A visit to Robben Island is like taking a step back in time. It starts at the Nelson Mandela Gateway which is the departure point on the Cape Town side. While you prepare to board the ferry you pass massive information boards covering the history of the island. The story begins hundreds of years ago when the first settlers landed on Robben Island – it’s a fascinating insight into early Cape life. The highlight, of course, is the story of Nelson Mandela – he made this island famous. Because of him, you want to see it.
About a week before your planned excursion, check the wind and the weather and then book your ticket on line. Print your ticket and take it with you. The Nelson Mandela Gateway is next to the Clock Tower at the V & A Waterfront. Get there a little early as you’ll find the museum a wealth of information about Madiba and South African history. The entrance to the ferry is on the lower level. That’s where you have your ticket scanned before going through a security check point and onto the departure quay.
Once the ferry departs, you’ll really get into the African swing of things with traditional music playing. For visitors it’s an insight into part of the music culture of Cape Town. For locals, it makes you feel very patriotic! As you move towards the island, the view of Table Mountain is spectacular.
After being welcomed to the island you are directed to a bus which is parked a short walk away. Just bear in mind that where you are walking was where Nelson Mandela walked. Don’t expect a high quality modern bus. You are on an island though, so the sea breeze makes up the lack of air-conditioning.
The tour guides are knowledgeable and interesting. They will explain Robben Island’s background and tell many anecdotes contained in the islands long history.
The bus tour round island (which is 14km long) is about 45 minutes. With limited water, the island is very dry and barren. There are many historic buildings, including schools and churches. One church is open to weddings on Valentine’s Day each year. The cost is minimal so many couples get married on Robben Island each February.
The original schoolhouse building will be pointed out. It reflects the architecture of a long-past era. One of the frequently asked questions is whether the school is still used as such. It is not. There are children who live on the island. They go to school in Cape Town, which is quite an interesting experience needing to catch the ferry to and from the mainland each day.
Half way through the tour, you will stop for a refreshment break and have an opportunity to admire the view of the mainland.
Hearing the sombre history of Nelson Mandela’s time on the island, leaves you with a deeper sense of respect of this mighty leader.
At the end of the bus tour, you are taken to the maximum security prison where an ex-political prisoner will show you around the prison and give you an idea of prison life. You are taken through a number of courtyards and dormitories and then are shown the prison cells. One of the highlights is being shown to Nelson Mandela’s cell. It is just one in a long corridor – a cell like all the others – a mat on the floor for sleeping – a small table, a toilet pot, a bowl for brushing teeth. It is the occupant that makes it stand out. Nelson Mandela’s cell number was 466/64. This is because he was the 466th prisoner to be taken to Robben Island in 1964.
This is where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years of his incarceration.
Don’t miss a visit to Robben Island. You’ll find it memorable, sobering and humbling.