Kimberley’s colourful past: The Big Hole

What’s so interesting about a big hole in the ground?

It doesn’t matter that the Big Hole in Kimberley in the Northern Cape Province is filled with nothing but history and some cobalt-coloured water – it’s the stuff that came out of that hole that made it so famous. Kimberley’s original diamond mine was dug by 50 000 miners with nothing but pick-axes and shovels. They continued digging in intense heat, getting the hole to a size of 215 metres deep, 17 hectares across, 1.6 km around the circumference – and after almost 45 years of diamond mining by hand, yielded an incredible 2,722 kilograms of diamonds. That’s more than 14,5 million carats of diamonds. When these above-ground mining operations became far too dangerous for the people undertaking them, an underground pipe was also mined to a depth of over a kilometre, but all activity was subsequently halted.

The Mining Museum

Thousands of local and international tourists flock to see the world’s second largest hand-dug excavation site. They can be mistaken for thinking it’s the largest hand-dug excavation because of all of the PR to do with the Big Hole tourist attraction, but that coveted title belongs to a similar mine in Jagersfontein in the Free State – not too far from Kimberley’s Big Hole.

When operations at Kimberley’s Big Hole shut down, the diamond company, De Beers, invested in the huge hole in the ground becoming a tourist attraction so that the town of Kimberley could continue to thrive from a diamond-based income. In the 1960’s, a formal collection of as many old Kimberley artefacts, relics, old buildings and random memorabilia from the height of the excavation period was carried out and by 1965, Basil Humphreys was employed as the museum curator. The collection was organised into an accurate representation of Kimberley, with mining exhibitions as well as exhibits of transport and technology, and Diamond Hall.

From then to now

Through the years, the Mining Museum has been upgraded, extended and added to, but it was in 2002 and all the way through to 2005 that De Beers poured R50 million into the development of the Big Hole as a premier tourism facility so as to extend the legacy of the people of Kimberley. Tourism income does assist the town, with Kimberley accommodation  near to the Big Hole being the most popular spots for overnight visitors.

Mining activity today

Even though the Big Hole is awaiting the verdict on its World Heritage Site status, De Beers Group is still mining the tailings dumps and recovering diamonds from there, in an operation that’s expected to go on until 2023. De Beers is also involved in job creation and poverty alleviation in the municipal area of Kimberley and Sol Plaatje, over and above what’s being done for tourism.