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Weekend: Journey to the centre of the earth; As the Cricket World Cup kicks off in South Africa tomorrow, Travel Editor Lisa Piddington visits this fascinating country and discovers a tale of two cities - from the peaceful mining area of Kimberley to the so-called 'mean streets' of Johannesburg.

Byline: Lisa Piddington

I closed my eyes, squeezed my nose tightly with my fingers and blew hard to unblock my ears. Weighed down with all the paraphernalia one expects a miner to wear - well-worn steel boots, hard hat, a light and some kind of metal box that I was assured would save my life if needs be - I was plummeting down a 1,000 metre lift-shaft to what it seemed was the centre of the earth.

In my oversized overalls I was dwarfed by the real-life miners who surrounded me in the metal cage, the guys who work full-time in the depths of the ground and who were not amused by the nervous giggling of an English tourist.

Finally, after what seemed like an age in darkness, the lift came to a halt and our guide 'Scotty' led me and my group into a cavernous but surprisingly well-lit opening for a two-hour tour of one of South Africa's leading diamond mines.

I have to admit, when I checked my itinerary earlier in the day, a tour of the De Beers' mine in the small city of Kimberley didn't grab me. (A tour of a De Beers shop, now that's a different matter).

But within minutes of signing up for my journey into the depths, I fell quickly into role (dressing up in the blue overalls helped) and in the end experienced one of the most fascinating tours any tourist could wish to take. Kimberley, the capital of the Northern Cape with a population of half a million, was also more fascinating than I had first thought.

One of the major venues of tomorrow's cricket championship, the area shot to fame in the 1860s when diamonds were first found in the walls of a farm house.

By 1873, this former tented village was home to 50,000 miners and in 1889 its most famous resident, the controversial Cecil John Rhodes, bought the De Beers Consolidated Mines from Londoner Barney Barnato for an amazing pounds 5 million. Today it is the Big Hole that brings the tourists - an unforgettable sight that you catch your first glimpse of when you come in to land at the city's small airport.

As the world's biggest hand-dug hole, the 43-acre now unused mine has yielded a total of 14.5 million carats of diamonds.

You can trace the history of a girl's best friend at a number of historic museums in the town. Well worth a visit is the Open Mine Museum, laid out on the edge of the Big Hole. Featuring original and carefully reconstructed buildings, it has preserved a great deal of the city's past and The Eureka, the first recorded diamond discovered in South Africa, is on display. You can even try your luck at sifting through diamond-bearing gravel, to see if you can uncover your very own gem.

But undoutedly, the must-see on your list has to be the visit to the underground Premier mine as you traipse through mile after mile of tunnels, with one eye on your guide and the other looking out for something sparkling in the mud underfoot.

The Northern Cape itself, lying south of the Kalahari desert, also boasts an exciting history that stretches back much further in time than the diamond rush.

The Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre, about 20 minutes' drive from Kimberley, is run by the local tribes of the !Xhun and Khwe, the original bushmen from Angola and Namibia. For less than pounds 2 entry, you can trace the evidence of early human ancestors through engravings and rock art dating back 2,000 years.

There's a video explaining how the two tribes were forced to move south during political upheavals in the 1960s and now live as refugees, along with a very informative audio tour. And the gift shop is worth the entrance fee alone - with stunning art and crafts from the local workers on sale.

Within easy reach of JohannesburgPretoria: The administrative capital of South Africa becomes a visual feast during the Jacaranda season, when the streets are lined with the most striking purple blossom. This elegant city boasts a great mix of architecture, from European Victorian to Cape Dutch, and was home to Paul Kruger, the former president of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek. His former home in Church Street has been faithfully recreated to look as it did when he lived there more than a century ago. The Voortrekker Monument Museum and Fort Schanskop is Pretoria - The administrative capital of South Africa is an elegant city with a great mix of architecture, from European Victorian to Cape Dutch housed in the Voortrekker Monument, built to commemorate the Great Trek from the Cape of Good Hope into the interior of South Africa between 1835 and 1852. The museum charts the journey through maps, artefacts and tapestries depicting stories of Voortrekker life.

Kruger Park: The size of Wales, this 220-mile long national park is the country's most popular for safari adventures, where visitors get the chance to see the Big Five. You can drive from Jo'burg, or take a short flight to the area's newly built airport that takes to into the heart of this incredible region. There are a number of options for accommodation, whether you fancy the real bush experience and camp out under thestars or soak up the luxury in one of the top-class lodges.

Sun City: The world-famous and rather OTT leisure resort is the southern hemisphere's answer to Las Vegas. Built on the former homeland of Bophuthatswana, tropical jungle now covers this one-time farmland while computerised waves wash up on to man-made beaches. It may not be to your liking, but you can't help but be impressed by the vision of those who built this glittering complex.

Entebeni Game Reserve: This malaria-freesafari park is based in the Waterburg region, about three hours drive from Johannesburg. With its stylish lodges overlooking the bush, it offers the perfect spot for a relaxing break from the city, and game drives give you the experience of being out in the wilderness. Undoubtedly, the helicopter flights - which start at less than pounds 20 per person - are the ultimate highlight. Tell your pilot you've been in a helicopter before and you will, literally, get the ride of your life.

Lesedi Cultural Village: About 45 minutesdrive from Jo'burg, Lesedi, meaning 'Place of Light', offers visitors a great way of learning about the make-up of this country through dancing and education. It is made up of five South African tribes - Zulu, Ndebele, Sotho, Pedi and Xhosa - who live full time on site. Choose between morning or late afternoon tour, both includes full Pan African buffet.


Main, Kimberley's famous Big Hole is the world's biggest hand-dug hole and has yielded a total of 14.5 million carats of diamonds; right, one of the mines you can visit and take the tour 1km below ground
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Feb 8, 2003
Previous Article:Weekend: The History of Diamonds in South Africa.
Next Article:Weekend: Beauty behind the headlines.

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