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Robben Island is probably one of the 'must-see' attractions in Cape Town. It is known to most people as a prison for political prisoners where Nelson Mandela was once held, but it has much more than that in its history. It is no longer a prison but is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island is 30-40 minutes by ferry from the V & A Waterfront (ask your taxi driver to drop you by the Clock Tower if you are coming that way as it is a large area). There are car parks here and sightseeing buses that stop nearby. The ferry leaves three times a day (weather permitting) at 9am, 11am and 1pm. We had booked in advance and this is highly recommended as it is a popular attraction. We failed to get on the first time we tried as bad weather had prevented the boat from running for a few days and all these visitors had now filled up the boats leaving the day we wanted to. Tickets cost ZAR 220 (£19/$29) which isn't cheap but this includes the crossing and tour. Children are half price.
The island was first used as a prison for Portuguese convicts in the early 16th Century but it has not always been a prison it was also a hospital for leprosy suffers and the mentally ill in its time (although you could argue that they were imprisoned here too, as they wouldn't have been allowed off the island), as well as for military training. It has been a museum and heritage site since 1997.
Arrive in plenty of time for your crossing as there are some security checks where you have to go through metal detector machines like at the airport and your bags are scanned. There is a photographer here taking photos of families, groups or individuals as you go on the boat. The ferry crossing, which on our day took just over 30 minutes, was uneventful. They show some films on the big screen relating to the island but not all screens seem to work well and there was a problem with the DVD on the way home. There are lavatories on board as well as a snack bar. I found the crossing quite smooth but some people appeared to be a bit queasy so take travel sickness tablets if you think this is likely to happen to you.
The tour is 3.5 hours long on average including ferry crossings. You do not really get a chance to wander freely; as you are all escorted on to large, noisy and smelly (diesel fume wise, rather than fellow passenger wise) buses and a guide will take you through the history of the island. To the best of my knowledge all tours are conducted in English. This aspect of the tour takes about 45 minutes and it was interesting to see the island, which is rather barren and unattractive. We saw the quarry where many of the prisoners were forced to work. Working in the blinding sun for a long period of time meant many who worked here suffered from sight problems for the rest of their lives, Mr Mandela included, as well as respiratory problems. You also saw the main town of the island which was where the prison staff lived. Three hundred people live and work on this island now, most for the museum and heritage site as well as support staff such as teachers at the school. We had a short break here to visit the local tuck shop and stretch our legs, before going to the main prison site.
At the main prison site we met a new guide, this section of the tour is always led by a former prisoner. He (there were no women political prisoners here, they were kept elsewhere) takes you into a dorm room, one that lower level prisoners would have stayed in and told you about his experiences. Our guide had been a prisoner here for six years and explained how the system set up was, when and what they ate, their numbers, what they did and how they obtained information from the outside world etc. I don't want to spoil these stories for anyone who is thinking of coming here, but obviously experiences change depending on the ex-prisoner who is escorting you. I found our guide to be frank and honest, answering questions with candour and posing for photos. Obviously life was tough for a prisoner and a lot of their treatment was bordering on the inhumane, especially in the early years. Improvements were made in the Seventies.
We also were taken to an exercise yard and he showed us the window of the cell that was Mandela's and we were able to go in the building and look at it from the corridor (it is behind glass), a very small room obviously, that wouldn't even have had a bed in it until the late 1970s (prior to that they slept on mats on the floor) and a lidded bucket for a toilet. We did have some time to explore the cells of other prisoners at this point, often there were quotations from them displayed on the walls, and sometimes an artefact like a razor or a cup was displayed. I found this section very interesting but we had run out of time and needed to head back to the boat which is a few minutes walk from this part.
We were one of the last buses to leave when we arrived, possibly as we had stopped for the loo before getting on the bus. I do recommend being prompt to get off the boat and getting on one of the early coaches as this allows you a bit more flexibility at the end. There is a little walk you can do and see some penguins too, but we didn't have time, although I saw a few wandering around. There is a good sized gift shop at the harbour with an interesting selection of books on the island and its history as well as some of the inmates. The public toilets are OK as such things go. The return journey was equally uneventful and you can pick up your souvenir photo if you wish for ZAR 30 (£2.60/$4) which has your party at the entrance of the boat placed on a background of Robben Island scenery.
Robben island Museum
Robben Island which is just a short boat ride from the mainland in Cape Town is most famous for being the place where Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners were held captive for many years during the Apartheid regime in South Africa. Today it is no longer a prison but has been turned into a museum and guided tours can be taken of the island to view the various historical sites. The island is an official World Heritage site today.
If you would like to take a trip or just want to read more about the place than I can tell you then the website is www.robben-island.org.za. We tried to book at the ticket office down at the V&A waterfront but their internet was down so we ended up booking online. The tickets were 200 Rand per person (about 11 Rand to the £1 when we were there) . We just printed them off on the hotel printer and went along to the Nelson Mandela Gateway building, just by the Clock tower in the V&A waterfront at the appropriate time in the morning. The ticket office is open from 7.30am to 9.00pm daily.
When you get to the Nelson Mandela Gateway building you are invited into a display area which shows many of the people who were involved in the fight against Apartheid. There are so very personal black and white photos in the display which gives you an idea of how much suffering there was during this time.. This building has a 120 seat auditorium as well as interactive and multimedia exhibitions together with conference facilities.
You are taken through airport-like security machines before boarding the ferry across to the island. It is quite a small ferry with seating up stairs or downstairs out of the wind and sun. The trip across takes about 45 minutes and during the trip you get amazing views of Table Mountain and Cape Town and if you are lucky you might see dolphins or seals. We were lucky enough to see a couple of seals but no dolphins unfortunately.
Once you arrive on the island you are welcomed by a loud speaker telling you to make you way to the buses. You are loaded on the buses until each is full and then the guided tour begins. We had an entertaining guide with a lively sense of humour and a very sound knowledge of the island's history and some of the people who had been imprisoned there.
During the visit we stopped at the house where Robert Sobukwe was kept in isolation for most of his life. In fact he never enjoyed freedom as he died a prisoner. We saw the historic lighthouse, the guest house where famous dignitaries stay, most recently the FIFA delegates to discuss the World Cup but Nelson Mandela also stayed here after he was a free man and President of South Africa. The quarry where the political prisoners spent their days digging out limestone was another stop on the tour. During their day of hard labour they had a lunch break which they spent educating each other and many got to the level of university education by the end of their prison sentences. In this quarry is a pyramid of large pebbles or stones which is a sort of monument built by former prisoners in an impromptu way. According to our guide when Nelson Mandela and a number of former detainees returned to the quarry after they were free Nelson Mandela picked up a stone and placed it on the ground and others followed suit. The result was a small pyramid of stones. They don't let the tourists get out at this point as some ignorant people decided it was a nice souvenir to take a stone off this pile and so that the pile was not gradually eroded they have stopped allowing people off the bus at the quarry.
The next stop was the actual prison where we were escorted and guided by a former political prisoner who told us about his time in the prison and then escorted us through the the bock where we were able to see the actual cell where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life imprisoned. It was exactly the same as all the other cells except that they had put back in this cell the prisoner's kit - bowl. toilet etc.
It was a very interesting tour which involved 45 minutes on the boat each way and about 45 minutes on the bus and then the rest of the time going around the cell blocks with the former detainee. You are not left to wander around by yourself until the end when you walk back from the prison to the harbour to meet the boat and you have about 15 minutes for this walk, to visit the toilets and the souvenir shop.
I thought it must be very strange for the guide who was an ex-political prisoner on Robben Island to be showing people round it as a tourist attraction; I bet he never thought that would happen. It was a very interesting tour and I felt it was important to see this in respect for what these people suffered to bring an end to the awful racist regime of Apartheid. It is lovely to see that South Africa is now a truly multi racial society, not everyone is equally wealthy nor do they live in the same sort of houses but it is early days yet and in a couple of generations who knows what it will be like.
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Robben Island is known the world over as a place of banishment, exile and imprisonment, for nearly 400 years colonial and apartheid rulers banished those they regarded as political troublemakers, social outcasts and the unwanted of society to this rocky outcrop in Table Bay. During the apartheid years Robben Island became internationally known for its institutional brutality. Some freedom fighters spent more than 25 years in prison for their beliefs. Yet people like Nelson Mandela emerged from here to lead South Africa to democracy with a message of tolerance, reconciliation and hope that moved the World. Now you can visit Robben Island, the standard tour includes: - A return boat trip across Table Bay. A visit to the famous maximum-security prison, which includes the Footsteps Of Mandela Tour- from the main prison entrance through the famous b-section, which includes Nelson Mandela's cell and also the Cell Stories Exhibition in A-Section- a stark area of 40 isolation cells with artefacts loaned by ex-political prisoners. Intimate stories of lesser-known prisoners and the bleakness of prison life recreated. A 45-minute island bus tour, which takes in the Leper Church and Cemetery, Lighthouse, WWII Gun Batteries and Women’s Quarters as well as the Garrison Church and the Governor’s Residence. Points to note: - Cameras are not allowed to be taken to Robben Island. Do not remove or deface any object, even stones and shells must not be removed. Tap water on the Island is not drinkable, however refreshments are available at the museum shop and cafeteria. Medical services on the Island are not comprehensive; remember to take your own medication with you. The visit is very moving and leads you to realise just how incredible it was that Nelson Mandela could come from such a place to lead South Africa; you cannot fail to be moved by the stories you hear and the sights you
see. All boat trips leave from the Clock tower terminal at the V&A Waterfront, it is advisable to pre-book during the busy summer season, trips are also subject to weather conditions.
Since the Dutch settled at the Cape in the mid-1600s, Robben Island has been used primarily as a prison.