The little town of Cullinan outside Pretoria is best known for its diamonds but they’re certainly not its Crown jewels.
Words and Pictures: Sue Adams
I must admit I quite liked the idea of walking away from a visit to Cullinan’s Diamond Mine with diamonds stuck to the soles of my shoes, but there’s little chance of that. Never mind, the number of bright faces and places I was introduced to in this fascinating town more than made up for it.
Yes, diamonds of the real kind are what Cullinan is world renowned for. When Thomas Cullinan first bought land about 30km east of Pretoria and registered the Premier Diamond Mine in 1903, he promised his wife that he would give her the biggest diamond in the world.
In 1905, Fred Wells was doing his routine inspection of the mine at the end of the day and he saw something glinting in the sun. He climbed up the side of the mine and extracted a stone with his pocket knife that turned out to be the world’s largest diamond, at more than 3 000 carats. Mrs Cullinan never got to own the diamond as it was given to the King of England, but I’m sure she got a few others.
And so the little town of Cullinan was born and, to this day, the mine is still in operation. Many of the old mine houses have been preserved so it’s redolent with the history of that era.
Big diamonds are synonymous with big holes and Cullinan can boast the biggest of them all – four times the size of the Kimberley Big Hole, it is 1 000m long and 400m wide. The mine started as an open pit and only later did they start sinking shafts.
But big holes come with big problems and, in recent months, this massive open pit has had some sporadic sidewall movement and Cullinan might lose a road or two at some stage. But for now you can stand at the lookout point and try to get some perspective on this giant hole that was dug mostly by hand.
The centre of town for any visitor is Oak Avenue. Here you will find the original old miners’ houses, many of which are now shops and restaurants. We found it a good idea to base ourselves here and walk, and do what small towns are good at – kuiering. Wander, stop to chat and meet the real people who know this town.
Thomas Cullinan was a building contractor in the Transvaal, and he had heard rumours of the discovery of alluvial diamonds. He arrived in Cullinan to snoop, was shown a 3-carat blue/white diamond and was convinced there was a huge diamond pipe below the surface. Negotiating with the Boer farmers was not easy but he finally secured the land.
What’s very unusual here is you can take an underground tour of a working mine. We chose to do the surface tour that begins in The History Room, a large shed just off Oak Avenue filled with fascinating bits of history. It then moves on to the surface workings in an open vehicle. The guides are great, many of them ex-miners, who’ll teach you in no time how to tell a fake diamond from a real one (most handy, I’m sure). You’ll also learn, for instance, why the common name for a small cage or lift for miners was called Mary Ann. Because it went up and down as many times as one of the local girls back then used to lift her skirt.
The other museum worth walking through is McHardy House in Oak Avenue. McHardy was the mine manager who stayed there with his wife and seven children. When he died his family was given life usufruct of the house, with two of the daughters, May and Evalina, surviving until 94 and 98 years of age respectively. It appears they were the life and soul of Cullinan and both managed to get a hole-in-one at the local golf club, only stopping to play when they were 80 and their eyesight was failing. Today the museum is pretty much as it was when they lived there, and all the furnishings are intact.
One local Cullinan character is JanHarm Vorster who was born on a farm just outside Cullinan. After studying accounting, JanHarm returned to the town to work for his father who owned the butcher and abattoir. When they sold the business JanHarm was at a loose end. “I’ve always loved old things. Even when I was a little boy I would krap (rummage) in my family’s kitchen cupboards for unused junk,” he told us. “My brother suggested I start a shop, but the problem in a one-horse town is bringing in visitors. I’ve worked hard to create festivals like the Cullinan Kabal, which brought people to our little village.”
JanHarmsgat se Agterplaas is a function venue specialising in weddings and corporate events – possibly a little different to the parties the miners had in their houses here, but maybe not. And the Agterplaas is a must-see in Cullinan. “I decorate with junk and it gives me joy,” JanHarm said, and we could see that. Walls are embedded with his various collections – one wall is made up of pots, another of biscuit tins, another of plates.
Next door to JanHarm’s place is the shop Rust in White – a little like the old general dealer stores we used to find in South African dorps. “I’m a general dealer in beautiful stuff,” said Pieter Vosloo. And it certainly is a treasure chest for anyone who loves old enamel kitchenware (there’s also plenty of new), as well as antiques and much more. Pieter discovered that his gardener, Fanie Skhosana, had a talent for decorating, so he is in charge of the backyard filled with things that will remind you of your childhood and that you will now wish you never threw away.
And of course you can buy diamonds in the town. Gordon Webb from The Art of Silver in Oak Avenue has combined his love of art with his skill as a jeweller to create a really interesting shop. He has a great knowledge of diamonds, holds monthly art exhibits and has a secret passion for the art of Walter Battiss.
If Gordon does not show you, ask to see his Battiss collection at the back of his shop. Stavros Vladislavic of the restaurant As Greek As It Gets is another special character. He was adopted by a Yugoslav but his food is authentic Greek and mouth-watering. The small inside area of his eatery has a pencil sketch of Stavros’ grandfather done by an Italian prisoner of war who was interned at nearby Zonderwater concentration camp during World War II. The story is convoluted but suffice to say the sketch travelled all the way to Greece in the 1950s and eventually back to Cullinan in 2006. It’s a great story and well worth hearing from Stavros while you eat excellent food.
Craft-beer fanatic André de Beer runs The Cockpit Brewhouse in an old Oak Avenue house. “I brew beer in a town that was owned by De Beers and my name is De Beer,” he told us, holding up some of his beers with labels that feature World War II aeroplanes that have names like Mustang American Pale Ale, Fokker Weiss and Black Widow Stout.
But there is more to Cullinan than the mine and Oak Avenue. We explored further and our first stop was the railway station, where Friends of the Rail still run a steam train from Pretoria to Cullinan on weekends (if some of the tracks haven’t been stolen). The station building is now a restaurant but not much else has changed and the old buildings still stand guard on either side of the line.
The Cullinan Heritage Society has produced a souvenir brochure with a great walking map of the town that tells you exactly what to see. My highlight was the Recreation Club, not so much for the building but for the extraordinary paintings by Italian prisoners of war.
The mine was closed in 1932 and the South African army used the village as a base during World War II. Italian POWs were brought in from nearby Zonderwater and painted beautifully ornate murals on the walls of the club hall.
In 1947 they were boarded over to achieve better acoustics in the hall. Time passed and they were forgotten until 1993, when John Lincoln, a passionate historian of all things Cullinan, motivated for them to be revealed. Some had been damaged but they were restored and are an amazing tribute to these hardy Italians who managed to create beauty wherever they went.
I love old stone buildings and was a sucker for the Nedbank building, which has been a bank since 1906 and has been described as the cutest bank in South Africa. Two other lovely small buildings are St George’s Church (1908) designed by Sir Herbert Baker (he certainly got around) and the Masonic Lodge (1909) across the road. Real gems these, but perhaps the best was still to come.
This is Highveld countryside here, which most people know makes for spectacular red sunsets, especially where there’s dust. We were certainly treated to a cracker and, as we left Cullinan glinting in the last rays, I had to take a peek in the hope of finding just one stray diamond stuck to the sole of my shoe.
I’ll keep what I found to myself.
Did You Know?
- The two largest cut stones from the Cullinan Diamond are among the Crown jewels – in the Imperial Sceptre and the Imperial State Crown which can be seen in the Tower of London.
- The Cullinan Diamond had one very large flat surface as if it was originally part of another stone. If it was, then where is the other half?
- The Premier Diamond Mine was renamed the Cullinan Diamond Mine in 2003 to commemorate its 100-year anniversary. It is owned by Petra Diamonds.
- The Cullinan Diamond Mine is the world’s main source of rare blue diamonds.
- The mine is expected to produce one million carats over the next 20 to 40 years.
- JanHarmsgat se Agterplaas – make sure you walk to the back of Gastehys JanHarmsgat and have a good look at this function venue. It truly is a work of art.
- The Art of Silver – shop owner Gordon Webb has a secret Walter Battiss collection so ask to see it.
- The Open Air Machinery Museum – this is in Oak Avenue and easy to miss as it’s behind the playground. Some of the old mine machinery is displayed there.
- The Recreation Hall – look at the murals painted by Italian prisoners of war from Zonderwater concentration camp.
- Near the old dairy in Oak Ave is the Once Upon a Time bookshop with an stunning collection of books for such a small town.
- Drive past the old hospital and you’ll reach a dead end where you’ll find the tranquil Zau Spa with an lovely view over a dam. 012 734 1119, www.zauspa.co.za
- Cullinan Tourism: 082 551 6089 / 082 551 6089, www.cullinan.za.net
- Buy the Cullinan Heritage Society brochure.
- John Lincoln was an engineer on the mine but tends to describe himself as a collector of historical facts. He has written an excellent book, Stories from a Diamond Mine. Both of the above can be bought at
the offices of Cullinan Tourism and History. 012 734 2170
Where to Eat
- As Greek As it Gets has fabulous Greek food and Stavros is a great host. 012 734 0707
- The Cockpit Brewhouse has award-winning craft beer, live music on weekends and good solid pub food.
012 734 0656
- Wander Oak Avenue – there are lots of places to get lunch or a snack but if you want somewhere specific it’s essential to book on weekends.
- Gastehys JanHarmsgat is a quirky, fabulous place to stay. Each room is unique and has its own little stoep.
074 322 5225, www.janharmsgat.co.za
- Oak House guest house is in one of the old mining houses in the heart of Cullinan. 012 734 1857
- Wells Guest House is a lovely self-catering spot near the railway station, originally built for the station master. 083 581 2196, www.cullianan.za.net
Where to Play
Note: many places are closed on Tuesdays
- Cullinan Tourism and History offers underground and surface tours of the mine and is developing a village tour. 012 734 2170, [email protected]
- McHardy House Museum is open every day except Tuesdays from 10h00-15h00. 082 551 6089
- Friends of the Rail runs steam train tours to Cullinan from Pretoria. 012 767 7913