One Icy Day in the Sweltering South African Summer

In February, it will be 15 years since I picked Jenny up Jenny picked me up in a bar in downtown Peoria, Illinois. In the 10 years before we got married – or, before our semi-principled stand to be “different” as a couple and/or to advocate for gay marriage rights finally succumbed – and the nearly five years after, I’d say we could count the number of times we’ve talked about diamonds on fewer than 10 ringless fingers.

Whether it was all the media chatter about conflict diamonds, my brief study of Sierra Leone and Liberia during a graduate anthropology seminar, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rhodesian/Zimbabwean/South African accent in Blood Diamond, we just never had much interest in diamonds. Or, at least in decorating ourselves with them. Not even when we got hitched.

No judgment, by the way. Just fact.

So, it may surprise you, as it did me, that Jenny was so keen on visiting a diamond mine.

Truth is, she’s been talking about it ever since we hit South African soil. Soil that, as it happens, still covers a heckuva lot of ice. How much ice, you ask? Well, let’s just say it’s probably more than Jay-Z, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Inspector Clouseau or any of the Real Housewives could reasonably imagine.

It turns out that the nearest diamond mine is also one of the world’s most famous: the Cullinan Diamond Mine. Not only was this mine once owned by the De Beers Group (the “A Diamond is Forever” company founded by Cecil Rhodes and later acquired by the Oppenheimer Family), it has also produced some of the largest gemstones on record, including the 3,106.75 carat Cullinan Diamond, which remains the largest gem-quality diamond ever found. Two of the pieces of that diamond, Cullinan I (the Great Star of Africa, 530.4 carats) and Cullinan II (the Lesser Star of Africa, 317.4 carats), are set into the British Crown Jewels.

But, it’s not the diamonds that put a sparkle in Jenny’s eyes. No. The facets that shine brightest for her are the conditions of the mine and the lives of the miners. It’s labor-management questions. It’s union representation details. It’s industrial relations. It’s purely professorial. It’s something I’ve seen before.

When we were living in Kentucky, it was coal miners. It was Appalachia. It was Harlan County USA.

This time, though, she (and I) got to actually dress the part.

Jenny and I, ready to move our sixteen tons

Jenny signed us up for the 9:00am tour, which required arrival at the tourist center by 7:30. Why so early? Well, as you can see from the photo, we had to gear up.

In addition to the jumpsuits, socks, boots, belts, helmets and bags you see here, we also wore battery-powered lights and emergency breathing kits, both of which were looped heavily onto our belts.

The Lamp Room at Cullinan

Once our entire group – a mix of Greeks, Russians, Saudis, South Africans and we Americans – was in full attire, our trusty tour guide, Pat, a 40-year mining industry veteran, stamped out his cigarette and gave us the rundown.

Our tour guide, Pat

Diamond mining is now safe, clean and relatively high-tech, he assured us. One of the things that makes it safer than coal or gold mining, for example, is that nowadays diamond mines operate primarily on a vertical basis. In other words, instead of following a seam of gold horizontally until the mineshaft walls and roof collapse, diamond mines operate by creating vertical channels called “kimberlite pipes.” Kimberlite is diamond ore, named for the town of Kimberly, where diamonds were first discovered in South Africa. Kimberly was named by Britain’s Lord Kimberly in 1873. Lord Kimberly was, I suppose, named by his parents. And so on.

We did some directed wandering on the surface – examining the equipment on display just outside the production area, watching massive chunks of kimberlite fall from conveyor belts high above our heads – but the real show was underground.

A man on a forklift moved three empty kimberlite bins from the entrance to what looked like a garage and Pat motioned us to join him inside. But, it was not a garage. It was an elevator. An elevator that could hold more than 100 passengers. An elevator that descended nearly half a mile below the surface of the earth.

Down, down, down, down...

At Level 763, as in 763 metres underground, we stepped off of the elevator into the corridors of a working diamond mine. The first sections were quiet, only the squishing of our rubber boots through the occasional shallow mud puddle and the swishing of our jumpsuit fabric rubbing together as we walked were audible in the dimly lit tunnel. Any airflow was imperceptible.

Pat explained several safety features necessary for life in the earth, and there were reminders everywhere to be careful. My favorite signs were posted near a section of the tunnels where small locomotives dump carloads of kimberlite – several tons per car – down a shaft where it is broken into smaller pieces. The yellow sign (below) is in Afrikaans and reads, “Wait! Are you sure everyone is safe?” I just loved the illustration. The green sign is in English (and Afrikaans and Zulu), but the angle of the shot makes it…interesting.

Do they really use cats in this mine? For what? Wouldn’t they just kill the canaries?

After about 90 minutes of slogging through muddy tunnels, dodging large vehicles and inhaling diamond dust, it was nearly time to return to the surface. Before we made our way back to the giant elevator, Pat handed each of us a piece of kimberlite. He told us the mine owners would pay any individual, including workers and tourists, 10% of the market value of any diamond found. However, it was forbidden to remove any kimberlite from the mine. Naturally, we each tore into our lumps of volcanic ore, breaking up the soft, sandy kimberlite in search of anything shiny. There were a lot of false positives, and a lot of disappointed tourists.

Back up top, we each shed our heavy safety gear and trudged toward the exit, where we were met with glasses of champagne cap classique and invited to watch their resident gemologist polish and set new stones. And, perhaps, buy one. But, buying directly from the farmer doesn’t make the milk any cheaper. Jenny found one small rock with an eye-popping $60,000 price tag. At my current salary, that would be about 120,000 paychecks.

Exit through the gift shop, indeed.

So, did Jenny get what she came for, you ask? Well, while you won’t find the answer on her fingers (though she did buy a silver ring later in the day), and there was nothing of value in her piece of kimberlite, I think she’d say yes.

I’m just glad she said yes to that first date, fifteen years ago.

6 thoughts on “One Icy Day in the Sweltering South African Summer

  1. Such a cute post Ryan. It’s funny that this came up because over the holidays I found myself shopping for a diamond for the first time. I had no clue how difficult it was shopping for one and quickly got discouraged (a lot of which had to do with the price tag). It was only after 10 jewelry stores that I changed my mind on what gift I was going to get. Have to love the holidays..

  2. Great story, Ryan. I chuckled when I read about being picked up in bar as that is the way my husband and I met 47 YEARS AGO!! It wasn’t in Peoria but in Joliet. However, if we are any indication, that may be the secret to a long marriage. 🙂

    • Thanks, Johann, but I think I’ll go with my 15 years of experience with Jenny on this one. At least for now.

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