopes of Colesberg Kopje on the farm Vooruitzigt, which belonged to the De Beers brothers. This resulted in the famous “New Rush”, which led to 800 claims within a month worked by two to three thousand men. The region was converted into a mine, and called the Kimberley Mine. As miners flocked to the area in their thousands, the hill disappeared and subsequently became known as the Big Hole.
From mid-July 1871 to 1914, 50 000 miners dug the hole, yielding 2 722kg of diamonds. The Big Hole has a surface area of 17 hectares and is 463m wide. It was excavated to a depth of 240m, but was partially in-filled with debris, reducing its depth to about 215m; since then it has accumulated water to a depth of 40m, leaving a visible hole of 175m deep.
The Big Hole however pales in comparison with the Cullinan Mine, the third biggest diamond producer in South Africa, which is situated some 40km northeast of Pretoria in Gauteng province. This mine goes down 760m by means of 560km of tunnels. It’s considerably bigger than the more famous Big Hole, measuring a kilometre across and half-a-kilometre wide, and leaving an excavation into the earth of 700m. It is continually widening, as 80 000 tons of rock fall into it every year.
By 1873, Kimberley was the second largest town in South Africa, with a population of some 40 000. In 1998, the Kimberley Comprehensive Urban Plan estimated that Kimberley had 210 800 people in 46 207 households. A decade later, it was estimated there were some 250 000 inhabitants, comprising 46% black, 40% coloured and 13% white, speaking Afrikaans (49%), Tswana (33%), English (7.5%), Xhosa (5.6%) and Sotho (2.2%).
In the late nineteenth century, Kimberley was the hub of development in South Africa, transforming the country’s agrarian economy into one more dependent on its mineral wealth. One of the key features of the new economic arrangement was migrant labour, drawing workers from across the subcontinent. The labour compound system developed in Kimberley in the 1880s was later replicated on the gold mines and elsewhere.
The city also housed South Africa’s first stock exchange, the Kimberley Royal Stock Exchange, which opened on 2 February 1881. And on 2 September 1882, Kimberley became the first town in the southern hemisphere to install electric street lighting. By 1896, the first South African mining school was opened, though it later relocated to Johannesburg and formed part of the University of the Witwatersrand.
South African aviation originated in Kimberley, remembered in the Pioneers of Aviation Museum. The town was also connected by rail to the cities along the Cape Colony coastline in 1872; however, the railway line from Cape Town to Kimberley was only completed in 1885. In the 1930s, Kimberley boasted the best night-landing facilities on the continent; today the Kimberley Airport has regular flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Passenger train services to and from Kimberley are also provided by national rail operator Spoornet’s Shosholoza Meyl, with connections south to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth and north to Johannesburg. Luxury railway travel is possible on the main north-south line by the Blue Train and Rovos Rail.
Northern Cape’s weather is typical of arid and semi-arid temperatures. The scant annual rainfall (50-400mm) in the province is unreliable and summer temperatures – from December to February – range between a scorching 33˚ and 36˚ Celsius. In winter, from June to August, days are warm but at the onset of night the temperature drops spectacularly: the average minimum is -6˚ Celsius, with snow blanketing the mountains.
Around Kimberley itself, summers are hot and relatively wet, and winters are cold and dry. The infrequent summer rains tend to take the form of occasional severe thunderstorms rather than prolonged soft showers. It is not unusual for winter night-time temperatures to drop below freezing.
Around the Big Hole, previously known as the Kimberley Mine Museum, is a recreated townscape and museum. It has a Big Hole viewing platform and other features, and houses a rich collection of artefacts and information from the early days of the city. One of the exhibits is Rhodes’ grand railway carriage that carried him as governor of the Cape of Good Hope to the Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that he created. Also at the mine museum is the first house built in Kimberley, as well as the first church.
At the McGregor Museum, visitors can explore major research collections as well as learn about the history and ecology of Northern Cape. It celebrated its centennial in 2007, reflected in displays at the museum’s headquarters at the Sanatorium in Belgravia and nine branch museums.
Other places of interest in Kimberley include the William Humphreys Art Gallery, the Kimberley Africana Library, Dunluce and Rudd House museums, Pan Africanist Congress founder Robert Sobukwe’s law office, the Sol Plaatje Museum, the Transport Spoornet Museum, the Clyde N Terry Hall of Militaria, and the Freddie Tate Museum. The memorial cenotaph was erected originally to commemorate the fallen of World War I; plaques were added in memory of fallen Kimberley soldiers in World War II. There is also a memorial dedicated to the Kimberley Cape Coloured Corps who lost their lives in the Battle of Square Hill during World War I.
The Concentration Camp Memorial remembers those who were interned in the Kimberley concentration camp during the Second Boer War, and is located in front of the Dutch Reformed Church. The Henrietta Stockdale statue, by Jack Penn, commemorates the Anglican nun, Sister Henrietta, who petitioned the Cape parliament to pass a law recognising nursing as a profession and requiring compulsory state registration of nurses – a first in the world.
The Miners’ Memorial, also known as the Diggers’ Fountain, is located in the Oppenheimer Gardens and was designed by Herman Wald. It was built in honour of all the miners of Kimberley, and consists of five life-sized diggers lifting a diamond sieve. The Honoured Dead Memorial commemorates those who died defending the city during the Siege of Kimberley in the Anglo-Boer War.
The Sol Plaatje statue, sculpted by Johan Moolman, is at the Civic Centre, formerly the Malay Camp, and situated approximately where Plaatje had his printing press in 1910 to 1913. Other memorials and statues in the historical town include the Burger Monument near Magersfontein Battlefield, the Cape Police Memorial, the Mayibuye Memorial, the Rhodes equestrian statue, and the Malay Camp Memorial.
Throughout the Karoo one finds visually enticing examples of rock engravings left by the nomadic people that once frequented the area. Most of the images are found on low ridges of dolerite rock, the black boulder fields. Rock gongs (rocks that make echoing sounds when hit) can also be found on sites such as Keurfontein near Vosburg and Thomas’ Farm near Hopetown.
A community-based public rock art project, the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre, stands on the outskirts of Kimberley. Indigenous San and Khoe people, with researchers and other relevant parties, are involved in conserving the engravings, of which there are more than 400, spread over a small sacred hill.
In South Africa, there are some 15 000 recorded rock art sites, but there are many yet to be discovered. Most of the rock art in Southern Africa was made by Later Stone Age people, ancestors of the San, according to the McGregor Museum.
This art occurs in two forms: engravings and paintings. Engravings are found on the country’s dry inland plateau, while paintings occur in mountainous areas such as the Drakensberg, and the Cederberg in the Western Cape.
The Wildebeest Kuil engravings were made by the “pecking” technique, where the artist used a hard, pointed stone to chip away the outer crust of the rock and bring out the lighter colour underneath. The exposed portions gradually weather to again become as dark as the outer layer.
The exact age of the engravings at Wildebeest Kuil is not known, but experts estimate their age at between 1 000 and 2 000 years. Older engraved stones have been found at Wonderwerk Cave near Kuruman in the Northern Cape, in excavated levels dating back 2 000 and 10 000 years, and rock paintings in southern Namibia have been dated to about 27 000 years ago.
In a nutshell, Kimberley is a gateway to uncovering the treasures of Northern Cape, through what once was a shanty town born of an influx of miners trying to reap the wealth that lay beneath the soil. Today, it is a flourishing city boasting a mixture of Victorian buildings that complement the modern twists of the CBD. While, lacking the fast pace and hustle and bustle of South Africa’s larger urban hubs such as Johannesburg, it is still in some ways one of the country’s most innovative towns.