Robben Island excursion

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One of the must do to lists in Cape Town was Robben Island. It took a while to secure myself a ticket for the tour. It is the most popular sites in South Africa. This island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for nearly two decades before the fall of apartheid.
It was another perfect weather on a Sunday and I decided to go for it. At that time, the website where I could purchase a ticket was temporary down. So I went directly to Waterfront hoping if there was any available at all. Although I knew my chances were slim because it’s an extremely popular and most visited site. People would usually buy tickets a week in advance. At Waterfront, I expected the staff to tell me to try again next week. Instead, they offered me that one and only ticket available that day. “What a miracle” I thought. I had to wait for a few hours to board the last ferry. So my time was spent on window shopping.

And then….



Being on the upper deck was a pleasure, although crowded. There were probably almost 200 people on board the ferry. While enjoying the view on the way, I managed to capture some good photos of Cape Town. The ferry ride lasted for almost an hour. By the time we arrived, we were divided into small groups and went further on board a bus. This was the starting point of the tour. We drove around the island while a guide explained to us about the history of this place. She explained a lot about Robben Island and its past as a leper island. In the 19th century, the place was a voluntary leper colony. The bus tour also showed us the different types of prisons. One in particular is the limestone quarry,  where prisoners would spend hours in the hot sun, breaking up rocks. Our guide also added that they managed to find a way to conduct an informal school of knowledge in a cave used for bathroom breaks.





The limestone quarry.






The B-section where top-level political prisoners were held.


What I found most interesting was the maximum security prison. A former inmate accompanied us for the rest of the tour. The area consisted of different prison wards. All prisoners were separated in small cells. There were also larger cells that could house a large number of people at the same time.

I finally saw the cell of Mandela with my own eyes. It was a very small room, which is about six feet wide. Mandela used to sleep on a thin mat on the floor. There was also a bucket. which was used as a toilet. The walls were two feet thick without decorations. For eighteen years Mandela was an unfortunate detainee on Robben Island.


Mandela’s cell.

Prisoners in these cells experienced a wide range of temperatures over the year. From humid heat in summer to freezing cold winter. With only a single layer of clothing and few blankets, they were prone to congestive ailments.


Another thing I find so interesting was that everything in the Maximum Security Prison was left as it was after the prisoners were released. In addition to this, the stories of the prisoners are written down in the cells.


All in all, the Robben Island tour lasted for 3 and a half hours. If I were to described my personal experience of this tour. That would be painful and amazed at the same time. Imagine being a captive for over a decade and not able to listen to radio, read newspaper or even have a clock to keep the time. You could only see your family every six months.






What amazed me was that the people such as Mandela never lost hope despite the inhumane treatment they received by the prison guards. They were all determined to continue regardless of the unthinkable hardships. They managed to get education, read as many books as possible. Some even got degrees through correspondence courses. Stuffing notes inside tennis balls and passing them along during recreation periods was their way to communicate in secret.

Apartheid was a dark time in South Africa’s not so distant past and for some, it is something that they want to move on from. This island prison is a reminder of the price many South Africans paid for democracy. When it comes down to the place, they are all just buildings. Wood & metal. Bricks and concrete. Nothing very appealing about them. But it is not for the buildings and its surroundings that I came for. It was for what they represent. Hope. Fear. Courage. Injustice. When I look at it, Robben Island is a symbol of oppression….but it is also a symbol of strenght of the human spirit.



                                 Some interesting facts:
– The Dutch settlers were the first to use the Island as a prison.
– The island is the country’s National Heritage Site.
– Since 1997, the place has been a museum acting as a focal point of South African history.
– Was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
– Three of the former prisoners went on to become President of South Africa. Nelson Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe, and the leader of ANC & current President Jacob Zuma.
– Robben Island generates its own electricity and obtains its water from 9 boreholes.

Getting there:
The whole island tour consists of a ferry ride from V&A Waterfront, a bus tour around Robben Island and eventually a visit to the maximum-security prison. The charges to visit are 300 ZAR (around 20 euro/22USD) for an adult and 160 ZAR (10.5 euro/11USD) for children under 18 years. Tickets can be purchased either directly at the Robben Island Museum departure point & at the Cape Town Tourism Office at the Clock Tower in V&A Waterfront or online booking through this website

24 thoughts on “Robben Island excursion

  1. Marije says:

    Lucky you! It’s probably one of those places you really need to visit and wil never forget once you’ve been there. You captured it well with you photos. Thanks.

  2. Jen Morrow says:

    Chilling and horrible. And these tours help educate and remind us to honor the sacrifices and learn from the terrible treatment so that we can be better.

  3. Jennifer says:

    This would be something right up my husband’s alley. He is a huge history buff.

  4. Komang Ayu says:

    Wow, it turns out there is an island of lepers. the sad past. there seems very interesting. I want to go there. but whether it should use the ferry? I might be sick if ferries

  5. Tae says:

    Wow, what an important part of history. Its fascinating that three presidents have been prisoners before. It’s interesting to see where Mandela spent so much time.

  6. Blair Villanueva says:

    I felt a chilly and sad seeing these photos, but the brighter side is it is part of history that makes us remember.

  7. Christina says:

    I have never toured a maximum prison security before. This one is so full of history that I can definitely understand why the tour is often sold out. You were so lucky to get the last ticket! The pictures especially the description of how the prisoners were being systematically starved was quite chilling.

  8. LISA says:

    Great post. Thanks for the history of the island. Sad, but intriguing

  9. Kat says:

    It’s great that you can look at it that way – as a symbol of the strength of human spirit, as you say. This gave me a different perspective on visiting tourist sites such as Robben Island because to be honest when I looked it up I felt a sense of dread and feeling of wanting to forget painful histories.

  10. A sad reminder of a grubby past, but as you say, let’s look at it in another way, as somewhere where the human spirit was not broken and where one of the world’s greatest leaders honed his skills. A fascinating post, thanks for sharing, Karen

  11. Vyjay says:

    I can understand your feelings on your visit to Robben Island. It would have been an intriguing and at the same time traumatic experience, akin to visiting the remains of Nazi concentration camps. But these places stand as a bold testimony to the indomitable spirit of humanity and a few brave men and women.

  12. This post has amazed and creep me out a little bit. Imagining all that the prisoners have been forced to endure. I’m not sure I would be as strong as they were. This is very illuminating in terms of the strength of the human spirit.

  13. Since I was a child I’ve had a deep interest in South African history and I’ve always wondered what the prison where Mandela had stayed really looked like. This must definitely be an unforgettable experience, not only from a cultural point of view, but from a human one as well. I always have a lump in my throat when I visit a former prison, but, as you said, it’s also very interesting to find out how the prisoners lived. I’m impressed by the will some of them had to study and get an education in spite of all the difficulties, that’s such an inspiring example.

  14. I loved Cape Town when I went, but sadly I didn’t get to visit Robben Island. It sounds like a moving experience. I am glad that they preserved everything the way it was so that people could see what conditions were like for the prisoners. It is amazing to think about how Mandela and people like him did not lose hope.

  15. Inka says:

    This Prison still looks so real. Wow! So today it is just a museum that offers tours? It is a place that I would also want to visit but at the same time not. It would be interesting to actually know the Stories on the individual inmates.

  16. These places reflect history, struggle, injustice, horror and hope all at the same time. I think its part of human heritage and we should visit them once in our lifetime. I very much liked the photograph of Mandela’s cell. He was an inspiration and knowing about his life in the cell/ stories about other inmates would only make us richer and wiser by the day.
    P.S I hope its not haunted?

  17. Robben Island looks like a beautiful place to visit but it does require courage to visit the place with so much of dreadful history. But it is also a lifetime experience to feel the vibe of such places ourselves backed by the information on history

  18. Anne-Sophie says:

    Gosh, how horrible. I can only imagine what it must have been like for Nelson Mandela in that tiny prison cell! It’s amazing that he didn’t go crazy after living in those conditions for so long.

  19. Miriam Ernst says:

    Although it represents something so hard, I think these type of tourist “attractions” are meant to show us the past in a way that we consider acting upon a better future!

  20. Liana says:

    Robben Island is definitely a symbol of oppression, injustice and the Apartheid was one of the darkest side of our common History. I can’t believe Mandela made it through, because living through this hell for 18 years is worst than any condemnation.
    For me, it’s not any tourist attractions, but it’s meant to show us how humans can be cruel, how humans are able to go through hell and never lose up and how democracy is so much more valuable than we would ever thought it would be.

  21. I would say beautiful photos but I don’t think I can say “beautiful” in the same sentence as “prison”. Cape Town does look amazing though and if I were ever in the area, I would take this tour for sure

  22. Ami says:

    Beautiful pictures. Did not know about the Leper Island bit. Will be checking up more on this. 🙂 Thanks for sharing

  23. Tamshuk says:

    Sad reminder of the dark times in South Africa. I can imagine how you would have felt while on this tour to this place.

  24. Thanks for sharing this well put together web-site

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