Robben Island

  - darkometer rating:  9 -
A prison island in the bay outside Cape Town. It was here, in the island's 1960s-built maximum security prison, that Nelson Mandela and several of his followers were imprisoned for many years under the harshest of conditions. Since the abolition of Apartheid and the subsequent reopening-up of South Africa to the world, the island has been preserved as a memorial and is even recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It can be visited on tours led by ex-prisoner guides. It is the prime dark tourism site in South Africa, and one of the best experiences of its kind in the world (see top-20). 

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: The island had long been used as a prison by successive colonial powers (Dutch and British), and e.g. during the colonial wars of the time Xhosa leaders were imprisoned here. The island also served as a leper colony and mental "hospital" between 1846 and 1931. But it gained its greatest notoriety during the Apartheid years, esp. from 1961 to 1991, when political prisoners, most prominently ANC leader Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated here in a special "maximum security prison". Mandela didn't spend the entire 27 years of his imprisonment here, but a substantial proportion of it.
Conditions were harsh. Political prisoners were kept in small isolation cells, and generally separate from other prisoners (ordinary criminals were also still being kept here), and obviously in strict racial segregation. Rations were meagre and treatment rough. Visitors or letters were allowed only once every six months. Moreover, Mandela and his fellow political prisoners had to perform forced hard labour in a nearby lime quarry – without any kind of eye protection from the blinding white glare and dust. Nevertheless, Mandela managed to engage in a distance learning programme during his imprisonment and received a degree in law.
He was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, which still functions as a prison, in 1982. During the 1980s pressure from the outside world increased, and calls for Mandela's release got louder ... even quite literally: in 1988, just before Mandela's 70th birthday, there was even a Live-Aid-like charity rock concert organized to raise worldwide awareness for the cause, which featured high-profile acts such as Peter Gabriel, Simple Minds, and Dire Straits.
After old Apartheid hard-liner president Pieter Botha was replaced by Frederik de Klerk, things began changing rapidly and Mandela was finally released on 11 February 1990. Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 ... although it wasn't all peace in the country yet – but that's of course often the case: the Prize is seen more as an encouragement to work further for peace, rather than recognizing peace already achieve).
In South Africa's first fully democratic and multi-racial elections of 27 April 1994, Mandela won a landslide victory and became president. He retired in 1999 – but to this day is regarded as a national hero, which is particularly palpable at the exhibitions at the Nelson Mandela Gateway (where tours to Robben Island depart).  
What there is to see: Tourists can only visit Robben Island on a guided tour. These last about three and a half hours in total and are wholly worthwhile. You first get on a small-ish ferry boat from Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. The ferry terminal is appropriately named "Nelson Mandela Gateway". After the 30 minutes' ride across Table Bay, commanding good views of Cape Town and Table Mountain, the tour proper commences.
First you get a guided bus tour round the island. This also stops at the infamous lime quarry, where Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were forced to work. It also passes some WWII gun installations and other military gear, as well as the cemetery of the former leper colony on the island.
A former prisoner will then take you round the complex that was the maximum security prison. This extra personal input and first-hand information and recollections add incredible value to the tours. The exact nature of this will vary from guide to guide, of course, but is likely to impress. When I visited, the guide was a truly remarkable, gentle character who talked about his experiences in detail but without any bitterness. In fact he was quite open and chatty with the members of his tour group.
The agreed highlight for most visitors on the tour is a glimpse into the former cell of the prison's most prominent inmate, Nelson Mandela. But the other cells and the courtyard (complete with some photos of what it would have looked like back then) are also pretty grim.
Apparently the order can also be reversed, i.e. tour the maximum security prison first, then get on the bus for the tour of the rest of the island.
After the tour proper you also get a bit of time at Murray Bay Harbour, where there is also a museum shop, selling all manner of related books, brochures, DVDs and the like. Then it's back to the ferry for the return ride to Cape Town.
Allow extra time for the exhibitions at the Nelson Mandela Gateway too! There are photographic accounts of Robben Island's history, posters, as well as multi-media interactive exhibitions providing information about former prisoners and ex-prison wardens. There's another museum shop here too with a wide selection of relevant information material.
Location: a few miles out of Cape Town in the waters of Table Bay, South Africa.
Google maps locator:[-33.80,18.37]
Access and costs: by scheduled ferry and guided tour only; not particularly cheap, but reasonable for what you get.
Details: Tours depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway ferry terminal at the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town 8002. (You can't miss it, it's near the landmark historic clock tower at the heart of the complex.) There are four tours daily, departing at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. respectively. The price for the package is 220 Rands; half price for under-18-year-olds.
Tours are popular, so it may be a good idea to be flexible time-wise, so that if need be you can opt for a different tour if the boat is already full at the time you wanted to go. Or book ahead (either in person at the ticket office, by phone: +27-21-4134233-37, or email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ). You can even book and buy e-tickets online.  
Visits are subject to weather conditions and if the sea is too rough, tours may have to be cancelled, in which case you obviously get your money back for pre-booked tickets – another good reason for being flexible. If you're staying in Cape Town for several days, try and get on a Robben Island Tour at the earliest opportunity, as you can't be 100% sure that sudden changes in the weather won't rule it out later. Forecasts are not necessarily reliable here … as I experienced when I visited: fortunately it didn't affect my trip to Robben Island, which I already had under my belt, but a helicopter trip I wanted to go on the next day, when the weather was assured to be "nicer for it", had to be cancelled owing to apparently unexpected heavy rain and wind, which also meant that the Robben Island tours were impossible.
Time required: Tours last three and a half hours, of which one hour is eaten up by the ferry crossings there and back. The bus tour round the island lasts 45 minutes, which still leaves a very generous amount of time for the tour of the actual prison with an ex-inmate.
Allow extra time for the exhibitions back at the Nelson Mandela Gateway ferry terminal (between half an hour and two hours, or more – depending on how long you want to spend studying the multi-media information provided). All in all, you should set aside a good half day.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Cape Town.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see Cape Town – obviously, as the ferries to island depart from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, exploring this touristic but nice quarter combines with a Robben Island trip most naturally.
  • Robben Island 1Robben Island 1
  • Robben Island 2 - lime quarryRobben Island 2 - lime quarry
  • Robben Island 3 - prison courtyardRobben Island 3 - prison courtyard
  • Robben Island 4 - Robert Sobukwe isolation wardRobben Island 4 - Robert Sobukwe isolation ward
  • Robben Island 5 - the cell that Nelson Mandela was inRobben Island 5 - the cell that Nelson Mandela was in
  • Robben Island 6 - view from  the seaRobben Island 6 - view from the sea
  • Robben Island 7 - view of Cape TownRobben Island 7 - view of Cape Town


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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