Diamond Facets

By Stuart Johnston

The little town of Cullinan comes upon you unexpectedly. Especially if you arrive from the Pretoria side on the old road that takes you east on the Zambezi exit, past the Pienaar’s River and Kameeldrift areas. One minute you are driving through a cutting, then you crest a rise, and on your left in the distance is the mine headgear and one of the biggest man-made rock cavities in the country.

As we thread our way past the old station—which is now a major tourist attraction and is still in use for tourists who catch a steam train ride on Sundays from downtown Pretoria—I glance at the fuel consumption readout on the SUZUKI SX4’S trip computer, scarcely able to believe what I am seeing. The fuel consumption metre is reading 5,7 litres/100km. And this is in a 1,6-litre petrol-fuelled crossover car weighing nearly 1 800kg, with space and pace for a family of five.

Like the little village nestling in this rocky outcrop some 40km east of Pretoria, the Suzuki tends to sneak up on you, and surprise and delight you in a multi-faceted way. Similar to the way in which world-famous diamonds have been discovered in Cullinan over the past 110 years. The Suzuki is good—nay, excellent—in so many ways. In the way it is configured, in its equipment level that is pitched just right in a car priced in the entry end of the crossover segment, and in its impeccable build quality.

It’s also brand new, having been launched in its current, much larger form a couple of months ago in five models. The SX4s all use the same smaller four-cylinder engine that produces 86kW, but you can specify a base-level trim or our choice, the GLX, in two-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive, and CVT variants. Our advice: stick to the manual. It is a sweet five-speeder, perfectly geared for top-gear cruising on our roads that increasingly require sticking close to the 120km/h speed limits because of the proliferation of speed-trap revenue gatherers. And that’s what we did on our run-in from Randburg to our destination just an hour away from Gauteng’s big metropolis, and yet a place a century away in character and, indeed, in its historical significance.

The biggest diamond in the world... 

It was in 1898 that Thomas Cullinan began prospecting in the area of what soon became known as the Premier Mine, but was then owned by another famous character of the area, Willem Petrus Prinsloo. This hardy old Boer threatened to shoot a representative of Cullinan, who had already been shown some beautiful diamonds found by other prospectors in the area, and wanted to buy his farm. But Prinsloo died in 1898, then the Anglo-Boer War intervened, and after the war, Cullinan negotiated a deal with Prinsloo’s family to buy the farm for 52 000 pounds. Soon after establishing the Premier Mine, Cullinan promised his wife he would one day “bring her the biggest diamond in the world” and she apparently laughed at the notion.

But just two years later a surface manager working for Cullinan, called Fred Wells, and an unknown black mineworker saw something glittering in the sunlight on the side of the mine. Wells climbed up to dig it out with his knife and was amazed to see it was the size of a small orange. It weighed an incredible 3 024 South African carats. It was then bought by the Transvaal Government and presented to King Edward of England. The stone was subsequently cut into nine major gems and various smaller diamonds. The two largest gems were retained for the Crown Jewels.

The most famous of the diamonds cut from that massive stone is known as Cullinan 1 and is also called the Great Star of Africa, currently on display in the Tower of London. And yet many more famous and record-breaking stones would be found in this area, dating right up until this day. And according to the historians at the Cullinan Info Centre in town, it has been estimated that economically viable diamond mining is possible at the mine for the next 80-plus years.

Part of the charm of Cullinan today is down the main street of the little town, known as Oak Avenue. Dozens of charming stores selling artefacts and artworks and good food have sprung up. And yet there has been resistance to “yuppy-fying” the village to too large a degree. This is probably because the mine, now owned by the international Petra Group, is still very much a working operation. Recently the shaft was almost doubled in depth and it now descends some 1,6km into the earth.

Yet, while Cullinan is very much the hub of the greater Dinokeng area, there are many other attractions, such as the WILLEM PRINSLOO MUSEUM near the N4 highway and a plethora of game lodges. Lodges include the SOMABULA NATURE RESERVE—which offers accommodation in both chalets and ox wagons—the Windy Brow, and the Leopard Song Game Lodge. And, not least, the renowned KIEVITS KROON COUNTRY ESTATE, where we are due to overnight. This is a conference-orientated facility built in Cape Dutch style quite close to the ROODEPLAAT DAM, which also caters excellently to private guests, not least by route of its excellent kitchen, famous for its Sunday lunches throughout the greater Pretoria region. It can also lodge up to 130 guests per night.

After checking into our chalet we take advantage of the beautifully run spa facility located in its own building on the estate. The Granita restaurant, located in the reception area, serves a gourmet dinner meal, each course punctuated by a special wine to complement the food, served in delicate proportions.

Incidentally, the kievit is a feisty bird with a pigeon-sized body but much longer legs, distinguished by its black feathers, and with a white crown on the top of its head. Hence the name of the well-run establishment, which is laid out over many hectares, all covered with brilliant green lawns.

We say goodbye to the Dinokeng region after enjoying a quick soft drink at the OPPISTASIE restaurant. It’s pretty much a rough, old miner’s bar of the ultra-rustic variety with all manner of old artefacts scattered around the place. All these have been collected in the area to keep you amused as you contemplate life and the art of relaxation.

If we’d had the time we would definitely have taken one of the tours on offer of the mine region, which range from an hour and a half to five hours, the latter being a tour where you go underground to witness the diamond excavation first hand.

There is a wonderful book written on the area on sale from the info centre in town, and it certainly enriched our Cullinan-ary experience. It is largely a pictorial history of the place, gathered together and peppered with anecdotes by the author, long-time local resident, John Lincoln. It gives a history of the mine and the town from the early 1900s to as recently as 2011, also detailing the steady stream of world-renowned diamonds still being found under present ownership. Today, incidentally, the mine is called the Cullinan Diamond Mine and not the Premier Mine, as it was known under De Beers ownership for over 100 years. Petra Group recently reached reserves of diamonds at an extremely deep level, after excavating through a non-diamond-bearing band of considerable girth that was once thought to signal the end of the commercially viable operation.

There are deep reserves of ability in the Suzuki SX4 too, as is the case with virtually all the products made by this Japanese manufacturer of fine cars, motorcycles and marine engines. But what is particularly pleasing is the spec level on the GLX model, which costs just under R300 000 in manual, two-wheel-drive form and includes electronic stability control, hill park-brake control, seven airbags, and—ideal for a trip in wintertime Gauteng and surrounds where you never know what the weather holds—a luggage area of 430 litres. Our car also has very attractive alloy wheels, although we would probably have preferred a higher profile of tyre, given the ripples on some of the dirt roads in the Dinokeng  region.

That fuel consumption figure mentioned earlier may be slightly highway- biased, but we did include some urban driving in our mix before handing the car back to Suzuki. And, amazingly, when we handed the car back, the read-out stood at 5,5 litres/100km, beating even the manufacturer’s claim of 5,8 litres/100km. Now that doesn’t happen often in a motoring scribe’s life.

It also comes with a three-year/100 000km warranty and a three-year/90 000km service plan.