History lesson on the road
South Africa’s Diamond Route is a hidden gem for travellers, offering a fascinating journey of discovery of the country’s history travel2013
THE LONG grass is waving yellow in the breeze, while a lone acacia tree stands sentinel over the plains, which stretch as far as the eye can see. In the distance, darkening African clouds portend rain… or not, you can never quite tell.
In the distance, we see teeming herds of game – easier to spot in this open grassland than in South Africa’s more common bushveld: wildebeest, giraffe, zebra.
One can almost taste the forgotten Africa of Karen Blixen, feel the thunder of hooves across the Serengeti. But this hidden gem of South African beauty, our own version of the East African plains, is barely four hours from Joburg, just outside the diamond-mining town of Kimberley.
The farms Dronfield and Rooipoort, in the big space of the near-Kalahari, are part of the Diamond Route, an initiative to merge the research and ecological assets on nine conservation properties in South Africa and Orapa, Botswana, owned by Ernest Oppenheimer & Son and De Beers.
Visitors interested in our country’s history can also savour some of the rich cultural and historical heritage dating back to the era of San rock art, the Diamond Rush and the siege of Kimberley.
The Diamond Route crisscrosses the country, including the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, Ezemvelo near Bronkhorstspruit, the naturalised Brenthurst Gardens in Joburg, historical Kimberley (the Big Hole Diamond Experience, Benfontein, Rooipoort and Dronfield), the premier wildlife destination of Tswalu Kalahari, the unspoilt Namaqualand Coast of Diamonds at Kleinzee, and Orapa.
The De Beers ecology division does a sterling job managing five of the nine Diamond Route properties – Dronfield, Rooipoort, Benfontein, The Big Hole (all in the Kimberley area) and Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve.
Explains Piet Oosthuizen, head of De Beers ecology division: “For every hectare that is mined, we rehabilitate and conserve six hectares in order to ensure a balance between a healthy and sustainable ecosystem and the utilisation of natural resources.”
Having recently had the opportunity to feast my eyes and senses on a wide variety of game species at Dronfield and Rooipoort, followed by a tour of the Big Hole and other prominent historical locations in the Diamond City, I realised anew just how much South Africa has to offer in terms of top travel destinations and experiences.
Opting for some of these prime local alternatives instead of trips further afield will not only safeguard you from the negative effects of the exchange rate but will enable you to experience a unique combination of biodiversity, cultural and heritage conservation first-hand.
On our arrival in Kimberley, Oosthuizen escorted us to Dronfield, where reserve manager Charles Hall joined us on a game drive to view some high- value species, both men a valuable source of information.
Where game drives at bushveld lodges and game parks in the northern parts of the country are often hampered by the dense vegetation, this drive, despite the heat and exceptionally arid environment, was a feast for the senses, thanks to the wide open plains and dry water pans where herd upon herd of giraffe, springbok, blue wildebeest, gemsbok and red hartebeest – you name it – either roamed or feverishly darted around.
About 10km outside Kimberley on the N12, the 12 000ha Dronfield reserve has belonged to De Beers since 1888. Initially it was used for agriculture, and it was converted into a game farm in 2004.
Besides a small conference facility and swimming pool – much needed in the extremely hot and often dry summer months – the reserve has six serviced, self-catering and fully equipped, air-conditioned thatched chalets, all in mint condition. Game drives are optional. Classified as an important birding area, where about 220 species have been identified, Dronfield is home to a breeding colony of whitebacked vultures.
The sight of about 20 stately giraffe and their gradual retreat against the backdrop of the Kimberley thornveld, interspersed with the odd koppie, will be etched in my memory for years to come.
Barely a minute later, we were treated to a majestic herd of sable antelope, as usual with only one breeding bull in their midst. (The breeding camps are only open to arranged game drives and are not part of the general, self- drive tourist area.) Unlike humans, the high-value, top-gene sable, which these days can fetch up to R3.5 million for males and R2m for females, could tolerate relatively high levels of in-breeding, said Hall.
The surrounding veld, with its wide variety of trees and grasses, provides ideal grazing for the animals.
Spotting the reserve’s 10 odd buffalo bulls in a separate camp brought on another adrenalin rush. Prize bulls, judged, among other things, on the length of their horns and their bloodlines, are highly sought after, and not so long ago, a record price of R40m was paid for a bull, said Hall.
The 44 000ha Rooipoort reserve is, like Dronfield, steeped in history and home to an impressive list of antelope, zebra and giraffe.
Situated 63km west of Kimberley in the transition zone between the Karoo, the Kalahari and grassland zone, Rooipoort is one of the oldest conservation areas in southern Africa, dating back to 1893. It was declared South Africa’s fourth natural heritage site in 1985.
According to Oosthuizen, Rooipoort was at some stage the largest single private supplier of animals to reserves and game ranches in southern Africa and has played a vital role in ensuring the survival of some game species.
During our drive at the farm, we paused at Bushman’s Fountain to view some of the 4 600 bushman rock engravings, one of the richest rock art sites in southern Africa. Rooipoort’s logo incorporates an example of their art, Oosthuizen and reserve manager Dayne Knight told us.
Shortly before nightfall, we arrived at the Shooting Box, Rooipoort’s historical gem and landmark. This venue, as well as the adjacent two-bedroom cottage, can also be booked for meetings and accommodation.
Built in 1899 and used to accommodate hunters and personal friends of Cecil John Rhodes during hunting expeditions, the entire building with its six rooms, large dining room, lounge and kitchen, until recently ably serviced by a century-old boiler, was built from a kit shipped over from England and transported to the farm by ox wagon at a cost of £590, a hefty amount at the time.
Back in Kimberley, a quick tour of the historic De Beers headquarters and boardroom was followed by a most informative tour of the truly world-class Big Hole visitors’ centre.
With manager and curator Dirk Coetzee at hand to share information, the fascinating era of the 1871 Diamond Rush with its infamous characters came vividly to life.
After my taste of the Diamond Route, I know I will try its other offerings.
● www.diamondroute.com has all the details you’ll need to plan a visit.
BEAUTIES: Game, like these gemsbok, is easier to spot on the wide open grasslands of Rooipoort on the Diamond Route.
UNFORGETTABLE: Giraffe frequent the grasslands of the Diamond Route.