Experience the Northern Cape, South Africa

Did you know that, almost 150 years ago, a tiny republic was declared in the Karoo, near Kimberley?

The Republic of Klipdrift was born when a group of diamond prospectors led by white-haired British digger Stafford Parker declared sovereignty on 30 July 1870.

Barkly West
Barkly West was one of the first South African towns to be affected by the diamond rush in the late 19th century. (Image: Northern Cape Tourism Authority)

Seven months later, in February 1871, Parker relinquished his status as president and by March that year he had moved on to better prospects at the “dry diggings” on the farm Du Toit’s Pan, one of the earliest mining camps in what quickly became Kimberley. 

Today, the town that was the republic’s capital, Klipdrift, is known as Barkly West. It lies approximately 400km from Johannesburg and 1 000km from Cape Town.

The short-lived republic was proclaimed after the South African Republic, then an internationally recognised country, asserted control over the diamond area and granted one company an exclusive 21-year authority to search for diamonds on the Vaal River’s north bank (the river is now officially known as the ǀHaiǃarib River).

For the short time the republic existed, it resounded with a clash of accents, from the voices of the local Griqua people to those of Boer, British, American, Australian and European fortune seekers. There were roughly 10 000 citizens in the republic.

Many had come because ever since the first South African diamond had been found on the banks of the Orange River (now the Gariep River) in 1867, the country had yielded more diamonds than had ever before been discovered.

Barkly West Museum Better Pic
Vintage town ... the Barkly West Museum provides visitors with information about the discovery of diamonds in South Africa. (Image: Republic of Klipdrift)

Visit Barkly West – you can apply for a Republic of Klipdrift passport that will ensure you receive “VIP treatment” when you do – and you can still see the first bridge to span the Vaal River. The cast-iron bridge started life as a way across an English river and was bought, disassembled, shipped to East London and transported by ox wagon to Barkly West. Today, the brave can ride an aerial cableway across the river with the bridge as a backdrop.

The town’s old pump house is now a riverside pub and the old toll house is the Barkly West Museum. Visit the Klipdrift Tourism Association website for things to do in this Karoo town with its fascinating history.

Parker appears to have been a colourful and controversial character who, for a time, renamed Klipdrift “Parkerton”. He was described by imperialist journalist-politician Richard “RW” Murray as a “swagger citizen”, a master storyteller and a man who settled squabbles about water rights, claim jumping and theft, and administered rough justice by having troublesome characters run out of town, pegged out in the sun or dragged across the river on a rope.