Weekend bikers seem to like Cullinan. Walk down the street on a Sunday morning and you’ll see them sipping cappuccinos at tables outside the coffee shops, their bikes gleaming in the sun.
It’s because this small town east of Pretoria is close enough to get to before breakfast, yet still has a rural feel.
Tuck into a mezze platter at As Greek As It Gets (book ahead), sip a Coke under an umbrella at Whispering Oaks Garden Café or order a slice of lemon meringue pie at The Lemon Tree. Afterwards, browse the bric-abrac shops or go see what Jan Harmsgat se Agterplaas has to offer. The quirky sculptures are reminiscent of those at the Owl House in Nieu-Bethesda.
There’s more to Cullinan, however, than the obvious pleasures of coffee and cake. Like a diamond miner will tell you, the deeper you delve the more you’ll be rewarded in this 109-year-old town.
Like most other mining towns, Cullinan is a hotchpotch of influences and cultures. The town was named after the local diamond mine’s founder, Irishman Thomas Cullinan. It was the English owners who succeeded him, however, who mostly developed the mine.
Some of the characteristic jacaranda trees were planted to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. But don’t expect cucumber sandwiches and Earl Grey – Afrikaans singers like Chris Chameleon regularly perform in town. And then there is the annual Groot Gat Festival and the Groot Gat Godin pageant for big-bottomed beauties. No under-18s – this goes for age and dress size.
On a more cultural note, the Anglican Church designed by Sir Herbert Baker is worth a look, although the Cullinan Diamond Mine is what the town is all about.
The world’s biggest diamond, aptly named the Cullinan, was discovered here in 1905. Try to picture it: 3106 carats, about the size of your fist. Nine huge diamonds and about 96 smaller ones were cut from the giant stone. Some found their way into the British royals’ crown jewels.
Another famous Cullinan diamond is the 69-carat Taylor– Burton Diamond, which Richard Burton gave to Elizabeth Taylor in 1969.
What other treasures does Cullinan have in store? We went to find out.
Cullinan Diamond Mine
Why is a Cullinan diamond so special? Because it was formed about 1300 million years ago when a subterranean volcano pushed lava up from 120km beneath the earth’s surface – a rare occurrence indeed.
Ronnie du Plessis, tour guide and a retired diamond courier, has many of these facts up his sleeve: The Cullinan Diamond Mine, previously known as the Premier Mine, has been in business since 1902. Did you know that the famous Cullinan Diamond was found just 9m below the surface?
I crane my neck to take in the 60m-high mine headgear, which was built in 1945. We’re standing above 700km of tunnels, the deepest of which is 763m below ground.
Ronnie tells me that the mine has an excellent safety record, largely because kimberlite – volcanic rock that sometimes contains diamonds – is very stable. A diamond pipe has a straight-down, carrot-like shape, so there’s no need for miners to crawl down narrow tunnels.
“We can walk comfortably and even drive around in 4x4s,” Ronnie says.
Later, from a safe distance, we take a look at the gigantic openpit mine. It’s 1km in diameter and 450m deep. In surface area it’s apparently bigger than the Big Hole in Kimberley. (The Big Hole was dug by hand, though.)
In the mine museum, where you can see two Pierneef paintings of the open-pit mine, we learn that the Cullinan Diamond Mine is the world’s only significant source of blue diamonds, which are very rare and valuable.
Cost: R80 per person for a twohour surface tour and R490 per person for the four- to five-hour underground tour.
Contact: Premier Diamond Tours 012 734 0081
go! says: Do the underground tour if you have time. You’ll be lowered into the belly of the earth to a depth of 500m.Close
Buy a diamond
I used to associate these shiny stones with foul-mouthed rappers and blood diamonds from Sierra Leone, but in Cullinan I learnt to appreciate nature’s volcanic temper and man’s struggles to wrest the gems from rock.
If you’re in the market for an engagement ring, you can buy a diamond at Cullinan Diamonds (on the mine premises; visit after your mine tour) under the gaze of the late Elizabeth Taylor.
Or browse diamond trader Dawn Morrison’s Prima Lux store above the Wimpy on the main road. Dawn says most of her clients are foreigners. “Unlike their Europeans and American counterparts, South African men tend to think diamonds are too expensive. For a special occasion they would rather buy a fridge,” she says wryly.
Contact: 012 734 2930; www.primalux.co.za
go! says The smallest diamond you can buy from Dawn is about the size of a pinhead and costs R80.Close
About 40 years ago, John Lincoln left the coal mines of England and came to South Africa to work for De Beers. Eventually he was transferred to Cullinan. He’s retired now, and passionate about the town’s history. John will drive you around in his car and show you interesting places from Cullinan’s past. His tour kicks off at the “history room” in the Tourism and History Centre, which is filled with things saved from the garbage dump, in his words. My favourite is an old mirror from a hotel bathroom on which an Australian scratched out the word “digger” when he found an alluvial diamond.
Next we visit McHardy House. In 1903, the first manager of the mine moved into this house with his wife and their seven children. Two of the manager’s daughters lived here until 1984, when they passed away in their nineties. The house has been almost perfectly preserved. After that, John shows us Cullinan’s 20 Edwardian corrugated iron houses where mine workers once lived.
Adjacent to the Miners Pub & Grub bar in the main road you’ll find the magnificent Recreation Hall that was built by the mine in 1912. Paintings made by Italian prisoners of war hang high on the walls. You can only imagine the grand events that played out on the polished wooden floors and up on the stage. John also takes us to the compounds where black mine workers once lived. The stories of their ordeal at the hands of mine management are awful. The compounds are closed to the public, so we look at the old brick buildings and long grass through the gate – it looks like a good place to shoot a grisly vampire movie.
Cost: R75 per person.
Contact: John Lincoln on 082 551 6089
go! says: On Tuesday mornings, Emilio Coccia ( 012 667 3279) does a tour focused on the legacy of Italian prisoners of war who were housed at Zonderwater (now a prison) during World War II.Close
A round of golf at Cullinan’s nine-hole course is a good way to walk off that slice of lemon meringue pie and take in the beautiful setting. This 106-yearold club was previously called the Premier Mine Golf Club.
There are massive eucalyptus, mulberry and jacaranda trees, some as old as the golf course itself. Numerous birds nest in the trees; see if you can spot a cardinal woodpecker or an olive thrush.
To get to the fourth tee, it’s a stiff climb up a series of terraces. You’re rewarded by a sweeping view of the golf course and the town, with the mine headgear in the distance. It’s especially striking in October and November, when the jacarandas are blooming.
Hours: 6 am to 6pm.
Green fee: Non-members pay anything from R60 to R250 for 18 holes, depending on the day of the week.
Contact: 012 734 1078; www.cullinangolfclub.co.za
go! says: Plans are in the pipeline to build a sectional title complex on the golf course.Close
If you want to see where 90% of the mine’s work force lives, go on a tour to Refilwe, a township with roughly 40000 residents about 4km outside Cullinan.
“Refilwe” is Northern Sotho for “we have been given”. The township was established in 1975. “It’s one of the best and safest townships to live in,” guide Peterson Mahlangu says.
He takes us to a few spaza shops – one is called Walala Wasala, Zulu for “you snooze you lose”.
We also visit a sangoma in a thatched rondavel, where goats browse in the front yard. She empties her bag of bones, old coins, shells and seeds on the floor and foretells that a male family member will soon try to thwart me. I’d better watch out.
Cost: R250 per person.
Contact: Peterson Mahlangu 082 265 6231; firstname.lastname@example.org
go! says: Peterson usually takes his clients to Fani Face Restaurant or Big Mama’s Tavern for a traditional meal of pap and vleis. Go hungry!Close
Know before you go
How to get there: Cullinan is about 40km east of Pretoria. Take the Zambezi exit on the N1 north (toll fee R10) and turn right onto the R513.
Where we stayed
The Zinc House. We were impressed by the stylish decor in this fully equipped two-bedroomed house, built in 1921. It sleeps four, and the rate is R400 per person per night or R1000 per night for the house.
Contact: 079 490 2999 (Helena Pieterse); email@example.com
A good place to eat
At the restaurant As Greek As It Gets we hadamezze platter for two with a glass of wine, two beers and two coffees – the bill came to R336. The hours are irregular, so phone ahead.
Contact: 012 734 0707 or 083 632 5364
Money (sort of) well spent
R200: Have a head, neck and shoulder massage at The Zinc House.
R850000: Howdoes an original sandstone and corrugated iron house sound asaweekend getaway?
R1880000: If your name is King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud, you might be interested in the most expensive diamond at Cullinan Diamonds.