Barkly West boasts a number of firsts in South Africa, including the first Anglican church north on the Vaal River (1871), the first bridge built over the Vaal river, and the first alluvial diamond discovery.
The site of the first diamond diggings in Africa is now a national monument.
Barkly West stands on the Vaal River close to the fording place called Klip Drift. It is over-looked by Canteen Koppie, a hillock that has signs of occupation going back to prehistoric times. Numerous artifacts left by early inhabitants have been found here.
Many unexpected pools, breakwaters and waterfalls in the course of the river are reminders of the feverish mining activities of the last century. For 150 kilometers the Vaal gravels are rich in diamonds, gemstones and decorative pebbles. To this day diggings still attract many prospectors.
The district of Barkly West is known for its large-scale dairy farming. Various crops are grown under irrigation with water drawn from the Vaal-Harts irrigation works.
Renowned writer Sarah Gertrude Millin grew up on the diamond diggings near Barkly West. Her father opened and operated the first shop in Barkly West.