Although Kimberley is now the capital and largest city of South Africa’s Northern Cape province, none of it existed before diamonds were discovered in the area some 150 years ago. At the heart of the mining industry upon which the city was built is The Big Hole, a vast open-cast and underground diamond mine founded in 1871. More formally known as the Kimberley Mine, fortunes were made and lost here for 43 years until operations finally ceased in 1914. Today, The Big Hole is experiencing a rebirth as Kimberley’s most-visited tourist attraction.
History of The Big Hole
South Africa’s First Diamonds
In 1866, 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs was playing on his family farm near Hopetown when he discovered a shiny pebble on the banks of the Orange River. The stone became a favorite talisman and plaything until neighbor Schalk van Niekerk took an interest in it and asked to borrow the pebble so that he could have it evaluated. After taking it to several different experts, it was eventually confirmed as the country's first diamond discovery. Named the Eureka Diamond, it was hailed by Colonial Secretary Richard Southey as "the rock upon which the future success of South Africa will be built."
Three years later, in 1869, another diamond was discovered in the same region. This one measured an impressive 83.5 carats and was sold for an initial price of 11,200 pounds. It became known as the Star of South Africa. In 1871, members of prospector Fleetwood Rawstorne’s Red Cap Party discovered several more diamonds on the Colesberg Kopje, a flat-topped hill located on land owned by the De Beers brothers. Their findings sparked a diamond rush that would see 3,000 men working on 800 new land claims in the space of a single month. Colesberg Kopje soon disappeared beneath the miners’ picks, and The Big Hole was born.
A Town Named Kimberley
The makeshift town that sprang up to accommodate the claim owners, miners, outfitters, and families was initially called New Rush. In 1873, it was officially renamed in honor of the First Earl of Kimberley. The settlement grew to include hotels, saloons, brothels, and even a railway station. Soon it was home to the first Stock Exchange in Africa, and in September 1882, Kimberley became the first town in the southern hemisphere to incorporate electric streetlights into its infrastructure. British businessmen Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato made their fortunes in the Kimberley diamond mines, with the former establishing world-famous diamond corporation De Beers here in 1888.
Kimberley’s glory days continued until just before the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, when an increasing scarcity of diamonds rendered it uneconomical to keep digging any deeper.
Facts About the Big Hole
- From 1871 to 1914, it is estimated that around 50,000 miners worked at The Big Hole.
- An astonishing 22.5 million tons of earth were excavated by hand from the open-cast mine.
- Over 43 years the mine yielded 6,000 pounds of diamonds, equivalent to 14,504,566 carats.
- The Big Hole has a surface area of 42 acres and measures 1,519 feet in width.
- It was excavated to a total depth of 787 feet, making it the deepest hole in the world to be excavated by hand.
- It is not the largest hand-excavated hole, however; that title belongs to the Jagersfontein Mine in the Free State, which has a surface area of 48.6 acres
- Now partially filled with debris and water, roughly 574 feet of the pit face is still visible.
- The underground mine (created by the De Beers company with the help of machines after the open-cast mine became too dangerous and unproductive) reaches a depth of 3,599 feet.
Things to See and Do
The Visitors Centre is the gateway to The Big Hole for modern-day tourists. In addition to multiple gift shops and jewelry outlets, it is the starting point for informative guided tours that begin with a short documentary, "Diamond & Destiny." Take a seat in the center’s theater and travel back in time to Erasmus Jacobs’ accidental discovery of the Eureka Diamond. Through period reenactments, you’ll learn how that discovery led to the diamond rush and the creation of The Big Hole and Kimberley itself. You’ll also get an introduction to the era’s most charismatic figures, including Barnato, Rhodes, and the leaders of the Black mining communities.
Next, the tours take you onto a platform with vertiginous views over The Big Hole itself. Fringed by the buildings of the city center and stained turquoise by mineral and algal deposits, the water-filled pit is a sight to behold. While you admire the sheer drop and listen to tales of dogs and people who have fallen in in the years since its closure, consider that the platform is the exact size of a Kimberley mining claim. The surrounding area is littered with landmarks, including original streetlights and processing machinery, vintage steam engines, and a plaque dedicated to the members of the Royal Bafokeng regiments who lost their lives laboring in the pit.
Kimberley Mine Museum
Step into an elevator for a ride down a replica mine shaft into a section of the original mines. Here you can experience the claustrophobic, airless conditions in which thousands of miners lived and died; many as a result of mining accidents, others due to poor sanitation, starvation, and a lack of access to clean drinking water. The underground mine opens out into a museum where well-kept displays explain how diamonds are formed and how they were mined, the indigenous myths and legends surrounding the precious stones, and how the discovery of diamonds shaped South Africa’s colonial and native history.
The museum also includes a high-security vault, where examples of real diamonds help to explain the differences in cut, color, clarity, and carat that determine how much each stone is worth. You’ll also be shown replicas of some of the world’s most famous diamonds, found in The Big Hole and at other locations across South Africa and the rest of the world. These include the Star of South Africa, the Dresden Green, the Hope Diamond, and the Cullinan Diamond.
The Old Town
Outside the Visitors Centre, the original corrugated iron buildings that made up 19th-century Kimberley have been preserved in a pedestrianized Old Town. Wander along cobbled streets and get a sense of what life might have been like for the prospectors of old (minus the heaving crowds and unhygienic living conditions). Colonial shopfronts display antique goods and memorabilia and include everything from grocery stores and barbershops to saddlers and milliners. Highlights include Barney Barnato’s boxing academy, and the De Beers railway coach Cecil Rhodes used to commute to and from Cape Town.
Planning Your Visit
The Big Hole and the Visitors Centre are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except Christmas Day. Entry to the Old Town is free; for everything else, admission costs 110 rands per adult and 70 rands per child (aged 4 to 12), with discounts available for families, pensioners, and students. Tours are available on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week, and every second hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekends. The Big Hole is wheelchair friendly. If you plan on making a day of it, stop for lunch at the Old Town’s Occidental Bar & Restaurant, where gourmet pub fare and craft beers are served to the accompaniment of regular live music.
Recommended accommodation options in the surrounding area include Barney Barnato B&B, located less than 10 minutes away on Ortlepp Street. Set within a peaceful garden oasis, it offers luxurious yet affordable guest rooms and a generous complimentary breakfast.