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As one of South Africa’s most famous historical landmarks, Robben Island is a name that you're probably already familiar with. Those of you who have read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom will be more clued up than those who haven’t, because this is where the world’s most renowned freedom fighter spent an incredible 18 of his 27 years incarcerated years. And beyond that, the island has over 500 years worth of stories to tell – get comfy because Robben Island is a journey into South Africa’s history.
Before becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the island’s three centuries as a prison site were only really broken up by its short stint at homing a leper colony.
It was the Dutch that first noticed Robben Island’s potential as an offshore spot to ship convicts to, and by 1671 it was an official prison station. When the Cape came under British rule in 1806, they continued the practice as laid out by their predecessors, but in 1843 it was decided that the prisoners would be of better use on the mainland – where they could be used for manual labour – so the island became an asylum for the “mentally ill”. Conditions were brutal and in 1931, when the cruelty of the segregation conditions were finally realised, “patients” were allowed back to Cape Town to be treated.
Once the leper colony was vacated, the island spent a short while as a WWII military outpost before being returned to a prison again in 1961. It’s this period, during South Africa’s apartheid, that Robben Island is most notorious for. Amongst the island’s high profile political prisoners held here at this time was, of course, the legendary Nelson Mandela, who would later go on to become South Africa’s first black president.
This is a fully guided tour – often led by ex-residents of the island’s cells – that will leave you both richly informed and deeply saddened. Here, on this now ghostly island, your guide will shed personal light on some of the darkest hours of South Africa’s heart-wrenching history.
It will all begin with the flurry of busses that will pick you up in groups off of the ferry and it’s via this method of transport that you’ll discover the island’s various points of interest. From the haunting graveyard where those who lost their lives to leprosy here were laid to rest, to the Maximum Security Prison in which thousands of South Africa’s freedom fighters we incarcerated for years, the now isolated island is definitely a place of reflection.
Your tour will end with a viewing of Nelson Mandela’s cell. Soaking in this stark space behind bars – that doesn’t even house a proper bed – is a truly humbling experience.
In the Atlantic Ocean, just off of Cape Town’s picturesque shores – catch the ferry from the V&A Waterfront.
Ferries depart promptly for the island at 9am, 11am and 1pm daily and tours – including the return cross-water journey – last around three-and-a-half hours.
R360 including a guided tour and return ferry ride.
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