The trip to Robben Island was a long time coming. I’m not sure why I never went to Robben Island. Maybe I missed the school trip (was there one?). Anyway, whatever the reason was, it was time to rectify the matter.
For a few years now, I’ve taken leave on my birthday. It’s my gift to myself. But that always leaves me with the question, so, what to do on the day? Last year I went to the Avara Spa in Century City and was really disappointed by the experience. In addition, I had already made plans to go for a ‘girls trip’ to the Heavenly Spa on the weekend.
I wondered what else I could do. The cable car up Table Mountain came to mind. They have a birthday special for your birthday week if you’re a South African citizen. And since it usually costs about R250 ,it sounded pretty good. I haven’t been up Table Mountain since I was probably five years old(!!).
My mind was in Cape Town tourist-mode and somehow I got sidetracked from the cable car idea and started thinking about visiting Robben Island. It was always something I wanted to do (and somehow never did). So why let another year pass by without going? Yes, there was no birthday special but a birthday seemed like a good way to justify the cost of the trip.
Online booking for Robben Island
A week ahead of time, I booked tickets through the official website ‘s webtickets portals. The Robben Island Museum Tour cost R340 for adults and R190 for under-18s. The tour includes a return boat trip (45 minutes each way), a visit to the Maximum Security Prison (1-hour), and a bus tour of the Island (1-hour). Tickets are non-refundable unless Robben Island cancels the trip .
There are 3 tours per day and you can choose to go at either 9h00, 11h00 or 13h00. The webticket website showed an additional trip at 15hoo but the Robben Island website only listed the 3 slots. I chose the 11h00 am trip as I figured it would be the best way to avoid traffic into and out of the Waterfront.
On the day
It was a fairly chilly day. Who would have known that there’s still plenty of traffic going into town at 10.15am? And secondly, who would know that the parking near the Clock Tower would be so full during the week? I’m sure someone would know – but I didn’t!!
Due to the circumstances described above, we finally found parking (near the Scratch Patch) about 5 minutes before the boat was supposed to leave. We ran like crazy to avoid missing the ferry and we just made it – mostly because there was a long line going through security before you can board the ferry.
Robben Island Ferry
We passed through security without any issues and were among the last to board the ferry. The boat was larger and nicer looking than I expected. There were TVs ,but unfortunately, nothing playing on them. What a wasted advertising opportunity!
We sat towards the front of the boat. The boat ride wasn’t too bad but trying to stand up was quite an effort. I needed to use the bathroom and it took all my core control to stop me from falling over due to the rough seas. The bathroom was very nice by the way.
I have been on much worse boat trips! I was glad it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The last 5 minutes of the 45-minute trip was quite bad, though. Nothing I couldn’t handle but for someone who’s prone to seasickness, I’d suggest researching medication or nausea bands (you can get at Dischem).
The week after I went, the fact that one of the boats partially sank made big news. I think I may have felt a bit more stressed if I even considered that to be a possibility.
The bus tour on Robben Island
The people on the ferry were split into 2 groups. Half of us did the prison tour and then the bus tour, while the rest did it in reverse. My group jumped onto the bus and our knowledgeable tour guide explained that the bus would stop at certain sites. We would only be allowed off the bus at a café midway through the bus tour.
Robben Island was declared a World Heritage site in 1999 . I won’t do this important place a disservice with a half-hearted attempt at a history write up, instead I encourage you to read about it online  or book your tour there!
The bus tour covered how Robben Island came to have its name, the history of the first prisoners and how those that still reside on the island live today. We stopped at the leper colony graveyard, Robert Subukwe’s house, the famous limestone quarry where the prisoners were put to work, the large army guns, the Motura Kramat etc.
The group we were with were mostly international tourists and sad to say, many seemed more interested in taking pictures of tortoises than in South African history!!
Anyway, the view of Table Mountain from the café was really one of those classic shots of the landmark.
The bus tour lasted an hour. I found it interesting and I enjoyed asking the guide questions. One thing I found a bit frustrating was trying to take decent photos from within a bus. I completely understand why they run the tour like they do – the whole thing is a slick operation. No doubt that if they allowed us to get off at the stops, they’d have trouble rounding us all up again.
Maximum Security Prison Tour on Robben Island
I approached this part of the tour with much anticipation and trepidation. To see where the political prisoners were kept and how they were treated, the thought itself made me anxious.
At this point, we swopped tour guides. I was surprised to see a young tour guide. He rounded us up and introduced himself. He quickly explained that he knows some people may be disappointed that they did not get a former political prisoner as a tour guide but that these men were getting old and one day they may pass on – that doesn’t mean the tours to Robben Island will stop. The group agreed.
He gave us a brief history and then walked us into an area within the prison. He gave a passionate, heart-wrenching account about the dehumanizing conditions suffered by prisoners. He also provided a fascinating context of modern day South Africa and explained that many people still suffer today. Of course, as a South African, I know this all too well. Many of the tourists seemed shocked. I enjoyed Mandla’s energetic, powerful speech. He painted a clear picture of the injustices suffered and still suffered today. He was raw, blunt and had no time to sugar coat.
One tourist asked something that I found to be ignorant and offensive and Mandla handled it without skipping a beat. He said “I know what you’re trying to do and we can talk about it after. I’m not scared of you or what you have to say.” Wow, I thought.
We walked through the prison block where amongst others was Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. People are no longer allowed to go into the cell due to bad behaviour…
Soon after we caught the ferry back. It was about 3.5 hours all together. The one thing I wish was that there was a bit more time to walk around and read all the signs and posters. I found the tour to be really thought-provoking, interesting and a vivid look at history – so much more interesting than you’d find in a textbook (at least in my opinion). These were the stories of ordinary people that did extraordinary things. The tour gives a blunt look into past and current sociopolitical environments in South Africa.
Book your tour today: http://www.robben-island.org.za/tours
Further reading: An article by the Mail & Guardian