Exploring the History of Cape Town on a Tour to Robben Island

by Sandy Salle on July 21, 2014

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Article by Amanda Evans, CEO of Hills of Africa Travel

Robben Island is truly a journey back in time. For those of you who do not know, Robben Island was primarily used as a prison for political figures and criminals from the 1600s, all the way until the mid 20th century.

I felt so grateful we had watched Mandela, the movie, the evening before. Though, perhaps not the whole story, and maybe even by some people’s accounts not the whole true story, it really helped give great context to the trip.

The ferry ride to Robben Island is about 45 minutes from Cape Town and departure times and space are very limited. We highly recommend you purchase tickets to Robben Island in advance as they do sell out.  Also, plan your visit as early in your trip as possible. If the weather is bad, the ferry will not leave so you want to have the opportunity to go later, if possible, in your plans.

Also, be warned, you are on open ocean during the entire ride. If you are sensitive to seasickness, it’s advisable to speak with your doctor about solutions.  You want to be able to enjoy the visit! We used the Dramamine patch (that goes just behind your ear). For us, it worked like a charm and was easy to manage. Please discuss with your doctor what motion sickness medication would be best for you. A word of caution about the patch – it does lower tolerance so if you must use a remedy like this, steer clear of the wine tastings while still under its powers!

Ok, on to the interesting stuff! The ride is quite beautiful and all the more reason to take precautions against seasickness so that you can take great video and / or photos. You will get the best view of Cape Town and Table Mountain from this angle. The ferry is open air so bring a light jacket or wrap so the sea spray doesn’t chill you.

Upon exiting the ferry, you are shuffled off to buses that then take you around the island. The guides on the buses give you a detailed history of the island from its days as a leper colony and later to prison, and show you where the guards, cooks, etc. lived on the island and where the current people that maintain the island and museum now live.

You also see where Nelson Mandela and many, many other prisoners mined limestone in the quarry. The conditions were harsher than you can imagine without seeing it. The quarry is in direct sun with absolutely no shade and the light reflection on the limestone is so bright it caused many prisoners to experience permanent damage to their eyesight, including Mandela. Off to the side, the guide pointed out the famous rock pile started by Nelson Mandela on his return visit to Robben Island after his freedom and where many prisoners after him have laid stones as a monument to their courage.

robben island tours

Above is an image of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. 

The bus trip is only about 15 minutes long and gives you the opportunity to see the whole island before touring the prison.

Each prison tour is guided by a former political prisoner. He shows you around the various sleeping quarters, where the prisoners bathed, took recreation, etc. And of course, the tour ends with a visit to the very small prison cell where Mandela served his sentence.

It’s hard to not take pause and reflect on humanity while on Robben Island. I know for myself I spent the whole tour in total silence, listening to the former prisoner, and just taking it in, deep in thought. It can be a chilling place, but at the risk of sounding cliché – truly a hopeful reminder to not repeat our past mistakes.

The tour ends with time to use the restroom and shop the gift shop for books or a snack. You should plan at least 3 hours for a trip out to Robben Island. While all the guides were very good, and it was powerful to hear firsthand from a former prisoner, the English was difficult to understand at times. For the most customized tour and to make the absolute most of your experience there, especially for history buffs, I do recommend the private guided tour of Robben Island as opposed to going on your own.


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