Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town, has been a penal colony for most of its 400 year history. It's a barren little island surrounded by a rough shark-infested sea. Nelson Mandela spent 18 years on Robben Island most of them in the cell pictured above. Many of the leading members of South African political parties and ANC members were incarcerated alongside him. But in 1997 Robben Island was turned into a museum and also 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 museum's guides are former prisoners themselves and listening to their stories makes a visit to Robben Island a humbling and emotional experience.
Tours to Robben Island should be booked in advance either through a travel agent or directly at the Nelson Mandela Gateway (near the clock tower) on the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront where the ferries depart from. Tours last around 4 hours and include the ferry ride to Robben Island, a tour of the prison buildings, and a bus tour of the island itself. You will get to see the lime quarry that the prisoners spent years of their lives hacking away at. You also get a very interesting historical perspective of the island's history as a penal colony, leper colony and pantry for early settlers (penguins and their eggs are very nutritious).