For those who are familiar with South Africa’s apartheid and Nelson Mandela have more or less heard about Robben Island. This island is perhaps the most important place you can visit, which bears evidence of apartheid. On 13th August 2016, I took a trip to the island and it was quite a fascinating experience. Perhaps a bit emotional too. Hence I decided to share my trip here with everyone.
Robben Island is located 12 km from V&A Waterfront and about 7 km from the nearest coast of Cape Town. The island has been used as a prison since Dutch colonial times around 17th century. During apartheid, Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years – of which 18 years were right on this island!
I booked the tour online via their website. I’d recommend to book as early as possible because most of the time due to high demand, you can’t get a last-minute tour booking. Plus the island is restricted to ~1,800 visitors each day due to conservation. The tour costs R 320 (€ 20) and is done three times everyday. You can choose between 9:00 AM, 11:00 AM, and 13:00 (PM) and the whole trip from departure to return takes between 3-4 hours.
The boat/ferry (however you wanna call it) departs from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at V&A Waterfront. Btw make sure to arrive no later than 15 mins before departure! I chose the tour at 11:00 AM so I arrived at the ferry terminal by 10:35 AM.
Inside the terminal, you will find a lot of information on apartheid and on those who fought against it. Soon we started to board the ferry, during which you have to pass through security screening like in airports. There were over a hundred other visitors but the ferry wasn’t full.
Before I forget, I should note that during bad weather or rough sea, the tours can be cancelled. But not to worry, the validity of your ticket allows you to take the tour another day!
I went to sit on the top floor and around 10:50 AM, we started our journey towards Robben Island. They announced it would take around 40 minutes. The tour is worth taking even for the ‘oceanic’ trip itself – there are many breathtaking scenes of the ocean, sky, mountains, and the city of Cape Town!
I gotta admit at this point – I did not enjoy this ride! The ocean (or weather) seemed kinda rough so the ferry ride was quite bumpy and turbulent. It kept cruising up and down, left or right in a very rough way! I wasn’t scared but it was really uncomfortable – my stomach especially wasn’t thankful for it. I guess that’s how seasickness feels like?
I was really glad when we finally approached Robben Island and started to slow down. By the time we docked on the east coast of the island, it was 11:40 am – so it took about 50 mins! After our arrival at the island, we took a short walk to the buses. These buses have a guide on board and they will take us around the island, passing by its historical sites.
Our guide was a friendly and funny guy who explained all the historical details as the bus drove past several historical sights and buildings. Somewhere in the middle of the island or mid-point of the bus tour, we stopped for drinks and toilet break. This is where you get to have beautiful, fascinating views of the island’s nature as well as the Table Mountain far across the ocean on the other side!
The break lasted for around 15 mins. Then we headed back to our buses to continue the bus tour. We passed by some Naval guns installed during World War 2 to protect Cape Town as well as the Lime Quarry, where Nelson Mandela and other prisoners were forced to labor. At the entrance there is a pile of rocks, where Nelson Mandela and other ex-prisoners added one rock each at their prisoner reunion.
The bus tour ended right in front of the gate of the actual prison, where we had our part II of the tour. Near the prison entrance is the tomb of a Muslim man named Sheikh Sayed Abdurahman – who was apparently the first Imam of South Africa and Cape Town. Our prison tour guide was a former prisoner who started taking us inside the maximum security prison.
Our guide took us to one of the large prison cells where we all sat down in benches as he started to tell us his story as well as the hard life in prison. He told us about how the prisoners were ‘classified’ into groups, what meals they provided, what their daily life looked like, how they used to sleep, and what ‘facilities’ they were given etc. It was kind of emotional to hear some parts of his story.
After that, we were taken to other prison buildings, where there were single cell prisons.
The main attraction of Robben Island prison is the prison cell, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years behind bars. Most people who come to visit the island look forward to this more than anything else. And this is also how our tour ended – with a visit to Nelson Mandela’s cell. And the best thing is, his cell is just as ordinary as other prisoners’ cells. There is no signage even outside his cell bearing his name or some information.
By 14:10, our tour was over. Then we had to take a 250-meter ‘short walk to freedom’ towards the Robben Island entrance and out to the ferries waiting for us to take back to the city.
For me personally, I found the tour quite interesting. I definitely learned a few new interesting things and facts and I loved the view towards Cape Town/Table Mountain from the island. I found it great that I had an ex-prisoner as our guide. Though for him it was hard to manage our large group because many of us were going around here and there, and that took some more time than it should’ve.
It was definitely one of my highlights during my visit in Cape Town. If I’m visiting Cape Town next time with family or friend(s), I will definitely do this tour again with them! Oh btw, the island is inhabited by around 200 people!
For our return journey to the mainland, we had a faster, better ferry (a catamaran). The ride was also smoother and I didn’t have any issues. We started our journey around 14:30 and just half an hour later, we arrived at the V&A Waterfront harbour. To finish off, here are some of the pictures from the return journey.