Kimberley Things to Do

  • Sol Plaatje Museum
    Sol Plaatje Museum
    by CatherineReichardt
  • Kimberley House
    Kimberley House
    by CatherineReichardt
  • Queen Victoria studiously ignores the graffiti art
    Queen Victoria studiously ignores the...
    by CatherineReichardt

Most Recent Things to Do in Kimberley

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    A monument to big strong (Aryan) miners!

    by CatherineReichardt Updated May 6, 2012

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    Oppenheimer memorial fountain

    The Diamond Diggers Memorial fountain in the Ernest Oppenheimer Gardens is a ravishingly gorgeous piece of sculpture in the centre of Kimberley, which celebrates the physical strength of the men on which the wealth of the city was built.

    Well ... at least some of them ...

    If you thought that Soviet realist art was confined to the former Eastern Bloc of Europe, then think again - this monument would look equally at home in Budapest, Moscow and Riga! This monument to Aryan manhood provides a very skewed reflection on the people who sweat and exertions realised the economic potential of the mineral resource, and much though I despise political correctness, this is one instance in which I think a smidgeon might have been judiciously applied.

    If however, we're throwing the historical significance out the window and dealing with this on a purely aesthetic level, then all that honed, rippling muscle is admittedly very appealing in a Chippendale sort of way ...

    This statue was one of two commissions awarded by the much-loved mining magnate Sir Harry Oppenheimer to commemorate his equally titanic father, Sir Ernest and was sculpted by the Hungarian emigre, Herman Wald. Its 'sister' sculpture is the glorious 'Stampede' sculpture of leaping impala that was donated by Sir Harry to the City of Johannesburg.

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    An appropriate entrance to the town

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Feb 6, 2012

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    Kimberley

    It's only a small thing, but I really like it when the entrance to a town shows that a bit of thought and effort has gone into representing the character of the place. It sets the tone for your visit and gives you a taste of what's ahead: in other words, a lot of touristic goodwill is generated for often only minor outlay.

    I can't say that I am wild about the design of these gateways on the major arterial routes into Kimberley (although, by way of mitigation, I must say that this one was located right next to the monstrous telecoms tower - see my previous travel tip - and thus automatically streets ahead in terms of aesthetic appeal). However, I do like the fact that they have employed the images of sheaf wheels from the headframes of mine shafts as a nod to Kimberley's mining heritage, which have been combined with flamingoes. The bird imagery may initially be a little puzzling until you find out that Kamfers Dam (just outside town on the N12 Johannesburg road) is one of only four breeding sites for the lesser flamingo in the whole of sub Saharan Africa, and the only one in South Africa itself (see my travel tip for more detail).

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    The enchanting William Humphreys Art Gallery

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Dec 6, 2011

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    Fantastic graffiti art of a solvent sniffer
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    You virtually never stumble across public art galleries outside the major cities in South Africa, but of course, in this, as in so many other aspects, Kimberley is anything but your average South African town, and neither is the William Humphreys Art Gallery (known affectionately as the WHAG) your average art museum. Mind you, I suppose that if you have been fortunate enough to have been fabulously endowed with mineral wealth which has supported over a century of diamond mining, the chances are that this has generated one of two well heeled individuals with a desire to make their philanthropic mark!

    So, who was William Humphreys? Unusually in a city that attracted so many immigrants, he was a native South African, whose parents moved from Oudtshoorn in the Cape to Kimberley when he was still a baby. He was best known as a businessman, farmer and politician who most notably was instrumental in the establishment of the Vaal Harts irrigation scheme, which was a 'make work' programme during the Depression of the 1930s which enabled a large tract of previously marginal land to be brought into economic agricultural production. He was granted the freedom of Kimberley in recognition of his services - only the second man to receive this honour (As an aside, don't you hate it when you follow up on an obvious question such as "So who was the first then?" and draw a blank. My guess would be either Cecil John Rhodes or Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, but if you find out, then please let me know!)

    Humphreys was an avid art collector, and donated a sizeable number of 16th and 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, British and French paintings, antique furniture and other objects d'art from his personal collection to the city, which forms the core of the current collection.

    The museum is enchanting, eclectic - and, what's even better, free! The collection (which has been supplemented by various bequests, donations and loans from other notables such as the Oppenheimer family and De Beers) is a charming 'grab bag' of all sorts of different periods and artistic styles which I loved. When I visited for instance, there was an exhibit of modern work that had recently been acquired from the Eastern Cape (most of which I disliked, but at least it showed that the museum's collection is dynamic). I don't usually like graffiti art, but the depiction of the solvent sniffer in the adjacent photo - displayed by the entrance to he gallery - is a fantastically powerful piece. There is a brilliant Augustus John portrait of a Japanese figure (on loan from the Oppenheimer collection) and the most realistic seascape I have ever seen ('Angry Sea' by David James). However, my personal favourite was a modern life size bronze sculpture of a baby hyaena that was so realistic and endearing that if I could have taken it home with me, I would have!

    The museum also has a very active film programme and hosts frequent cultural events. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful, and not only did the staff member I struck up a conversation with suggest some excellent things for me to do in Kimberley, but he also invited me to attend a private viewing at the gallery that evening (which I had to sadly decline, as it would have clashed with my return flight!)

    There is also a small tea rooom with a very limited menu which looks onto a pretty courtyard.

    If you only have time to do one other thing in Kimberley (other than visit the Big Hole, which I'm taking as a given), then choose this - you won't regret it!

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    The Honoured Dead Memorial

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Sep 13, 2011

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    The Honoured Dead memorial is an impressive pile of neo-classical art that is pretty well impossible to miss if you're driving into Kimberley from the airport.

    It was erected to commemorate British casualties incurred during the siege of Kimberley, when the city was encircled by Boer troops between 14th October 1899 to 15th February 1900 - that's got to be a crap way to celebrate the turn of a century!

    The gun at the base of the monument - known as 'Long Cecil' - was a home made affair cobbled together by De Beers' engineers in the mine workshops (but apparently with more enthusiasm than skill as it was sadly outgunned by the Boers' field artilliary). The gun was named after Cecil John Rhodes, who established himself in Kimberley at the beginning of the siege - presumably to keep a beady eye on his assets - but is also somewhat of a smutty joke, since large guns are often named after parts of the male anatomy. Given that Cecil John Rhodes was gay and that 'Long Cecil' was no match for the Boer field guns, you can work the rest out for yourself ...

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    Look up to Cecil John Rhodes!

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Sep 13, 2011

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    Cecil John Rhodes habitually looked down on people

    Cecil John Rhodes is one of several gigantic personalities that emerged from Kimberley's diamond rush, and a man that I am absolutely convinced that I would have loathed had we ever met, so be warned that there will be only limited objectivity in this tip!

    Rhodes is often compared to his contemporary, sometime business partner (and intense business rival), Barney Barnato. The two could not have been more different: Barnato was an outgoing and impulsive Jew from the East End of London (who mysteriously fell overboard and drowned on a voyage to London), and Rhodes, a repressed and singleminded megalomaniac from genteel lower middle class stock.

    Rhodes was an asthmatic who was despatched to South Africa for the sake of his health and initially joined his brother (who was farming cotton in Natal) before moving to Kimberley in the diamond rush. He cannily made money by not only staking his own claims, but providing services to the miners (most notably the hire of pumps to dewater the workings as they extended deeper below surface). He used the proceeds to consolidate the claims of other miners and was one of the founders of De Beers Consolidated Mines.

    Rhodes' stiff upper lipped brand of patriotism was the epitome of British Imperialism whose primary intent was to extend the boundaries of the Empire to the furthest possible extent. His personal mantra was: “The civilized Englishman has a duty to spread his influence throughout Africa, from the Cape to Cairo, for the benefit of all” - in other words, to colour the world map as pink as possible. This was however, not entirely selfless, as with this came immense opportunity for personal enrichment. As a reward, he was granted a Royal Charter for the establishment of the British South Africa Company, which allowed him to access the enormous mineral and agricultural wealth of the region. Having established Rhodesia - modestly named after himself - it promptly split in two to form Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), thus giving him the distinction of being the only man in modern history to have two countries named after him.

    Rhodes amassed enormous personal wealth (some of which still funds Rhodes scholarships at his alma mater, Oxford University, today) and in addition to his business interests, he served as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony for nearly a decade. However, I find it confusing that he never seems to have been knighted or elevated to the peerage, which seems extraordinary given his services to the crown - perhaps as a result of his failure to prevent the illadvised Jameson Raid (which was intended to annex the Transvaal from Boer control)? Even more astonishingly, he achieved all this before dying at the age of 49: he died only a few months after Queen Victoria, which seems appropriate given that he was the ultimate example of the Victorian self-made colonialist.

    The statue of Rhodes in Kimberley has an uncharacteristically benign expression for a man who was renowned for his lack of warmth. He is generally accepted to have been a latent homosexual and was certainly a noted mysogynist. When accused of being a woman hater during his time at court, he responded with an ambiguous and unconvincing denial: “How could I dislike a sex to which your Majesty belongs?”. By contrast, the fact that he is mounted on horseback and thus looks down on his fellow man is, I suspect, absolutely in character!

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    The more things change,the more they stay the same

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Aug 16, 2011

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    Diamond digger's hut, Big Hole museum, Kimberley

    If you've read this far, then by now you'll have worked out that my Day Out in Kimberley was thought provoking experience - and never more so then when I got to this exhibit in the (free) Big Hole museum.

    As I drove into town from the airport, I passed a sprawling group of tin shack informal settlements close to the railway line. I though to stop and photograph them, but there were barricades and traffic restrictions in place that prevented this, and during the day, I wondered how I might be able to photograph these to provide the basis for a travel tip.

    I was still pondering on this issue as I wandered around the free section of the Big Hole museum - and promptly stumbled across shacks almost identical to those that I had spied on my way into town. The tragic thing was that the shacks in the museum were over 60 years old: and almost indistinguishable from the structures that people are still erecting today. Have we not progressed?

    The shack in the foreground comes from the diamond diggings along the Orange River not far from Kimberley, and belonged to a digger by the splendid name of 'Khaki Engelsman' in the 1950s. His shack displays all the hallmarks of a contemporary squatter's shack, from the prefab corrugated iron structure to the cardboard inner insulation to protect against the bitter cold (which of course makes the structure very susceptible to fire damage). The big difference is that whilst Khaki would only have used his shack as a temporary place to sleep in whilst he was working on his diggings, today's shack dwellers live under these basic conditions on a full time basis.

    Can we not do better?

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    The apparently excellent McGregor Museum

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 23, 2011

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    McGregor Museum, Kimberley

    Everyone that I have spoken to tells me that the McGregor Museum is a wonderful resource, but as the staff decided to go on strike the day I visited, I can't verify this!

    I can however confirm that the museum is housed in a gorgeous Victorian building which was built by De Beers as a sanatorium (in whch Cecil Rhodes recuperated at one time), and was later pressed into service as a luxury hotel (Hotel Belgrave) and later as a convent school. The museum provides research and advice to a wide range of community projects throughout the Northern Cape.

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    Visit Sol Plaatje's house

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 23, 2011

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    Sol Plaatje Museum

    I have long been fascinated by Sol Plaatje, perhaps the most forgotten of South Africa's black leaders, and the opportunity to visit the small museum that has been established in one of his former homes was the thing that I was most looking forward to doing in Kimberley (since it had been shut the last time I visited). Plaatje was a man who exerted a profound influence on our political transition from colony to democracy - and all the exceedingly painful steps in between - but whose legacy seems to have been sadly eclipsed by the generation of iconic African National Congress (ANC) icons such as Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu who emerged in the 1960s.

    Born near Kimberley, and educated at the German mission station at Pniel, Plaatje was one of the co-founders and first General Secretary of the South African Native National Congress (which later became the ANC), and although he died relatively young, he had an astonishing varied career as a celebrated journalist, translator, author and human rights campaigner. He was present as a court translator at the siege of Mafikeng (see my Mafikeng page for more details) - a period which he documented in his diary of the siege, provocatively titled 'A Black Man's View of a White Man's War'.

    I was surprised to discover that Plaatje spent a number of years in England trying to raise awareness at the unfairness of the 1913 Native Land Act which effectively precluded Africans from owning - or even renting - land outside prescribed reserves (the precursor to the establishment of 'independent' black homelands under apartheid). Towards the end of his life, he focused on the potentially destructive influence of alcohol on society and was a particularly vigorous force in the temperence movement.

    He was a gifted linguist and wrote the first South African novel in a black language,as well as translated a number of Shakespeare plays into Tswana (his home language). He was an enthusiastic actor and also an accomplished baritone: in fact, he was the first person to record 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' - 'God Bless Africa'- which is now the South African national anthem.

    Quite simply, he was a true Renaissance Man.

    2012 will mark the centenary of the ANC, and like most liberation organisations who graduate to forming a government, the ANC is entering a tricky transitional period. Fifteen years after the ANC first took power, most of the leaders who steered the organisation through the early days of democracy are either retired or dead, and the tripartheid alliance between the ANC, the Communist Party and COSATU (the umbrella organisation for the trade unions) is beginning to show real signs of strain. It would seem a particularly pertinent time for the new generation of leaders to rediscover and reflect on Plaatje's extraordinary legacy.

    The museum is very small (only a couple of rooms, plus a reference library) and also houses the Sol Plaatje Educational Trust. In addition to information on the sieges of Mafikeng and Kimberley, the exhibit also has a couple of interesting posters on black and coloured involvement in the Boer War (particularly in the Northern Cape).

    Note that this museum is open during office hours on weekdays, but is frustratingly only accessible by appointment over weekends. At the time of writing (June 2011), there was also no website for the museum.

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    The low key loveliness of St Cyprian's cathedral

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 17, 2011

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    St Cyprian's Anglican cathedral

    The surprisingly low key Anglican cathedral in Kimberley is dedicated to St Cyprian, a 3rd century North African martyr. Not exactly the obvious choice, and why he should have been selected is not entirely clear to me. St Cyprian is best known for the quote: "He cannot have God for his father who has not the Church for his mother". And of course, the founding fathers of Kimberley would have been quite secure in their knowledge that God was indeed an Englishman!!!

    There had been an Anglican parish in Kimberley since 1871, but the foundation stone for the church was only laid in 1907. The church was subsequently elevated to cathedral status (for the Diocese of Kimberley and Kuruman) in 1911.

    Sadly, as with most South African churches, fears of theft have forced their closure outside of service times, and thus it is usually only possible for visitors to view the exterior of the cathedral.

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    Go flamingo spotting at Kamfers Dam!

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 17, 2011

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    Flock of flamingoes at Kamfers Dam, Kimberley

    I think it's fair to say that most tourists to Kimberley don't expect to have a wildlife experience, and yet the town is an absolute Mecca for 'twitchers' (that's bird watchers for the uninitiated) as the Kamfers Dam is home to one of only four breeding colonies of lesser flamingoes in Africa (the other three being Etosha in Namibia, Sua Pan in Botswana and Lake Natron in Tanzania).

    Kamfers Dam would originally have been an ephemeral pan which would have been seasonally inundated with water in the rainy season. However, water supply to the dam has been augmented by the diversion of stormwater runoff from the town, and the dam now receives a year round supply of water in the form of purified sewage effluent from the municipal water treatment works. As a result, Kamfers Dam is one of the few permanent sources of water in the Northern Cape, and attracts over 180 species of birds, of which the flamingoes are the most iconic. Up to 60,000 flamingoes congregate here, and are a photographers delight, particularly in the early morning and late afternoon, when the pink of their plumage mirrors the colour of the sky.

    In recent years, a local mining company has established an artificial island in the dam to provide a secure nesting habitat for the flamingoes (whose previous nesting sites were being threatened by domestic animals such as dogs). The other major threat to the colony is the deteriorating quality of water in the pan, as there are concerns about the effective management of the sewage treatment works and the encroachment of informal human settlement on the dam.

    Despite the tourist authorities heavily punting the flamingoes as a tourist attraction, there is frustratingly no good viewing point from which to observe the birds at present. Southern African Birding offers the following (not very encouraging) advice for eager twitchers:

    "The Dam is situated just north of Kimberley on the N12 to Johannesburg. Access is only allowed to just beyond the subway (so-called viewing point) adjacent to the Kimberley – Warrenton national road (N12). The landowner has experienced problems with stock theft and poaching and therefore does not allow access, without prior arrangement, beyond this point.

    "To gain access to the extensive reedbeds and shallow ponds on the western and south-western side of the dam, one has to travel via the Homevale Sewerage Works. The road is not marked, and directions will have to be sought from people in the surrounding suburbs. It is not recommended to visit the western part of the dam unless you are in a large group, as it is potentially a security risk area. Also it is not possible to drive all the way to the reedbeds, unless in a four-wheel-drive vehicle; and even then it is possible to get stuck in the clayey mud."

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    The Big Hole: the world's largest hand dug hole

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 17, 2011

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    Sidewall of the Big Hole

    Most tourists come to Kimberley and only see the Big Hole. This is a tremendous pity given that the town offers so many other attractions, but I am not going to dispute that if you only have time to do one thing in Kimberley, it should be this!

    Firstly, let me regress briefly to my geological roots. The Big Hole of Kimberley is the largest hand dug hole in the world, but is far from being the largest or deepest hole in the world. The circular, steepsided shape of the hole was dictated by the geometry of the orebody that was being mined - an igneous intrusion injected into the country rock from enormous depth and known as a 'kimberlite' (after the town).

    Kimberley was hugely significant from a mining point of view since it was the first time that diamond occurence could ever be linked to the source of these precious stones. Although diamonds had been mined elsewhere in the world for centuries, these were always located in gravel deposits along the present or historical courses of rivers (see my travel page on Alexander Bay), but before the find at Kimberley, nobody had identified the host rock from which these diamonds were eroded. Quite simply, it revolutionised the nature of diamond exploration and mining.

    If you look at the Big Hole, you can see a colour variation in the side walls, and will note that the angle of the hole is much gentler near surface than it is deeper down. This is because the material close to surface (which has weathered to a characteristic yellow colour, and is therefore known as 'yellow ground') is less stable, and thus cannot support a steep sidewall angle. The kimberlite becomes less and less weathered with increasing depth, and once into the bluer material beneath (unsurprisingly known as 'blue ground'), the rock is able to support a much steeper sidewall. This had huge implications for mining, as the steeper the sidewall, the less waste rock needs to be stripped to facilitate mining.

    Diamonds were first discovered at Colesburg Kopje (then a small hill) in 1871, which unleashed a frenzy of activity as prospectors rushed to stake their claims. At the height of the diamond rush there were 50,000 miners working in a confined area of just over 17 hectares (42 acres), in an 'ant heap' of frenetic activity, euphoria and tragedy. As working extended deeper and deeper below surface, it became increasingly difficult for individual miners to operate in isolation: initial mining had required little more than a pick and shovel, but with increasing depth, other infrastructure such as haulage mechanisms and pumps became necessary, which were usually too expensive for miners to fund themselves. Some more enterprising (and cash flush) individuals decided to consolidate their claims and buy out smaller operators, and De Beers Consolidated Mines was born.

    The Big Hole initially extended to a depth of 240m (although subsequent collapse has reduced its depth to 215m) and related underground workings extend to a depth of about 1,100m. Water has since accumulated in the hole (both from rainfall and groundwater ingress), which makes it particularly photogenic. Since mining started, over 2,700kg of diamonds have been recovered from the Big Hole - given that the 'average' stone in an engagement ring is less than 1 carat (0.2g), that's an awful lot of engagement rings!!!

    A viewing platform has been erected out from one side of the Hole, and is the only way that you will get a good view of the hole. Interestingly, the dimensions of the viewing platform (30 x 30 Cape feet) are the exact size of the claims that were granted to individual miners over the orebody, which allow you to imagine just how cramped conditions must have been.

    There are a couple of options for entry to the Big Hole (prices as per June 2011). R30 will allow you to view the Big Hole (note that this option was not advertised when I visited, but is perfectly possible for those in a rush). By contrast, R75 will gain you entry into an excellent World of Diamonds exhibition which relates the history of the Big Hole, as well as a guided tour of the underground operations and access to a high security vault to view a display of real diamonds. This is one of the steepest admission fees that you're likely to encounter for a tourist attraction in South Africa, but I have no doubt that it is worth it, as it is an absolutely unique experience.

    If you combine the Big Hole with the adjacent open air museum (see my other travel tip) and throw in lunch, you could easily keep yourself occupied in this area for half a day, so budget your time accordingly.

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    The gorgeous Department of Public Works building

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 17, 2011

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    Department of Public Works, Kimberley

    Yet another of Kimberley's stunning Victorian buildings, about which I can find very little! I am quite sure that this will feature on the Eldorado (CBD) walk as outlined in the excellent Kimberley Meander guide, and is just one more excuse to explore this fascinating city on foot!

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    The monument to the relocated Malay community

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 17, 2011

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    Monument to the forceably removed Malay community

    Until my recent visit to Kimberley - when I happened across this simple memorial - I had no idea that there had ever been a significant Malay presence in the city.

    The Malays - who were classified as 'coloured' in terms of apartheid - are descendents of slaves that were transported to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. They were attracted to Kimberley by the diamond rush, and many were involved in alluvial diggings along the Vaal River. By 1877, about 600 Malays had established a camp at Dutoitspan, and formed the nucleus of a suburb that endured until 1939, when the owners of the land (De Beers) donated it to the City of Kimberley for the construction of the municipality buildings. And, as so commonly happened in South Africa, the population was forceably removed - although, in this case (unlike District 6 in Cape Town and Sophiatown in Johannesburg), the relocation predated the formal apartheid system. In a half hearted attempt to justify the exercise, the authorities presented the resettlement as 'slums clearance': however, it was predictably a traumatic experience for what had become a well established and coherent social unit and resulted in the fragmentation and dislocation of the Malay community.

    The Malay Camp was a mixed suburb, which accommodated non-whites of differing races and religions. Being predominantly Muslim, it had a reputation for being a peaceful place to live, and was home to Sol Plaatjes before he relocated to the house in Star Street which is now the Sol Plaatjes museum.

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    The gorgeous proportions of Kimberley House

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 17, 2011

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    Kimberley House

    I confess that despite my best efforts, I have been able to find out nothing about Kimberley House, except that it's gorgeous!!!

    It has fantastic Regency proportions, and I assume it's got something to do with Kimberley's heydays at the end of the 19th century, but if you know more than I do, please let me know!

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    The Transnet railway museum

    by CatherineReichardt Updated Jun 17, 2011

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    Kimberley railway station

    Sadly I can't tell you what the Transnet railway museum was like, because it was closed when I got there!

    The odd opening hours - particularly the very early closing time of 15:30 - are indeed noted in the tourist literature, but I admit that I simply didn't read them correctly. It does seem strange to close so early, but having to deal with Transnet in my working life, I can't say that I'm surprised by their consumer-unfriendly approach!

    Kimberley is a hub of the South African railway network, and establishment of the railway link played a huge part in Kimberley's development in terms of facilitating the movement of people and goods that had previously only been possible by horse or ox wagon.

    Maybe next time ...

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