Barkly West, Northern Cape

Barkly west

The historic Barkly Bridge.

Words and Pic by Chris Marais

Barkly West, near the old diamond diggings on the Vaal River, used to be called Klipdrift – stony ford.

In the early 1870s you couldn’t move around here without hearing at least a dozen different languages spoken. Diamond boomers came from all corners of the world to work these hard diggings.

They’re still working the claims in the area, and diamond buyers still come to Barkly West to inspect the weekly finds.

Near the centre of town, you’ll came across the diamond buyers’ offices, a row of plain, tiny cubicles with glass window fronts.

On any Saturday, the buyers will sit and wait in these cubicles, their electronic scales, eyepieces and calculators at the ready. And then the diggers arrive with their stashes of sparklers and, as the legend goes, “intense negotiations will take place

“The only thing that stops a digger from working the gravel is a thunderstorm,” says local guide Dirk Potgieter. In rain, you’ll find scores of moist diggers waiting out the storm in local bars, telling each other unbelievable stories of success and disaster.

“Up to 20 000 diggers worked in the district. Both side of the river were covered by canvas, tents, houses, carts and wagons. During the daytime, carts and barrows were constantly on the move and during the night the canvas towns were lit up. Music of all kinds was heard from the banks and from the small boats of the Vaal, giving the night an almost magical atmosphere.” – a tourism guide to the Barkly West area of the Frances Baard Municipality.

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