I was exploring the abandoned mine workings that became the South Africa Kimberley Great Hole mine museum around 45 years ago. I found an old fellow puffing on his pipe among the rusty ruins who seemed quite knowledgeable. ‘Who started this gig, I asked?’ ‘Was my father,” he replied, ‘before the millionaires arrived and took over. ‘He was prospecting in the area when he found some farm kids playing with shiny stones he recognized.’
‘Fill this empty jar with some more,’ he suggested. ‘I’ll be back in two weeks and fill it up with sweets if you get it right.’ Two weeks later, they took him to the shallow river where they filled the jar to overflowing. I did not have the heart to ask him where the money went from the sale of his father’s claim. It was easy come and easy go those days. My guess would be ‘wine, women, song, and every man to his claim.’’
Kimberley Great Hole – Middle Stage – 1875
The miners and their assistants dug frantically to feed the greedy hoists waiting to take the spoil to the top and search for more unimagined wealth. In 1872, one year after the dig started, there were already 50,000 diggers on the site. De Beers Consolidated bought them out in 1888, when they could no longer stand the heat, the dust, the accidents, and the other deprivations.
The hole where a hill once stood bottomed out at 215 meters before it flooded and production ceased. The perimeter within which they discovered 3,000 kilograms of diamonds measures 1.6 kilometres. The Kimberley Great Hole remains the largest hand-dug excavation ever. It is an impressive site despite the fact the bottom 40 meters are full of water.
Kimberley Great Hole at Rest – 2011
Although the Kimberley great hole is at rest now, it boasts an exciting museum with fascinating artefacts. Those not afraid of vertigo can stand on a steel platform overhanging the abyss. Others may prefer to plumb the depths of a contemporary mineshaft extending just more than a kilometre in depth. If you do go down, take comfort that the props supporting the ceilings have been there for almost one-and-half centuries.
The Kimberley Great Hole Museum extends way beyond educational exhibits, although these are important for preserving history. Tourists can wander throughout a lovingly restored village, or catch an authentic tram and explore the days when diamonds boomed in easy driving distance of Kimberley Hotels. To this day, the ‘Kimberley Process’ still controls global diamond dealing. Quite a memorial for the fellow who found some farm kids playing with shiny stones.