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Robben Island Revisited

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Creating love out of pain: 25 couples attend a Robben Island wedding ceremony on Valentine’s Day, 2010. (Credit: Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

When my friends and I decided to visit South Africa, the one thing I wanted to make sure I saw was Robben Island.  For most of my life I’d looked up to Nelson Mandela – I even took part in an anti-apartheid demonstration back in college – so I really wanted to see this place that had featured so often in writings about him.

We bought our tickets online in the U.S. and we picked up the ferry from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, which is a big shopping/dining area.  The first and most obvious thing that I noticed was how rough the sea voyage was.  In fact Winnie Mandela wrote as much in her 1980s book Part of my Soul.  “Sometimes the sea is rough, they cancel the visit. You are at the mercy of these officers.  That means all the visitors have taken the long journey to Cape Town in vain.”  She had been doing this for some 20 years by then, once a month trying to visit her husband.

When we arrived at Robben Island, about 45 minutes later, we were greeted by a seal relaxing on a rock by the landing dock.  We then waited at the Visitor’s Center for a tour bus to take us around the island.  The bus showed us the leper graveyard, two churches (now both closed, though one opens every Valentine’s Day for weddings), and the quarry where Mandela and his fellow prisoners worked moving limestone from one place to the next while the sun blinded them.  “This is why Mandela has to work dark glasses all the time now,” said the guide, “because his eyesight is very bad.”  Tears started to well up in some visitors’ eyes.

We were then deposited in front of the cell block where another guide came to meet us.  He was a former political prisoner, as are most of the guides at this stage of the journey.  He talked about being beaten, of sleeping on the bare floor – beds were not given to prisoners until the 1970s, of how the authorities tried to continue apartheid in the prisons by treating the various racial groups differently.

Incredibly (to me) people still live on the island, as maintenance workers.  Even some of the former prisoners live here.  “Would you live here?”  someone asked him.  “Never,” he said.  “Too many bad memories.”

During this part of the tour we saw the prison cells, including Mandela’s, the exercise yard, the cafeteria area, and so on.  Then we were escorted back to the gift shop where you could buy books, stickers, and postcards.  I also saw the ferry coming back with people loaded with grocery bags of supplies – apparently people who lived on the island.

The voyage back was awful.  People cried and moaned with seasickness at the rising and falling of the ferry on the rough seas.  But somehow we made it back alive.  Very thankfully.

Practical Info

Cost:  230R (about $27 USD)

Times:  Tours leave at 9 am, 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm, weather permitting.  You should definitely reserve in advance at this website:   http://www.robben-island.org.za/

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