Kimberley, Oh Kimberley!
Kimberley, mid-Summer. Opprobrious heat. I walk languidly along the sun-beaten streets. This is the city that diamonds built, a city that had wealth, a city that had electric street lights before London had, a city which provided the founding capital for Bentley cars, a city that had seen serious combat in the Anglo-Boer war. But those days are so in the past. The heat is overbearing, as are the pot holes in the streets and the litter on the lawns of the central gardens. Small town decrepitude is creeping in here, too. Luckily it still boasts the only drive-in pub in the world so one can alter perception on the go. I’ve forgotten to pack my sunglasses so screw up my eyes against the bright light. I pass by empty shops manned by recent Asian immigrants who sell you cold drinks with bored shuffles, breathing shallowly as they do so. Street vendors sell mangoes and peaches on the sidewalks. In search for the odd niche of history that might brighten my stay, I pass two funeral parlours and shops selling tombstones, as well as furniture shops, rows of furniture shops.
Queen Victoria’s statue in town tells you that this land was once an outpost of the British Empire. Cecil John Rhodes bestrides the town like a colossus, still. There are innumerable paintings and statues of him in the Kimberley Club, the oasis where I’m staying. It is a remnant from bygones times, a gentleman’s club from the British colony. Sepia coloured photographs from the town’s heyday hang above the wood paneling on the walls. The musty smell of old carpets on wooden floors assails your senses. An out-of-tune Steinway grand piano props up a lonely corner in one of the eating halls. The waiters uphold an old world service here, as things used to be. As you sit to your meal, you half expect a team of whiskered, formally clad gentleman in top hats and coats to make their entrance with exculpatory bows before settling down to discuss mining insurance and cricket over cigars in a collegiate air. Instead, a short-sleeved someone sidles in to slouch artlessly at the adjoining table, where he wheezes and wilts.
I visit museums. The mine museum is where the past is preserved, next to the Big Hole. There you can see how it was in the mining rush, you can walk into the shops as they were and the houses and pubs and the banks of old Kimberley. In what used to be the bank you can see mannequins as clerks in their traditional garb, and original documents in neat handwriting justifying the extension of a loan to some miner who had fallen on hard times. Everything in those days seems three-quarters the size of what things are today, the houses, the buildings, the mannequins, as if shrunk through a history lens or the weight of time.
Excepting for the Big Hole itself, from which 14.5 million carats of diamonds were extracted between 1871 and 1914. In 1872 there were 50000 diggers in Kimberley, a few digging their way to fortune, the majority digging their way through 22 million tons of earth to ruin. Today the diamonds have long since depleted; all that’s left is a museum and two diamond parlours.
I take in another museum, the McGregor Museum, where Rhodes stayed during the siege of Kimberley during the second Boer War. I read about the four-month siege of Kimberley and how the diamond mine’s water became infinitely more valuable than its diamonds, just to shake myself up as to what’s really important in life. I read about the rinderpest and how it spread twenty miles a day through the arid vastness of the Northern Cape Colony, decimating entire cattle herds in its wake. Harsh land, this.
The taxi driver takes me to the Virgin Active gym and on the way shows me the new university they’re building, the Sol Plaatje. It’s the first university built in the country in decades, but it’s all in the wrong place, he says. It should have been built down the road as it’s going to bedevil traffic. But of course, town planners aren’t known for thinking, he says. He was born and bred in Kimberley, unlike the planners, so he should know, he says, squinting at me in the rear-view mirror. The whole bloody place is going to jam up the works, and he can tell me for nothing that they’re soon going to be driving in Kimberley like in ‘Joburg. Packed bumper to bumper. Later I take in the Humphreys gallery. This is the true diamond of Kimberley, in my judgement one of the best in South Africa and definitely worth the detour.
After my presentation that evening I’m asked where the price of oil is going and how one is to make sense of negative European interest rates, but the actual audience interest is not in that. The real interest is in the farming in the area, now bigger than mining. The area is booming with extensive irrigation schemes along the Orange River. Pecan nut plantations are raking in the cash, but I’m told that game farming is where the action is. That’s what course attendees speak about over drinks, game farming. Game farming has been yielding 30% plus a year for the past five years and they are hoping for more. Big money, this, and booming. A man boggled by the fascination of it all tells me a Spanish hunter had dropped over 200000 dollars – 200 000 dollars would I believe! – on a hunting trip the week before, and that everybody had heard about the buffalo bull that sold for forty-two million rand, of course. He pants on about bidding cartels that inflate game prices at auctions to raise the value of their herds, about the vertiginous price spiral of game, and about the smart guys preparing to slip out before the bubble bursts, which it will, of course, he assures. The smart money always gets out in time. But he himself needs five more years of rising game prices to retire comfortably, he says, giving a cough, so he remains nervously in the scheme. What did I think of it? More edgy coughing. How easy it is to jump out just before a bubble bursts? In general? I should please tell him as a long-time student of financial markets, he insists.
It’s overbearingly hot in Kimberley. I retreat to my oasis in the middle of the city, away from the heat, the sticky tar of road repairs, back to the relief of air conditioning, to aestivate on a soft mattress, to revive before the next stop of my tour, and to take a break from Kimberley for some moments.