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Robben Island Tour: South Africa's Most Significant Historic Site

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Visiting South Africa is an overall enriching travel experience, made more so by the country's fascinating history. Along with intriguing wildlife safaris, sun-kissed beaches, and breath-taking views, South Africa has a rich story to tell - of oppression, racism, and the apartheid, and how the country overcame it all to embrace diversity of its people and their culture.

One of the most notable historic site in South Africa, hands-down is Robben Island. Situated in Table Bay, Cape Town, the island is not a scene of palm trees and sandy beaches. Used as a apartheid-era prison, its attraction lies in the horrific history it holds. Late Nelson Mandela, the former South African president spent 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment here with many other political prisoners. Now a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a Robben Island tour is one of the must-do activities when on a trip to South Africa.

Quick Facts

Area: 5.18 sq. km
Visitors per year: 200,000
Ferry departures: Monday to Sunday at 9:00, 11:00, 13:00 & 15:00 (Note: the 15:00 time slot is only available between September and April each year)
Entry fee: Adults – USD 27, Visitors under 18 years old – USD 16*
Best time to visit:  November, February and March. It is not as windy as January and February, making the ferry ride to the island more pleasant.

A brief history

The Khoikhoi people were the first known inhabitants of Robben Island. Having resisted colonisation, from as early as 1510, many Khoikhoi were later banished or imprisoned on the island. Although Robben Island served many functions over the centuries, including that of an infirmary, sanatorium and military base, it has primarily been used to isolate and house political prisoners.

Prisoners on Robben Island were treated atrociously having been subjected to hard labour, meagre food rations and heavy beatings for minor infractions. In this way, Robben Island was used as a means of punishment and oppression, most notably during the darkest years of the battle against apartheid.

Today, having defeated the apartheid regime, Robben Island is a symbol of humanity's ability to triumph over evil. There are still many countries in the world where apartheid, racism and other discriminatory laws prevail. When visiting Robben Island, and bearing witness to the violence of apartheid, knowing that South Africa is now a free and democratic country gives hope to those who still battle discrimination in their every-day lives.

Planning the visit

In order to visit Robben Island, you will have to head to Cape Town, situated on the country's west coast. Cape Town is one of the country's most popular tourist destinations offering excellent hospitality and brilliant sightseeing opportunities. Robben Island is a 30-min ferry ride away from Cape Town, departing from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. Visitors must arrive at least 30 minutes prior to the scheduled departure time.

Ideally tickets for Robben Island tours should be booked at least two weeks in advance as they tend to sell out quickly. Tickets can be booked at the ticket counter at the V&A Waterfront or can also be purchased online through a ticket booking website. You can also make arrangements through a local tour operator.

Buying packaged tour to Robben Island from a tour operator doesn't only take out the hassle of ticket booking from your itinerary, but also comes with added value, such as hotel transfers. Packages (such as this) often include Cape Town city tours and other related destinations, e.g. township tour.

The visit

Robben Island in Cape Town
Entry point to popular Robben Island prison
Limestone Quarry in Robben Island
One of the limestone quarries where prisoners worked
Robben Island Prison Courtyard
Prison Courtyard in Robben Island
A Prison cell in Robben Island
A prison tour of Robben Island takes you through the experiences of its prisoners

A Robben Island tour ticket consists of a ferry ride to and from the island, a bus tour of the island, and a tour of the maximum-security prison. When leaving Cape Town for Robben Island make a point of catching the panoramic views of the "mother city" from the ferry.

Disembarking at Murray's Bay harbour, you will enjoy a bus tour of the island. A designated tour guide will point out important buildings and sites explaining some of the islands history en route.

The tour takes in many important historic sites including the graveyard for leprosy sufferers, the lime and bluestone quarries where prisoners worked and a cave which served as one of the few places where prisoners could speak in private. Legend has it that South Africa's current constitution came into being in this cave.

Finally, the maximum-security area where the legendary freedom fighters were incarcerated will be explored. The prison tour will be conducted by a former political prisoner who has first-hand experience of the conditions under which South Africa's political prisoners were incarcerated. The most significant feature of a Robben Island tour is visiting the cell in which Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. The tour takes approximately 4 hours including the ferry to and from Robben Island.

How to get there

If you have booked a local Robben Island tour package, it may include hotel transfers and accommodation. If not, and assuming that you are staying in Cape Town you could take a bus, Uber or taxi to the V&A Waterfront, the ferry departure point for all Robben Island tours. 

Good to know

  • The ferry ride from the V&A Waterfront to Robben Island can get choppy. If you suffer from seasickness, you should take nausea medication about an hour before departure.
  • The tour involves some walking. Comfortable walking shoes, a sun hat, sunglasses and sunscreen are recommended.
  • There are instances in which tours are cancelled due to bad weather. If you have booked a tour in advance, it is advisable to call ahead to confirm that the tour is on. In these cases, tours will be rescheduled or refunded.

A trip to Robben Island is well worth the time and effort. It promises to be a once in a lifetime experience. Not only will you have an opportunity to examine South Africa's past and explore the insidious nature of discrimination in the historic periods of both colonisation and apartheid, you will also leave with renewed hope in humanity's potential for reconciliation, forgiveness and change. 

*Note: Prices are as of May 2018.

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