No trip to Cape Town is complete without a visit to Robben Island, a political prison turned national monument that housed Neslon Mandella for more than 30 years.
Buy Your Robben Island Tickets in Advance Online
Same-day tickets are available, but tours tend to sell out several days in advance. I booked our tickets two weeks in advance here and had no trouble securing passage on the tour I wanted. Your tickets can be printed out or with your reference number they can be printed upon arrival at the museum.
Depending on the season, 3-5 excursions are offered per day. Your ~$24 ticket includes boat passage to/from Robben Island (about one hour each way), a guided tour of the island, and the chance to speak with a former political prisoner on the island.
Arrive Early but Expect to Wait
Your tickets say to arrive early and allow plenty of time, but we ended up waiting nearly 45 minutes after scheduled departure to leave…
Not sure how the numbers of tickets are capacity controlled, but after herding us to a waiting area, the boat we were to take filled up and took off. We had to wait about 30 minutes and then walk a half kilometer around the harbor to catch our new boat.
The ride over was smooth and my wife and I sat outside for a portion of the journey before returning to the interior cabin.
The Robben Island Tour
When you arrive on the island you are split into two groups. One group goes on a bus tour of the island first while the other groups sees the prison cells, meets a former political prisoners, and culminates with a visit to Nelson Mandela’s cell.
We began with a tour of the island by bus. An energetic guide pointed out various points of interest including officers quarters, a church, cemetery, town hall, and various wildlife. The bus stops at a snack stop where food and drink are available before heading back to prison cells.
Of note was a rock quarry in which chain gains of men spent hours each day chopping at rocks.
Into the Prison
I noticed an Islamic-looking building and asked the guide about it. He stated it was just the power plant. It’s not. I later found it is called the Moturu Kramat and was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu. He was the Prince of Madura and one of Cape Town’s first imams. In the 1740s he was exiled to Robben Island and died there. Muslim political prisoners (it wasn’t just blacks who were locked up) were also present on Robben Island.
Not as dramatic as the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, but everyone is escorted into the prison by a former political prisoner, who shares his story and tells about life in the prison.
As unquestionably unjust as such confinement based upon political viewpoint was, the conditions were not horrible – our guide Mr. Ray shared that friendships were formed with the guards and that even when prisoners would get together to talk politics and plot strategy, they were largely left alone.
I think that surprised me – for I figured the SA government had essentially put each prisoner in solitary confinement. Nelson Mandela did serve in solitary confinement and it was a chilling to see the cell where he grew old.
Everything in life is complicated when you peer beyond the surface and so is Mandela. Critics brand him as a terrorist while opponents call him a freedom fighter, but whatever your view on Mandela’s past, his transformation on Robben Island is an inspiring story of hope and forgiveness. The fact that he put his total effort into unifying South Africa rather than seeking retribution and dividing it further is an amazing story of love. Check out this commentary of a white man who grew up Pretoria in the 1980s. I found it fascinating.
Back to Cape Town
After the tour is over, there is a restaurant and souvenir shop near the docks, where boarding is a free-for-all. With no assigned boarding time on the way back, boats depart as soon as they are filled up. We once again just missed a boat and had to wait about 45 minutes for the next one.
The water was extremely choppy on the way back…so choppy that everyone huddled around inside as we hemmed and hawed. We started the trip back outside on the deck again, but the waves were so bad we were forced to seek refuge (and dry off) inside.
The timing was perfect. We were back at 5pm – the whole experience had taken four hours— but our flight would depart in few hours and we still did not have Heidi’s document…
To Be Continued.
Read More of My Month in Africa Trip Report
Introduction: A Month in Africa
Review: Houston to Lagos in United Airlines 787 Business
Transit in Lagos: Bribing My Way Out
Review: Oasis Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Review: Gabfol Lounge Lagos (LOS)
Lagos to Johannesburg in South African Airways Economy Class
Setting Up Shop in Pretoria
How to Obtain a South African Police Report
A Safari in Kruger National Park
Review: Nkambeni Safari Camp
Driving Through Swaziland
Review: Mountain Inn Mbabane, Swaziland
Review: Johannesburg to Livingstone, Zambia in British Airways Comair Economy Class
Our Humble Abode in Zambia
Victoria Falls from the Zambian Side
From Hate to Great: Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
The Old House Guest Lodge – Kasane, Botswana
A Visit to Impalila Island, Namibia
Kasane, Botswana to Johannesburg on South African Airways (Airlink)
Review: Hyatt Regency Johannesburg (Suite)
Road Trip from Johannesburg to Lesotho
Review: South African Airways Domestic Voyager Lounge – JNB
The Cruel Poverty of Cape Town