Famous for all the Wrong Reasons, Robben Island

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Sitting nearly seven kilometers off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa is a small island that is famous for all of the wrong reasons. Robben Island, named by the Dutch which translates to Seal Island, served as home to Nelson Mandela for 18 years. Although Mandela won a Nobel and served as the president of his country, first he was a political prisoner for 27 years.

Robben Island was first used as a prison in the 17th century and finally completed its role as such in 1996. Over the years it also housed a leper colony, a whaling station and even an artillery battery during WWII. Today it has three titles; museum, South African National Heritage Site and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A 30 min. boat ride to and from the island is included in the price of your admission to the museum. Upon arrival on the island you’ll walk across the docks to a waiting bus ready to take you on a tour of the grounds. The driving tour highlights the leprosy graveyard, a limestone and bluestone quarry, Robert Sobukwe’s house and the military bunkers. You will also see the entrance to a cave that carries the name Robben Island University. Nelson Mandela and others spent time there lecturing and debating, it has even been dubbed the origin of the movement that finally overthrew the Apartheid government.

Robben Island Prison Museum Entrance.

Robben Island Prison Museum Entrance.

Leper Cemetery on Robben Island.

Leper Cemetery on Robben Island.

Leper Church on Robben Island.

Leper Church on Robben Island.

Robben Island University where Nelson Mandela and others studied.

Robben Island University where Nelson Mandela and others studied.

Robben Island lighthouse, built in 1863.

Robben Island lighthouse, built in 1863.

An usie with Table Mountain just visible in the back.

An usie with Table Mountain just visible in the back.

Leftover bunker from the military instillation.

Leftover bunker from the military instillation.

After the bus tour concludes, the intimate portion of the tour begins. A former political prisoner will lead you on an informative expedition around the incarceration facilities. This is one of those times where the more involved with the tour guide you are, the more you’re going to get out of the tour. Our guide didn’t shy away from any of the questions are group produced. The culmination of the tour leads you to Nelson Mandela’s cell during his time on the island. A semi eerie feeling floats around the facility as it has only been out of use for a handful of years and the staff has done a good job maintaining everything.

Doors upon doors.

Doors upon doors.

Prisoners' ID Card.

Prisoners’ ID Card.

Prisoners' Menu.

Prisoners’ Menu.

View of  a Criminal Cell.

View of a Criminal Cell.

Looking towards the main building from the B-Section Courtyard.

Looking towards the main building from the B-Section Courtyard.

B-Section Courtyard.

B-Section Courtyard.

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island.

Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island.

Logistics:

The Robben Island website is full of info about the island, tour times and prices. It is recommended that you arrive at the terminal at least 30 mins before your scheduled departure time. Weather can be a factor in tours being canceled, as you do have to travel via boat and storms are not uncommon.

An usie on the boat back to Cape Town.

An usie on the boat back to Cape Town.

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Comments 4

  1. Robben Island is such an important place and earned its place in history, for being the place where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. I was fascinated by the cave where Nelson Mandela and others debated. Was this during his incarceration?

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      Author
  2. Robben Island has always been on my travel wishlist. You made a really great point about engaging with tour guides. You mentioned that he did not shy away. What kind of questions were asked?

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      Author

      The most candid questions- Were you beaten while in prison? Were you treated differently than other prisoners? Do you feel regret or pride over your actions to land you in prison? How do you see the cause today? I will not tell you the answers because each guide has a different story. I will say it is a Must Do and especially in today’s world so relevant.

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