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Robben Island Museum Tour

Tickets, Ferry, Robben Island Tour

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Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, Cape Town South Africa

Nelson Mandela's cell

Anouk Zijlma
A Robben Island tour is a must when you're visiting Cape Town. It's a fascinating half-day trip to the former penal colony where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life. Many leading members of South African political parties like the PAC and ANC were incarcerated alongside him.

One of your guides on the tour will likely be an ex-political prisoner. This gives you the opportunity to hear a first-hand account of prison life on Robben Island that makes it a truly priceless experience.

In 1997 Robben Island was turned into a museum and in 1999 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Robben Island has become an extremely important symbol in the new South Africa, reflecting the triumph of good over evil, of democracy over apartheid.

The Tour Basics

Tickets for the tour can be purchased directly from ticket counters at the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront. In summer tickets do sell out, so you may want to book in advance through a local tour operator. Tours depart hourly from 9am to 3pm. Tickets cost R150 for adults and R75 for children.

The tour includes a ferry ride to the Island and back, and it departs from the Nelson Mandela Gateway. Once you're on the island, you will get an hour long bus tour around the island, and then an hour tour of the maximum security prison.

The Nelson Mandela Gateway

Arrive at least 20 minutes before your ferry departs because there's a very interesting interactive exhibit in the waiting hall that gives a good, concise history of Robben Island. You'll want to take your time here. Robben Island was a penal colony for more than 400 years. It's also been a leper colony, army base, naval base and served as a pantry for new colonizers who were afraid of the local Khoikhoi people who lived on the mainland.

The Ferry Ride

The ferry ride over to Robben Island can get quite rough but it's a quick 30 minutes and the views of Cape Town and Table Mountain is spectacular. If you get seasick, there's plenty of room on the open top deck of the ferry to catch some fresh air. And "fresh" is the operative word here since the wind will practically blow you off your feet.

If the winds are too strong the ferries won't sail and thus the tours get canceled. If you've booked your tour in advance, give the museum a quick call (021) 419 1300 to make sure they're sailing.

You can buy drinks, sandwiches and snacks on the ferry.

The Bus Tour

The bus tour is the first thing you do once you disembark from the ferry. For about an hour you'll drive around while a guide (usually a former prisoner) informs you about the history and ecology of the island.

You'll get off the bus at the limestone quarry where Nelson Mandela and other prominent ANC members spent many years doing hard labor. There's a cave at the quarry where prisoners relieved themselves. It was in this cave that some of the more educated prisoners would teach others how to read and write by scratching in the dirt. History, politics and biology were also subjects that were taught at this "prison university". It was the only place that prisoners were able to escape the watchful eyes of the guards. It is said that a good part of South Africa's current constitution was written in that cave.

The glare of the sun and the dust in the quarry caused Nelson Mandela and many other former prisoners to have life-long eyesight and respiratory problems.

More Interesting Facts Gleaned From the Bus Tour

  • The first political prisoners arrived on Robben island in the 1960's and they were considered to be much more dangerous than the convicts that were already on the island. Political prisoners were considered criminals and some were even given indefinite sentences.

  • Black wardens were quickly removed from their jobs soon after the arrival of the political prisoners because it was feared they would be sympathetic to their cause.

  • Political prisoners were breaking rocks while murderers and rapists were sewing clothes and doing laundry. Prisoners built most of the barracks themselves, the political prisoners were given menial manual labor tasks, while the convicts were taught stone masonry, electrical work and other jobs that would be useful to them once they were freed.

  • Political prisoners were initially allowed one visit every six months. They had to speak either English or Afrikaans so the guards could understand every word that was spoken.

  • All political prisoners on Robben island were either black, colored or of Indian descent. South Africa kept it's white political prisoners elsewhere.

  • Political prisoners could not receive visits from anyone younger than 16 years so many prisoners never saw their children grow up.

  • Robben Island was a leper colony from 1844 to the early 1900's. You'll pass a leper graveyard where it's estimated 1,500 lepers were buried.

  • Penguins were reintroduced on the island in 1983 (they'd been hunted to extinction) and there's now a healthy population of around 60,000. Along with lots of rabbits, which are proving to be quite the pests!

  • There's a lovely little Anglican church on the island, which was built for use by the wardens and their families and is now a non-denominational church. There's also a primary school with 16 current students, who are the children of the people that work for the Museum and live on the island. Among the museum employees are some ex-political prisoners, now living in the former houses previously occupied by wardens.

  • In 2004, a ten-year-old boy from India became the youngest person to swim the 12km from Robben Island to Cape Town. Keep in mind that the Atlantic Ocean here is absolutely freezing and the boy swam without a wet suit. The ocean is also infested with sharks.

  • The first prisoner on the island to swim to freedom was a Dutchman by the name of Jan Rykman, who made the treacherous dash in 1640.

For more historical details see About.com's African History Guide's very informative photo guide to Robben Island

Next: The Maximum Security Prison...

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