In search of diamonds

By Stef Terblanche

If all that glitters is not gold, it must be diamonds…two of the world’s most sought-after commodities synonymous with South Africa.

Diamonds have left a fascinating trail in South Africa – from legends to myths, new towns that sprung up, fabulous fortunes made and lost, daring crimes, the influx of fortune-seekers from all over the world, the stories of fabulous stones being found, and the growth of what would soon be the world’s biggest diamond industry at the time, as well as what is claimed to be the biggest man-made hole in the world.

There is even a direct connection with the British crown. One of the biggest diamonds found in South Africa, the breath-taking 3,106 carats Cullinan Diamond, was cut into a number of smaller diamonds, all adorning the crown jewels still worn by Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family to this day. Of these, the Cullinan I, or Star of Africa diamond, is the largest cut diamond in the world. Pear-shaped, with 74 facets, it is set in the Royal sceptre that is kept with the other crown jewels in the Tower of London.

South Africa is no longer the world’s biggest diamond producer, having been overtaken by countries like Russia, China, Peru and the DRC. But its diamond trail can still be travelled today, opening up a hidden world that will take you to the heart of the legends of yesterday, and the diamond industry of today. Could there be a better way to see South Africa than going in search of diamonds along the diamond route, from Cape Town to Kimberley, from there to Cullinan near Pretoria and the far north, and down to the Orange River mouth and the West Coast?

Ever since the discovery of the first diamond in South Africa in 1867 by 15-year-old Erasmus Jacobs on his father’s farm on the banks of the Orange River, the indestructibly hard, sparkling little stones have captivated the minds of people. The world over they have won the heart of many a pretty woman, while many elaborate robberies were planned and carried out by those too lazy to dig for these treasured gems.

As South Africa quickly became the biggest diamond producer in the world, legends grew as fast…about fabulous riches to hard-luck stories. Fortunes were made and lost. Wealthy mining barons appeared overnight. Diggers, fortune-seekers, robbers and rogues flooded into new towns arising everywhere on the back of the newly created diamond industry.

The first diamond discoveries in South Africa were alluvial, but by 1869 diamonds were found far from any river in hard blue rock that came to be known as kimberlite, named after the mining town of Kimberley.

Almost overnight the sleepy hollow that was Kimberley turned into a thriving, pulsating city. The huge village of tents and shacks housing diggers from all over the world soon made way for more permanent homes, fabulous mansions, hotels, saloons, brothels and banks. And on the edge of town the diggers dug deeper and deeper, creating one of the biggest man-made holes – some say the biggest – in the world, today a well-known tourist attraction known as the Kimberley Big Hole.

As more diamonds were discovered further afield, more new settlements sprung up, such as Koffiefontein, Lime Acres, Barkly West, Hopetown and Jagersfontein, and Cullinan near Pretoria.  Some of those early, bustling diamond villages and towns have since become almost ghost towns, while others went on to grow and prosper.

Prospectors and fortune-seekers panning and shovelling gravel for diamonds camped along the Orange River and searched further and further west for alluvial diamonds on the southern banks of the river. Later more alluvial deposits were discovered along the river and tributaries, and eventually also in and alongside the Atlantic Ocean in the vicinity of the Orange River mouth on the West Coast. This led to the establishment of a unique new marine diamond mining industry.

Cape Town Diamond Museum

Following the diamond trail, our journey begins at the Diamond Museum in Cape Town, the city where most of the fortune-seekers who came in search of diamonds would have arrived by ship from every corner of the earth.

The museum is located at the V&A Waterfront, next to the Robben Island Ferry and close to the many other attractions of Cape Town. This is also the old harbour of Cape Town where the ships carrying those on their way to the diamond fields would have docked.

The museum pays tribute to the world’s most precious gem, and has documented with exhibits, photographs and videos the entire history of diamonds in South Africa and further afield. Real-size replicas of the most famous diamonds found in South Africa and elsewhere are exhibited here. They include the Cullinan, the Eureka, the Star of Africa, the Hope Diamond, the Excelsior, the Star of Sierra Leone, the Golden Jubilee, the Centenary Diamond and many others.

Within a decade of their discovery in South Africa, 95% of all diamonds of the world were coming from South Africa. The museum allows one to explore the romance and realities of that fascinating and frenzied era of early diamond mining, tracing the fabulous rise, wealth and intense rivalries of the early diamond barons like Cecil John Rhodes and Barney Barnato.

Barnato’s death on a ship en route to England in June 1897 remains one of the enduring mysteries of this period: theories have ranged from an accidental fall overboard to murder and suicide. At the time the former vaudeville entertainer from London’s East End was a partner of Rhodes, who had bought out his diamond mining company, as well as a banker, a Johannesburg Randlord (gold magnate) and a member of the Cape Colony’s parliament.

In Cape Town these arriving adventurers and fortune-seekers would have purchased and saddled horses, or found themselves a place on supply wagons or mail coaches for the long journey north. In the late 1870s a railway line was built to connect the port of Cape Town to the diamond fields of Kimberley, passing through the historic village of Matjiesfontein, today still a favourite stop-over for tourists.

Corruption surrounding the construction of this railway line led to the fall of the government of the Cape Colony, of which Rhodes was a member and later prime minister. Rhodes, like Barnato, was one of the first diamond magnates in Kimberley who later went on to build an even bigger fortune in Johannesburg after gold was discovered there.

Kimberley and the Big Hole


Rhodes quickly dominated the diamond mining industry in Kimberley. The De Beers company, which he founded and which later became synonymous with the famous Oppenheimer family, also quickly dominated the entire world diamond market…which it still does to a substantial degree to this day.

One can still travel by rail from Cape Town to Kimberley, the most common train being the Shosholoza Meyl Tourist Class, but more luxurious alternatives like the Shosholoza Meyl Premier Classe, Blue Train or Rovos Rail also travel the route. The Rovos Rail train consists of meticulously restored coaches that will further add to the sense of travelling back in time to the glamorous era of the diamond rush. But any of these trains make for a fascinating journey through the Cape wine lands and mountains, across the arid Karoo plains to De Aar, and then cutting across diamond-mining country to Kimberley, before travelling further north.

In Kimberley the train stops at the same historic railway station where diamond mining magnates and diggers mingled with showgirls, vagabonds and fortune-seekers, all arriving here during the heyday of the diamond rush for a slice of the action. From the train station, a short drive across town takes one to the Big Hole and the Kimberley Mine Museum. This is the epicentre of the diamond mining industry and its history in South Africa.

Some 150 years ago, the site of the Big Hole was a featureless, flat-topped hill set in the semi-arid African veld, with thousands of diamonds buried below the surface in kimberlite pipes. But the first diamonds found nearby were alluvial. Over thousands of years, the kimberlite pipe that reaches the Earth’s surface is eroded and weathered by wind, rain, rivers and streams. The eroded kimberlite bears rough diamonds, which are carried downstream, hence they are found along the Orange River and further west in and along the Atlantic Ocean where the river deposited them.

When word spread that diamonds had been discovered in the area, thousands of prospectors, armed with little more than picks, shovels and dreams of fabulous wealth, descended on the spot of the present Big Hole, then known as Colesberg Kopje. Overnight a town of tents and makeshift shacks arose on the African veld, and the site became known as the New Rush, soon to be proclaimed as Kimberley by the Cape and British authorities. In 1912 two local boroughs united to form the City of Kimberley.

By 1873 Kimberley was the second largest town in South Africa, with an approximate population of 40,000 to 50,000 people. It was also the first city in the Southern Hemisphere and the second in the world after Philadelphia in the US to integrate electric street lights into its infrastructure, while the first stock exchange in Africa was also built here in 1881.

Digging of the Big Hole, now known as Kimberley Mine, commenced in 1871, and by the time mining ended in 1914, the mine had yielded 2,722 kilograms of diamonds, extracted from 22,5 million tons of excavated earth. The hole became a massive crater 214 meters deep with a surface area of 17 hectares and a perimeter of 1,6 km, with thousands of ropes, cables, ladders and scaffolding running down into its belly. It was later partially refilled with debris and water also started filling it to a depth of 40m, leaving 175m visible. Beneath the surface, the Kimberley Mine underneath the Big Hole continued to be mined to a depth of 1,097 metres.

Adjacent to the hole, and central to the museum complex created here by De Beers Consolidated Mines, is what is known as the Old Town. It is a perfect replica of the early town of Kimberley, bringing to life the excitement and glitter of the New Rush era, with preserved and restored original buildings from the heyday of the mine.

Many attractions and facilities were added to the Big Hole facility. It now is a world-class tourist destination, providing unique insights into diamonds, the history of South African diamond mining, the history of Kimberley, and the process of recovering rough diamonds right through to the polished gem found in today’s jewellery. Among the period buildings that have been preserved or restored to their original glory are a church built in Europe and shipped to Kimberley, Barney Barnato’s boxing academy, the digger’s sleeping quarters and the luxurious De Beers railway coach used by Rhodes to commute between Cape Town and Kimberley.

Two famous nearby institutions dating from that area, are the city’s two oldest pubs: the Star of the West, built in 1870 from the salvaged wood of a ship by the same name that came to grief on the West Coast, and the Halfway House Hotel built in 1872 and billed as the world’s only drive-in pub. Unbeknown to those on board of the Star of the West at the time, the area where it floundered on the West Coast is today itself prime diamond mining territory.

At the Visitor Centre one learns about the multi-faceted story of diamonds, the people that came to look for them, the tools they used and the wealth they generated. Guided tours are offered to visitors who can also go underground in a recreated mine shaft of the period. Apart from learning about the history of diamond mining in Kimberley and seeing historic memorabilia, visitors can also buy diamonds at prices slightly cheaper than usual.

The museum takes one on a truly riveting journey back to the first discovery of a diamond by the young Erasmus Jacobs near Hopetown, the discovery of the Star of South Africa – not to be confused with the Star of Africa – three years later, and the subsequent significant finds in Griqualand West, near the Vaal River, on the farms Bultfontein, Dorstfontein and Vooruitzicht. It then takes you to the nearby hillock, Colesberg Kopje, where the richest treasure of all was found and where the hill was soon replaced by a gaping giant hole in the earth.

Other attractions in and around Kimberley that also provide further insight into the city’s diamond mining and other history, include the McGregor Museum, the Kimberley Africana Library, the Alexanderfontein Hotel and Officers’ Mess used by the military during the Anglo-Boer War when Kimberley was besieged by Boer forces, the Archaeology Route, the Belgravia Historical Walk, the Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Gardens and Diggers Fountain, Dunluce House and the Malay Camp, among others.

Further West

Travelling further west from Kimberley along the Orange River, we enter the world of the Middle Orange River alluvial diamond deposits between Hopetown, Douglas and Prieska. Until a few years ago one may still have come across some old-timer prospectors camped along the river in these parts, working the river gravel by hand as they searched for that elusive ‘big one’ that would mean instant riches and retirement.

Today they have been replaced by the larger mining companies, such as Finsch Mine owned by Petra Diamonds at Lime Acres, north of the town of Douglas. But there are also a number of smaller, privately-owned alluvial diamond miners active in the area, such as Steyn Diamante at Douglas, owned by seasoned miner Schalk Steyn, and Dirk Fourie’s Klipdam Diamond Mining Company, which is located near to the town of Barkly West.

A short distance northwest of Kimberley, the town of Barkly West is the site of the first major diamond rush, in 1870. The town was originally known as Klipdrift. The diggers that descended on the area briefly declared the Klipdrift Diggers’ Republic, with the town assuming the name Parkerton after its “president”, one Stafford Parker, before colonial rule was re-established here. Together with Kimberley it became one of the main towns in the Crown Colony of Griqualand West and was renamed Barkly West after Sir Henry Barkly, Governor of Cape Colony and High Commissioner for Southern Africa from 1870 to 1877.

The town of Douglas, near the confluence of the Orange and Vaal rivers, was originally founded as a mission station before the diamond prospectors arrived. Today it is largely an agricultural community, but diamonds are still very much part of its lifeblood. There are some fine accommodation and eating establishments in and around the town, nature reserves and even a wine cellar here.

Hopetown, located further south on the N12 between Kimberley and Beaufort West, is another delightful town with a diamond history. It was a quiet little farming town until diamonds were discovered here between 1867 and 1869, among them two of the most legendary ones, the Eureka Diamond and the Star of South Africa. The Eureka was of course the first diamond discovered in South Africa by the young Erasmus Jacobs on his father’s farm. The town offers much to do and see.

At 33 Church Street you can still see a cutting mark from the Star of South Africa which was made on a window here to test its authenticity. The town is also at the centre of the N12 Battelfield Route, with an old British military blockhouse at Orange River Station and a concentration camp cemetery at Doornbult. As the town had no jail, convicts in the town used to be secured to the Convict Stone that can still be seen in the town.

After the Cape government built the railway line between Cape Town and the Kimberley diamond fields in 1872, running through Hopetown, the town’s fortunes dwindled when no more diamonds were found here and the railway killed the local horse transport industry. In an elaborate scam to blow new life into the town, a local farmer advertised that he had made substantial new diamond finds on his farm. In what became known as ‘the Great Sucker Rush’, some 10,000 fortune-seekers rushed into the town, only to be quickly disillusioned, and leaving again.

Other sites connected with the diamond history, and some still with large commercial diamond mines active today, are located at the original farms of Bultfontein, Dutoitspan, Wesselton, and Dorstfontein, and places such as Lime Acres.

The latter is little more than a village serving the lime and diamond mining industries, with its main attraction being the Finsch Mine owned by Petra Diamonds, some 2km outside the town. In 1930 one HS Richter discovered diamonds on the farm Brits, but as the farm was state-owned, his prospecting was illegal. Legal prospecting only started in 1961 and an open-pit mine was developed. Today diamonds are mined underground, beneath the old open-pit mine.

Going North

After the Middle Orange River alluvial diamond fields, travellers can choose to go north, or further west to the West Coast and Alexander Bay. Going north, will take one along the N12 to Johannesburg, where we make our first stop.

Here, on a ridge north of, and overlooking the City of Gold, is a hidden corner of grand old Johannesburg closely linked to the country’s diamond history. It is here in the suburb of Parktown, where you will still find some of the fabulous mansions that once belonged to the mining barons of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of these magnates, known as the Randlords, made their first fortunes on the diamond fields of Kimberley and the Northern Cape.

Among these ‘castles’ that remain, is the Brenthurst estate, home of the Oppenheimer family since 1920, and comprising Brenthurst, Little Brenthurst, the Brenthurst Library, and the Brenthurst Gardens. The gardens are open to the public by appointment and forms part of the Diamond Route. The Oppenheimer family became synonymous with the vast, global Anglo American company and De Beers, the latter founded by Rhodes and growing to dominate the world diamond market under Ernest Oppenheimer.

Among the other mansions still standing is Northwards located at 21 Rockridge Road. It was owned by Randlord Colonel John Dale Lace, and his flamboyant wife, Lady Josie Dale Lace. The house, which today is owned by the University of the Witwatersrand, burnt down in 1912, and the Dale Lace’s lost their fortune at about the same time. Today the house is used as a chamber concert venue by the university.

Many other mansions in the area survived, their former owners being directly or indirectly linked to the golden era of gold and diamond discoveries in South Africa. These include Bishopskop on Gale Road, Dolobran on Victoria Avenue, Eikenlaan on Saint Andrews Road, Emoyeni on Jubilee Road, Hazeldene Hall

on Ridge Road, North Lodge on Victoria Avenue, Savernake (Holcombe) on Jubilee Road, Sunny Side Park on York Road (now a hotel), St Georges on Sherbourne Road, Stonehouse on Rockridge Road, The Mount on Jubilee Road, The View on Ridge Road, and Wanooka Place on Albany Road. A tour of the area and its mansions is truly worthwhile.

From here our journey takes us 30km east of Pretoria (Tshwane) to the town of Cullinan, named after diamond magnate Sir Thomas Cullinan. The town is also on the Diamond Route and is heavily reliant on tourism and the diamond mine that dominates it. There is plenty to do and see here, including old steam train rides.

Then it is on to South Africa’s most northern diamond mine, and the northern point of the Diamond Route, Venetia Diamond Mine (See separate box on the Diamond Route).

The mine is South Africa’s largest producer of diamonds and one of De Beers’ six remaining diamond mines in South Africa. It is also the only major diamond mine to be developed in the country during the past 25 years. The mine is situated close to the town of Alldays in Limpopo Province and is located within the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve.

The Diamond Coast

The West Coast diamond fields are easily accessible by road from either Cape Town or Kimberley, and encompasses roughly the area between the mouth of the Orange River at Alexander Bay, and Hondeklip Bay in the south. Known as the Diamond Coast of the Northern Cape, the region has always been home to hardy fishermen, adventurers and fortune-hunters. Today, among other things, it is home to a thriving marine diamond industry. (Also see our article on the West Coast elsewhere in this edition.)

Marine diamond mining involves extracting diamonds from the seabed, hundreds of meters under water for which specialised ships are used. But based in the small towns along this coast are also a large number of private divers who search for these gems on the sea bottom in their small boats on behalf of the large diamond companies. You can watch these boats and their divers at work from various vantage points along this rugged coast.

In any of the many pubs in these coastal towns, you are sure to bump into some of these tough divers who daily brave the most adverse of conditions in search of their fortunes. In these lively gathering places stories abound of daring schemes by diamond smugglers to lay their hands on the sparkling little stones, from flying them out of restricted areas with racing pigeons, to whacking them out hidden inside golf balls.

The alluvial diamonds found here, embedded underneath up to 40m of sand and calcrete at the bottom of the ocean, were washed down to the sea over centuries from the Barkly West/Kimberley area by the Orange River.

But it’s not only diamonds that make this stretch of coast a place that has to be visited. Here too you will find the annual Namaqualand Spring veld flower spectacle; or you can join an organised tour of shipwrecks along this windswept, often stormy coast. There are game and nature reserves, 4X4 trails, river rafting and kayaking, superb lodges and B&Bs, many restaurants and pubs, and historical and heritage sites. And quaint little fishing villages all the way between Cape Town and Alexander Bay.

At Alexander Bay, a previously restricted diamond mining area, visitors are now taken on organised tours. From Alexander Bay you can follow the road inland all along the Orange River, passing the land-based diamond mining of the region, until you get to the entrance to the incredible Richtersveld National Park and its adjoining World Heritage Site.

Across the border at Alexander Bay lie the Namibian diamond fields, the world’s richest marine diamond area. At the northern end of this area lies the town of Luderitz, with its haunting ghost town of Kolmanskop, once the centre of a thriving diamond mining community, now abandoned to the wind and sands of the Namib Desert. (See our previous editions for articles on the Richerstveld, Northern Cape and Kolmanskop.)

Travelling along these various South African diamond routes, you may not find any actual diamonds waiting to be picked up, but you will certainly find many, many other hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. Like the lyrics of the old Pink Floyd song say: shine on you crazy diamond.


The Diamond Route

An interesting offshoot of the diamond mining industry, is the Diamond Route…which has less to do with diamonds than with nature and heritage conservation, and offer a magnificent tourist experience.

Launched at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, the Diamond Route is a biodiversity conservation, education and sustainability opportunities initiative owned by companies associated with the diamond mining industry, such as the De Beers Group of Companies, E Oppenheimer and Son and Ponahalo Investments.

The route comprises ten sites covering some 250,000 hectares spread over an area from the Succulent Karoo of Namaqualand on the West Coast, to the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve on South Africa’s northern border, right up to the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana with the Orapa Game Park. The Diamond Route grew out of a desire by people involved in the diamond industry to show “the good that diamonds can do”.

The route encompasses Bernfontein, Dronfield, Namaqualand, Morapa Makgadikgadi, Rooipoort, the Big Hole, and Venetia Limpopo, South Africa’s northernmost diamond mining operation. Aside from offering excellent tourist facilities, the Diamond Route actively encourages environmental research and has supported more than 120 projects with topics from climate change, rhino conservation and insect life.

The route includes the Tswalu Kalahari, the largest privately owned reserve in South Africa at 100,000ha, offering luxury accommodation in a lodge and a private villa. This reserve specialises in conservation tourism and is home to lion, rhino, cheetah and smaller and other species like aardvark, aardwolf and pangolin.

Other properties along the route include the 32,000 hectare Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve that borders the World Heritage Site of Mapungubwe; the Ezemvelo Nature Reserve about two hours’ drive north-east of Johannesburg which offers hiking trails, bird watching, horse riding, game drives and guided walks; the Dronfield Nature Reserve 10km outside Kimberley with chalets for accommodation; Benfontein, 10km south of Kimberley with rustic camping facilities; and Rooipoort, a former hunting farm on the Vaal River about 60km to the west of Kimberley, with its 4,600 petroglyphs (rock art engravings).

Apart from the Diamond Route being a haven of nature conservation and wildlife, a large part of its focus is heritage preservation. Old buildings, relics of the past and museums are found all over the sites of the route, including in Kimberley and the Big Hole museum complex. On the route out of Kimberley trails sliced by stagecoach and wagon wheels are still visible, especially at Dronfield.

Venetia and the Limpopo River Valley is home to the Mapungubwe World Heritage Landscape, where the remnants remain of a mysteriously abandoned ancient kingdom that had its own gold industry. It is here were the famous Golden Rhino statuette was discovered, as well as Stone Age tools used for the mining and smelting of gold.

Contact Information

Kimberley Big Hole and Mine Museum – Tel: +27 (0)53 830 4417 or (0)53 839 4600; Email:

The Cape Town Diamond Museum – Tel: +27 (0)21 421 2488; Email:

The Diamond Route – Tel: +27 (53) 839-4455; Website:; Accommodation and Bookings Enquiries, Cindy Carls Ecology Division:
Tswalu Kalahari Reserve – Tel: +27 (0)11 274 2299; Email:

Frances Baard District Municipality (Kimberley) – Tel: +27 (0)53 838 0911.

Barkly West Tourism Office – Tel: +27 (0)53 832 2657.

Northern Cape Tourism – Tel: +27 (0)53 832 2657; Email:; Website: