GPS: S 28 44.518 E 024 46.151 | pop. 170,000 | elevation 1,230 m/4,035 ft
The city of Kimberley was built on diamonds. Initially established as the rowdy mining town of New Rush, the area teemed with rough and tumble opportunists hoping to strike it big. But the vast diamond reefs eventually transformed the haphazard settlement into one of South Africa’s major cities. Cecil Rhodes made his early fortune here, buying up smaller mining claims and launching De Beers Consolidated Mines in 1888. But all the glitz and glamour came at a price. Hordes of immigrants flocked to Kimberley with big dreams and empty pockets. De Beers employed thousands of migrant black laborers, who toiled years for pennies in the depths of the Big Hole, the world’s largest hand-dug excavation. But their story is often outshined by the 2,722 kilograms of diamonds that they extracted from the earth. Today, a visit to The Big Hole offers a glimpse into what life was like for these miners at the turn of the twentieth century.
Now officially part of the greater Sol Plaatje Municipality, named for one of South Africa’s greatest writers and the first Secretary-General of the African National Congress, Kimberley has more draw in its history than in its present. But if you look closely, you can still catch a glimpse of glamour from days gone by and the eerie depths of its mine cavities is an unforgettable sight. Central Kimberley is somewhat hard to navigate, with many winding and confusing one-way streets, no doubt a product of the city’s rushed development. Head southeast out of the city center on Du Toitspan Road and you’ll find most of the good eats, pubs and museums.
The Big Hole & Kimberley Mine Museum is a fascinating look into a diamond-mining town of yesteryear. The complex is home to the Big Hole itself, the largest hand-dug excavation in the world, but almost more interesting is the combination of original and replica buildings that come together to recreate the mining town that once flourished around Kimberley's big hole. Though a little like Disneyland, this attraction distinguishes itself by its continued use of historical buildings from the late 1800s. Stay a night at the Australian Arms Hotel built in 1873 or grab a drink at the Occidental Bar. The tour above and around the Big Hole is well worth it and includes a 20-minute movie on the history of the diamond rush, a walk out onto the viewing platform of the Big Hole and a simulated underground mine experience. The last stop is at the De Beers diamond vault within the museum, which houses some of the company's most remarkable finds.
Tours can also be arranged through the McGregor Museum to visit the Dunluce, a fabulous example of wealth in the city during the early 1900s.
Duggan-Cronin Gallery is one of the best photography museums in South Africa. Alfred Duggan-Cronin came to Kimberley in 1897 to work for De Beers as a security officer in the compounds, but he soon began photographing the different tribes that worked the mines. This passion expanded and eventually led Duggan-Cronin to document indigenous peoples on more than 18 expeditions throughout South Africa and neighboring countries.
William Humphreys Art Gallery is a large gallery featuring an eclectic collection of European and South African art. It would be easy to lose yourself for a couple of hours in this museum; just be sure to find your way to the back to enjoy some tea in their pleasant garden café when you're done.
Sol Plaatje Museum and Library is located in the former home of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, the first Secretary-General of the ANC, whose work as a politician, journalist, and writer took him on travels around the world. Fluent in at least seven languages, Plaatje became the first black South African to write a book in English. He also translated many of William Shakespeare's works into his native tongue of Tswana. Plaatje's life is commemorated in this museum. Call ahead to make sure the museum is open.
Jewel Box is located at the Big Hole complex and has a massive array of jewelry and diamonds for purchase.
Diamond Pavilion Shopping Mall has a Checkers, cinema, banks and numerous other stores.
Gum Tree Lodge is a backpacking and budget traveler mega-complex located just outside of town. The lodge's largest dorm room sleeps 40 people, but it also has six-bed dorms and private rooms. There is a mini-fridge full of beer in the reception and lounge area.
Stay-A-Day has the atmosphere of a fly-by-night motel with shared shower facilities, although the beds are comfortable and the rooms have TVs and AC.
The Estate Private Hotel was originally built as a wedding present for Mary Oppenheimer in 1907 and housed the family until 1915. The owners strive to offer their guests the same luxury as was enjoyed by the Oppenheimers, who now own the house next door. The hotel has beautifully furnished rooms that stay true to the early 20th century decadence of the city, while still offering tastefully integrated modern features such as flat screen TVs and Jacuzzi or spa showers in some rooms. If it is available, the best room in the hotel is the master bedroom, Room #2.
Edgerton House was built in 1901. Classic architecture combined with the black and white photos throughout the house make a stay here feel like a step back into time. Stay in the Madiba Room if you want the real old world luxury including a clawfoot bathtub right in your bedroom. Nelson Mandela stayed in this room when he visited Kimberley.
Australian Arms Guest House is another tip of the hat to Kimberley's mining history. Located within the Big Hole complex, this hotel was built in 1873 and the main building has stayed very true to its original form. Over time, the hotel expanded into other authentic buildings within the complex to now offer 13 spacious en suite rooms with clawfoot bathtubs and lavish beds. The hotel also has a restaurant and pub.
The Kimberley Club has stayed true to its roots in more ways than just the building. Separate ladies and men's bars maintain an old, boy's club feel. The men's bar is a throwback to the glory days of Boer expansion - it's easy to imagine plumes of cigar smoke and old men playing card games in the parlor; stuffed wild game remain mounted on the wall above. The rooms themselves are very nice with dark wood and plush bedding.
Mario's is a tasty Italian restaurant in a prime location. There are plenty of pasta and pizza options and the vegetarian lasagna is delicious. Sit outside on the patio and people watch or inside in the colorfully decorated dining room.
The Ant Walk is the local favorite for traditional South African fare. It's a little hard to find, right in the center of the bustling Jones Street area, but the establishment offers rare country classics like afval (sheep head and feet) and mutton curry.
Butler's is the restaurant inside The Estate Private Hotel. This is one of the nicer restaurants in town, so if you don't get a chance to stay here as a guest, it is definitely worth a visit for dinner. Specialties include succulent Karoo lamb, Kimberley beef and crocodile.
Occidental Bar has a limited menu of the typical grilled meats, pastas, and salads. The breakfast omelets, however, are fit to keep you working a full day in the mine. Stop in for a bite to eat or a drink when you tour the Big Hole.
Halfway House Hotel is a cheery wood-lined restaurant and bar with a slightly more complete pub menu than other options in Kimberley. If you just need to quench your thirst in the evening, this pub is a good destination.
The George & Dragon Pub will provide you with fantastically greasy pub food. You might want to hit this place as more of a drinking locale than for the food, but they do have good bunny chow.