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

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 - WILMA DE BRUIN

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.

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