Although the 500-metre-wide Big Hole, just west of the city centre, is neither the only nor even the biggest hole in Kimberley, it remains the city’s principal attraction. In 1871, with diamonds known to be in the area (see A short history of the Diamond Fields), a group of workers known as the Red Cap Party were scratching around at the base of Colesberg koppie, a small hill on the De Beers brothers’ farm. The story goes that they sent one of their cooks to the top of the hill as a punishment for being drunk, telling him not to return until he’d found a diamond. The unnamed servant duly came back with a peace offering, and within two years there were over fifty thousand people in the area frantically turning Colesberg koppie inside out. In its heyday, tens of thousands of miners swarmed over the mine to work their ten-square-metre claim, and a network of ropes and pipes crisscrossed the surface; each day saw lives lost and fortunes either discovered or squandered. Once the mining could go no further from the surface, a shaft was dug to allow further excavations beneath it to a depth of over 800m. Incredibly, the hole was dug to a depth of 240m entirely by pick and shovel, and remains one of the largest manmade excavations in the world. By 1914, when De Beers closed the mine, some 22.6 million tonnes of earth had been removed, yielding over 13.6 million carats (2722kg) of diamonds.
The only official way to see the Big Hole is from inside the Kimberley Mine Museum, which you can reach either on foot or via a delightfully rickety, open-sided tram that runs from the City Hall. The museum gives a comprehensive insight into Kimberley’s main claim to fame. The Big Hole itself is viewed from a suspended platform, from which you can peer down into nothingness. An informative film puts it all into context, as do other displays, from a re-creation of a nineteenth-century mineshaft to a vault full of real diamonds.