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MMore than a century ago, the Kimberley Club was the social diamond of the dusty, chaotic mining town of Kimberley in South Africa’s Northern Cape province. The club still welcomes visitors with the atmosphere of the frontier days in the Diamond City, when ruthless fortune-hunters like Cecil John Rhodes ruled the roost.
Back in the 1870s, the town of Kimberley was, literally, a very large diamond in the rough. Higgledy-piggledy streets, drunken leaning shacks, ramshackle watering holes and the occasional dust storm that turned everything and everybody instantly khaki – that was early Kimberley.
But apart from penniless ‘kopje wallopers’ (diggers) and the accompanying phalanx of chancers, dancers and card sharks, there was also an elite layer of ambitious rich men.
Led informally by mogul Cecil John Rhodes, they were the deal makers and empire builders of their time. And when the Kimberley Club was founded in August 1881, they flocked to become members – a quest made all the more socially desperate by its exclusivity.
Modelled on the gentlemen’s clubs of London, the Kimberley Club could be similarly hard to get into, for anyone judged not ‘of the right class’. Loyalty was intense – members were later described as men who would ‘rather live on bread and butter than drop out of that great institution’.
Rhodes’ good friend Neville Pickering was particularly pleased with the Kimberley Club: ‘We have our dinners and dances – one finds oneself in evening dress every night. It’s ruination to health and pocket. And then our club is such perfection. Electric bells wherever you like to touch. Velvet pile and Turkey carpets to walk upon and then one loses oneself in a luxurious lounge.’
The diamond finds in the Kimberley area and the international business taking place right here on the dusty veld made ‘the club’ very exclusive. A certain Archibald Colquhoun was impressed: ‘The place was stuffed with money – more millionaires to the square foot than any other place in the world.’
The Kimberley Club burnt down twice, was rebuilt both times and when the South African War (formerly called the Second Anglo-Boer War) broke out in October 1899, it became the focal point for town relief when Kimberley was besieged by Boer forces shortly thereafter.
The Kimberley Club Christmas menu for 1899 included turtle soup, mutton cutlets, aspic of foie gras, plum pudding and Stilton cheese. That was the last time anyone in Kimberley ate so well. As the siege continued and rations dried up, luminaries like Rhodes were served horseflesh disguised as ‘grilled prime veal fillet garni a la siege’.
Two royal visits to the Kimberley Club yielded two potentially embarrassing incidents. In 1933, Prince George (son of King George V) choked on a fishbone during a gala dinner at the club. A local dentist (and club member) carefully removed the bone and there were no hard feelings.
When Queen Elizabeth visited in 1947, she left a diamond ring next to the wash stand in the cloak room. The bedroom steward found the ring, returned it and was rewarded.
These days, the Kimberley Club also operates as a four-star boutique hotel, offering 21 rooms decorated with original club furniture and added period pieces. There are three dining areas and a ‘ladies’ lounge’ available to guests.
And if you are lucky (or unlucky), you may see the ghost of Joe van Praagh that is reputed to haunt the club. Van Praagh was a wealthy bachelor-philanthropist who lived at the club until his death in 1948.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Tel: +27 (0)53 832 4224
The Big Hole
Tel: +27 (0)53 839 4600
How to get here
Kimberley lies about 500 km west of Johannesburg on the N12 – budget five hours’ driving time. The Kimberley Club is at No. 72, Dutoitspan Road.
Best time to visit
High summer (November – March) or mid-winter in Kimberley (June – August) can be brutal (very hot in summer, very cold in winter). Best visiting times are the shoulder seasons of autumn (April – May) or spring (September – October).
You can explore Kimberley by driving around it yourself – just get a printed guide of the attractions available and follow directions. Kimberley is not an overcrowded city, and the traffic flow is comparatively gentle.
You could also opt for a guided tour of a day or half a day. This is perhaps better if your time in Kimberley is limited.
Around the area
A trip to the Magersfontein battle site south of the city is a definite highlight for those interested in the South African War. Check the listed websites for directions and more details.
Tours to do
Tours of the city, the Big Hole and outlying areas are available through the listed Kimberley website and the Big Hole website. The nocturnal Ghost Tour is one of the most popular outings. A visit to the McGregor Museum, where Cecil John Rhodes stayed during the Siege of Kimberley, is also a must.
Length of stay
It’s worthwhile staying over at the Kimberley Club for 1 or 2 nights of Victorian nostalgia.
What to pack
Pack something fairly formal for dinners at the club. Otherwise, pack seasonally and informally.
What to eat
The Kimberley Club offers fine dining morning, noon and night. From pork belly roast, Thai chicken and prawn curries and Karoo lamb chops, to Springbok leg steaks or poached mussels, the fare is wide-ranging and of a high standard.
One of the highlights of a Kimberley year is the Northern Cape Writers’ Festival held in early March.
If you want to know more about Kimberley and the club, buy a copy of Kimberley: Turbulent City by Brian Roberts.