For anyone who hasn't heard of it, Robben Island is a small flat island off the coast of South Africa, visible from Cape Town, which was used both as a prison and leprosy "hospital" since the mid 1600's. It was also where Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 18 of his 27 years during the apartheid era and is now a World Heritage Site and open to the public as a museum. Robben Island is Dutch for Seal Island. There are many islands all around the coast named Seal Island…some bigger than others!
To get to the island you have to get on a boat from the V&A Waterfront in central Cape Town and tickets need to be booked online in advance because it's VERY busy and popular, especially during the holidays. We went with both Justin and Claudia who had never visited the island.
The boat trip itself takes about 45 minutes and gave us great views of Cape Town, Table Mountain and a few seals! The Island itself isn't much to look at from a distance because it's so flat!
Once off the boat we were immediately herded onto buses like sheep for the start of our tour. The whole thing is kept on a very tight schedule and there is no opportunity to walk around away from the group.
The bus took us on a tour for approximately another 45 minutes and took in the local buildings, churches, the solitary school (with a 100% pass rate) that is now closed despite the fact there are still families and small children living there and the lepers graveyard.
Next we visited the quarry where many documentaries have talked about Nelson Mandela working during his time as a prisoner. It was interesting to learn that what they mined, by hand, was limestone. This was then used for building roads. However, this was only for a short time, after which the limestone was no longer needed. The prisoners were then made to create piles of limestone which they would move from point A to point B, and back again, and so on and so on for many years! It was very demoralising and the prisoners had no choice but to comply with the orders. It is here that you find a rock pile, started by Nelson Mandela, and added to by other prisoners during each reunion.
Finally we were taken to the previous maximum security prison where our tour was taken over by a former prisoner. He led us through the cold concrete corridors and showed us where post was received before being censored (which also involved removing the name and address of the sender) before being passed to the prisoner's themselves.
We were shown the mess halls, outdoor courtyards, typical diet rations and many of the cells including the one where Nelson Mandela himself "lived".
The political prisoners were kept in D Block away from other prisoners. They communicated by placing notes inside a tennis ball and batting it over the wall to the courtyard on the other side. Many prisoners were there for small crimes such as stealing some food but, if they were black, were treated in much the same way as other prisoners who were there for more serious crimes.
Prisoners kept in solitary confinement were given a pint of sugar water twice a day which was the only sustenance they received, often for several weeks! The rest of the time they received minute rations and there were different menus depending on whether you were white, coloured, or black. The latter receiving far less than anyone else!
The cells themselves were only about 6ft square and contained a thin mattress and a couple of blankets. Many of the cells contain stories told by the prisoners who were held in them and some of these make difficult reading. Unfortunately there is no time to explore properly or read all the stories as the time schedule doesn't allow it. There are approximately 1500 visitors per day on this tour!
Once back at the small dock you have approximately half an hour to check out the gift shop before heading back on the boat to the mainland.
It was a very interesting day and I know Adam in particular loves his history. My only criticism is that there is nothing personal about the experience; some may wish they had more time there and others probably wish they could get back on the boat 20 minutes after arriving! It was well worth doing though.