Did you know that the first authenticated diamond that triggered the 19th-century diamond rush in the Northern Cape wasn’t found in Kimberley, as popular legend has it, but in Hopetown? This and other nuggets of trivia await you along the Karoo Oasis Route, with its fascinating mix of history, culture, nature and adventure.
If you’re travelling from the Western Cape, you’ll find that this route along the N12 highway makes for a great road trip into the heart of the enigmatic Karoo. It starts in the quaint town of Victoria West and makes its way north through Britstown, Hopetown, Kimberley and Warrenton.
From there, you may be so beguiled by the province and its residents’ country-style hospitality that you’ll decide on impulse to head north-west to the dunes of the Kalahari or to the wine farms and brandy estates near Upington, before driving back to Cape Town or Johannesburg.
Here’s a taste of what to expect from the dorpies (rural towns) and other stops along the Karoo Oasis Route:
Established in 1843 and named after the United Kingdom’s Queen Victoria, Victoria West marks the beginning of what became known as the Diamond Way between Cape Town and Kimberley.
This pretty, historical town is probably best known for being the home of the Apollo Theatre, a Provincial Heritage Site that is said to include the only surviving example of a 1950s art deco-style cinema in South Africa.
For lovers of the great outdoors, the Victoria West Nature Reserve offers hiking trails and birdwatching, and is home to the endangered riverine rabbit.
You can’t leave Victoria West without first experiencing true Karoo homestyle nostalgia and taking home a vintage memento or tucking into some biltong from the Victoria Trading Post. The Mannetjies Roux Museum, which pays tribute to the iconic Springbok rugby legend who was born in Victoria West, adjoins this colourful farm stall.
This small farming town was named after Hans Brits, who accompanied British missionary and explorer David Livingstone on a quest into the Cape interior and then settled on the farm Gemsbokfontein. A town was laid out to service the burgeoning Diamond Way trade and, in 1885, a private irrigation scheme was set in motion that saw two dams being built. Crops were planted and farmers began rearing karakul sheep and Clydesdale horses.
Britstown may be small, but there’s plenty to do – not least of which is experiencing bona fide Karoo “slow food” and hospitality at the Transkaroo Country Lodge. Why not stay a night and book a stargazing experience to witness the majesty of the almost pollution-free Northern Cape skies by night?
Stop at Kambro Accommodation & Farm Stall with its scenic walks, children’s playground and swimming dam, and explore the many sites of historical interest dotted around the town. Visit private farms sporting excellent examples of Khoisan art (by appointment only), and immerse yourself in the Karoo’s history at the Indraf Kafee informal museum and the Methodist Church museum. Beautiful old buildings such as the library, old police station and magistrate’s office are also worth stopping at.
Incidentally, Britstown marks the halfway point between Cape Town (via Three Sisters) and Johannesburg (via Kimberley).
Hopetown’s history goes back to the 1850s, when an early pioneer town was laid out with a crudely built Dutch Reformed Church made out of mud and dung. But it went on to achieve global fame in the late 1860s as the site of South Africa’s first major diamond discoveries.
Thesolomon.com reports that in 1867,15-year-old Erasmus Stephanus Jacobs was playing with klippies (small stones) that he’d found a year earlier on his family’s farm, De Kalk, near Hopetown, when a neighbour, Schalk van Niekerk, noticed something unusual about one of the shinier, harder stones.
He asked Erasmus if he could borrow it and took it through a round of evaluations. Having no luck establishing its authenticity and value, he was apparently about to throw it away when officials in the colonial regime intervened and confirmed that it was, in fact, a 21.25-carat brownish-yellow diamond. It was bought for £1 500 by Cape Colony Governor Sir Philip Wodehouse, who stated: “This diamond is the rock upon which the future success of South Africa will be built.”
True to his prediction, the diamond was shown at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris and was later cut to its present 10.73-carat form, known as the Eureka Diamond. Today it is housed in Kimberley’s Mine Museum.
In 1869, sniffing potential riches, Van Niekerk traded a Griqua shepherd 500 sheep, 10 oxen and a horse – practically all of his possessions – in return for a stone. It turned out to be an 83.5-carat rough diamond, which he sold in Hopetown for £11 200. It was later fashioned into an “oval, three-sided brilliant” of 47.69-carats and sold to the Earl of Dudley for £25 000. This white diamond was named the Star of South Africa, also known as the Dudley Diamond.
These two significant finds in Hopetown led to the diamond rush in the area. Today, Hopetown is an unassuming farming town that offers outdoor experiences such as white-water rafting, game viewing, birdwatching and hiking at the Gazella Game Lodge.
You can also check out country shops, a vintage hotel, battlefield memorials and the concentration camp cemetery, as well as the “convict stone” to which suspects were secured until they could be tried back in the day, given the lack of holding cells in the town.
What more is there to say about Kimberley? The capital city of the Northern Cape continues to be one of our most popular and evergreen drawcards. It’s retained its status as the “rock star” (in more ways than one) of the province ever since diamond deposits were found in the area in 1871, triggering a mad scramble for riches that saw the tents and shacks of some 50 000 diggers crowding the emerging mining town within a year of the find.
You can read more about Kimberley and its engrossing mining and wartime history here. But while travelling to and through Kimberley, be sure to check out the Big Hole and take a tram ride around the “old town”; go on a historical walk around its beautifully preserved period buildings; test your nerves on a spooky ghost tour; visit the McGregor Museum and Sol Plaatje Museum and Library; take in the William Humphreys Art Gallery and Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre; sip craft beer at a nearby microbrewery; and experience the Dronfield Nature Reserve and Mokala National Park.
Plus, the township of Galeshewe has a rich and fascinating history in its own right – the township tours are well worth checking out!
Wrapping up this “sparkling” route is the town of Warrenton, north of Kimberley, named after British archaeologist and London police chief Sir Charles Warren.
A syndicate bought a portion of the farm Grasbult along the Vaal River in 1880, to farm vegetables to meet the food demands of the thousands who had thronged to prospect on the diamond fields. Few could have predicted that a few years later, in 1888, diamonds would also be discovered in this new agricultural settlement!
While you’re in Warrenton, visit the semi-precious stone factory and immerse yourself in nature in the beautiful Vaalharts Valley, where there are ample water sports and adventure activities to tickle your fancy.
The towns along the Karoo Oasis Route may be the perfect stopover if you’re travelling between Johannesburg and Cape Town, but consider lingering for a few more days to explore the area in more depth – pausing at some of the many farm stalls along the route selling home-made rusks, ginger beer and other local delicacies.
There are also a number of sporting, entertainment and cultural events to look forward to, so keep an eye on our events listings for up-to-date details.
For more information, call +27 (0)53 833 1434 or +27 (0)53 632 9100, or email email@example.com.