Robben Island adventures

Tuesday, 15 December 2020 08:00 AM

Whether you’re taking in the incredible views atop Table Mountain, strolling the promenade in Sea Point or enjoying a sunset cruise, Robben Island is a prominent feature of the seascape. Robben Island was the bleak mark on the horizon, representing great injustice and terrible times in South Africa’s past. Robben Island is now a World Heritage Site and living museum, and is described as a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. A visit to Cape Town would be simply incomplete without an excursion to the island where the whispers of democracy were first heard in our country. 


Running Monday through Sunday, tours begin with ferries departing from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Lasting 3,5 hours, the tour is both enriching and humbling, while still compact enough to fill a morning or afternoon, leaving you loads of time to explore the rest of the Mother City on the same day. 


The tour begins the moment you set foot on the ferry as you’ll be boarding literal history. The Susan Kruger was named after the wife of once Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger, who served in the National Party Government. The vessel was used to carry political prisoners between the mainland and the island, but serves as a ferry for the island today. Another vessel, the Dias, shares a similar history and is used to carry contemporary visitors to the island. 


The ferry will dock at Murray’s Bay Harbour, which is situated on the eastern side of Robben Island, and it’s only a short walk to the buses that will take you to the historical sites. Already the gravity of our past can be felt, as you walk past buildings and a high wall, constructed by prisoners and used for family and lawyer visits. Once aboard the bus, you will meet your tour guide, who is conversant with five centuries worth of knowledge to share with you. Not only was Robben Island a prison, but it was also a colony for sufferers of leprosy, and a failed vegetable patch. It was also an animal quarantine station, though today there are roughly 3 000 penguins and a whopping 25 000 rabbits. There are also springbok, eland, ostrich and, oddly, 200 fallow deer.   


Several styles of the tour are on offer here, with routes passing a graveyard of those who died from leprosy. You’ll also pass the Lime Quarry, where prisoners from the isolation block were sent to work, and their plight led by Nelson Mandela. Robert Sobukwe’s house is another site, and is where he was kept in solitary confinement. There are also several army and navy bunkers and guns that were used for defence during the Second World War. The maximum-security prison is likely to be your last stop on the island, and is where thousands of South Africa’s freedom fighters were incarcerated. This is where you can view Nelson Mandela’s cell, where he spent 18 long years.

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