These days, a trip to Robben Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a must-do on the itinerary of any tourist to Cape Town. For centuries, however, the trip was one to be feared.
Forget palm trees and sun-kissed beaches; Robben Island’s allure lies in its rich and wretched history. South Africa’s first democratically elected president – Nelson Mandela – spent 18 years of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island. Easily the most famous of the island’s political prisoners, Mandela was by no means the island’s only notable inmate – South African presidents Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma also spent time there.
The Apartheid government wasn’t the first to use the island as a prison. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Dutch sent political prisoners from the Dutch East Indies to the island. There is a Kramat (holy shrine) on the island dedicated to the Prince of Madura – Pangeran Chakra Deningrat – who died on the island in 1754, and the first chief imam of the Cape spent 13 years (from 1780 to 1793) imprisoned on the island.
When the Brits took over in the Cape, they too used the island to imprison those who resisted their rule. After a failed uprising in Grahamstown, they sent the instigator, Makanda Nxele, to the island. He managed to overpower the guards, but didn’t survive the swim to the mainland. However, there were others who managed the escape. The first person to successfully make the swim from Robben Island to the mainland – no easy feat given the treacherous rocks, icy water, and possibility of sharks – was a convict called Jan Rykman in 1690. For a period in the second half of the 19th century, Robben Island became a leper colony. At first, lepers were moved to the colony on a voluntary basis, but after the Leprosy Repression Act in May 1882, they were forced to live on the island, with no option of return. During the Second World War, the island was used as a military base, which is why you’ll find artillery batteries and fortifications.
While the island has a rich political history, it is also pretty fascinating from a geographical and environmental perspective. The island, which was once part of the mainland, is actually the peak of a mountain. The rest of the mountain just happens to be under water these days. The history of the island may not be pretty, but the scenery certainly is!
Roughly 132 species of bird – including a colony of African Penguins – have made the island their home. Keep an eye out for Crowned Cormorants and Black Crowned Night Herons, which breed on the island in large colonies. On your journey to the island, you might catch a glimpse of Cape Fur Seals (after all, when translated from the Dutch, Robben Island is ‘seal island’) and Southern Right Whales. On the island itself, you’ll find a variety of buck – including Springbok and Eland – and three different species of tortoises!
Ferries depart for Robben Island from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront at 9am, 11am and 1pm daily, depending on the weather. You can expect the tour (including the trips to and from the island) to last about three-and-a-half hours. Gates close 10 minutes prior to boarding, so it is best to arrive early. Once you disembark at Murray’s Bay Harbour, you’ll take a short walk to the buses, which will transport you to the historical sites on the islands. You can expect to see the leper graveyard, the lime quarry where political prisoners were forced to work, army and navy bunkers, and the Maximum Security Prison. The tour usually ends with a visit to Nelson Mandela’s cell. All of the tour guides on the island were once political prisoners, so in addition to the official history, you might also be treated to a few personal anecdotes.