The first thing that comes to my mind, when I hear the name of the South African city of Pretoria, is the blaze of purple that radiates from the magnificent jacaranda trees lining its wide avenues. And, on a windy day, as the petals fall, the term ‘purple rain’ takes on a whole new meaning.
Pretoria is named after the Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius, has a long and fascinating history and, being South Africa’s administrative capital, is one of the country’s three capital cities, the other two being Cape Town, the legislative capital, and Bloemfontein, carrying out the country’s judicial functions.
Actually, Pretoria is sometimes referred to as “Tshwane”, reflecting a controversial and long running proposal for changing its name, the outcome of which is still to be decided (as of 2014).
Pretoria was also once served as the lynchpin of the thankfully now defunct apartheid regime; there are many buildings, statues and museums still remaining that somewhat serve as reminders of that sorry tale, including the iconic, vast Voortrekker Monument, Cultural History Museum and the Smuts Museum. There is also the Transvaal Museum, which has on show some truly amazing natural history displays and is also the home of the australopithecine fossil, popularly known as Mrs Ples, that had been found at Sterkfontein, the so-called Cradle of Humankind.
Pretoria doesn’t just shine for its Plio-Pleistoncene discoveries; a 20 minutes’ drive north-east of the city will take you to the mining town of Cullinan, home of the Cullinan Diamond Mine (formerly known, until 2003, as the Premier Mine), where you will have the opportunity to see some real shiny stuff.
The Cullinan Diamond Mine is a tapering Kimberlite pipe with a surface area of 42 hectares – that’s near on 40 football pitches – and is the third richest diamond producing site in South Africa. The mine, now eponymously named after its erstwhile owner, the South African prospector Sir Thomas Cullinan, is famed for the 1905 discovery of the largest rough diamond in history, which was called (nul-points for imagination there) the Cullinan Diamond.
The famous 3106.75-carat stone was bought by the Transvaal Government and presented to Edward VII on his birthday in 1907. Rumour has it that Joseph Asscher, of the Amsterdam Asscher Brothers cutting firm, who had been responsible for cleaving and then cutting the stone, fainted with relief once the process had been successfully carried out. The main cut stone resulting from the endeavour is the Great Star of Africa, a pear-shaped diamond of 530.20 carats that is set in the sceptre of the British Crown Jewels, which is housed, together with its equally stunning brethren, in the Tower of London.
The diamond is just one of the many (for a grand total of 120-million carats) since extracted from the pipe. Including a 507-carat diamond, found in Sept 2009, which sold for $35.3 million. Ah, how the other half live.
Daily two hour surface tours are available, during which you can witness the extraction process after the crushed Kimberlite rocks have been brought to the ascent.