Rush Around Robben
Robben Island (Cape Town, South Africa)
Member Name: Essexgirl2006
Robben Island (Cape Town, South Africa)
Advantages: Informative tour about the history of the island and the prison
Disadvantages: I felt a bit ruched at times, expensive
Robben Island is probably one of the 'must-see' attractions in Cape Town. It is known to most people as a prison for political prisoners where Nelson Mandela was once held, but it has much more than that in its history. It is no longer a prison but is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island is 30-40 minutes by ferry from the V & A Waterfront (ask your taxi driver to drop you by the Clock Tower if you are coming that way as it is a large area). There are car parks here and sightseeing buses that stop nearby. The ferry leaves three times a day (weather permitting) at 9am, 11am and 1pm. We had booked in advance and this is highly recommended as it is a popular attraction. We failed to get on the first time we tried as bad weather had prevented the boat from running for a few days and all these visitors had now filled up the boats leaving the day we wanted to. Tickets cost ZAR 220 (£19/$29) which isn't cheap but this includes the crossing and tour. Children are half price.
The island was first used as a prison for Portuguese convicts in the early 16th Century but it has not always been a prison it was also a hospital for leprosy suffers and the mentally ill in its time (although you could argue that they were imprisoned here too, as they wouldn't have been allowed off the island), as well as for military training. It has been a museum and heritage site since 1997.
Arrive in plenty of time for your crossing as there are some security checks where you have to go through metal detector machines like at the airport and your bags are scanned. There is a photographer here taking photos of families, groups or individuals as you go on the boat. The ferry crossing, which on our day took just over 30 minutes, was uneventful. They show some films on the big screen relating to the island but not all screens seem to work well and there was a problem with the DVD on the way home. There are lavatories on board as well as a snack bar. I found the crossing quite smooth but some people appeared to be a bit queasy so take travel sickness tablets if you think this is likely to happen to you.
The tour is 3.5 hours long on average including ferry crossings. You do not really get a chance to wander freely; as you are all escorted on to large, noisy and smelly (diesel fume wise, rather than fellow passenger wise) buses and a guide will take you through the history of the island. To the best of my knowledge all tours are conducted in English. This aspect of the tour takes about 45 minutes and it was interesting to see the island, which is rather barren and unattractive. We saw the quarry where many of the prisoners were forced to work. Working in the blinding sun for a long period of time meant many who worked here suffered from sight problems for the rest of their lives, Mr Mandela included, as well as respiratory problems. You also saw the main town of the island which was where the prison staff lived. Three hundred people live and work on this island now, most for the museum and heritage site as well as support staff such as teachers at the school. We had a short break here to visit the local tuck shop and stretch our legs, before going to the main prison site.
At the main prison site we met a new guide, this section of the tour is always led by a former prisoner. He (there were no women political prisoners here, they were kept elsewhere) takes you into a dorm room, one that lower level prisoners would have stayed in and told you about his experiences. Our guide had been a prisoner here for six years and explained how the system set up was, when and what they ate, their numbers, what they did and how they obtained information from the outside world etc. I don't want to spoil these stories for anyone who is thinking of coming here, but obviously experiences change depending on the ex-prisoner who is escorting you. I found our guide to be frank and honest, answering questions with candour and posing for photos. Obviously life was tough for a prisoner and a lot of their treatment was bordering on the inhumane, especially in the early years. Improvements were made in the Seventies.
We also were taken to an exercise yard and he showed us the window of the cell that was Mandela's and we were able to go in the building and look at it from the corridor (it is behind glass), a very small room obviously, that wouldn't even have had a bed in it until the late 1970s (prior to that they slept on mats on the floor) and a lidded bucket for a toilet. We did have some time to explore the cells of other prisoners at this point, often there were quotations from them displayed on the walls, and sometimes an artefact like a razor or a cup was displayed. I found this section very interesting but we had run out of time and needed to head back to the boat which is a few minutes walk from this part.
We were one of the last buses to leave when we arrived, possibly as we had stopped for the loo before getting on the bus. I do recommend being prompt to get off the boat and getting on one of the early coaches as this allows you a bit more flexibility at the end. There is a little walk you can do and see some penguins too, but we didn't have time, although I saw a few wandering around. There is a good sized gift shop at the harbour with an interesting selection of books on the island and its history as well as some of the inmates. The public toilets are OK as such things go. The return journey was equally uneventful and you can pick up your souvenir photo if you wish for ZAR 30 (£2.60/$4) which has your party at the entrance of the boat placed on a background of Robben Island scenery.
Summary: A worthwhile half day trip