“By a lonely prison wall, I heard a young girl calling” – The Dubliners.
There has been something really weird and odd that has happened to me a few times on my journeys. Life has been really crazy how it all worked out for me – tying up loose ends, fool circles / full circles and finally arriving in Cape Town on officially my fifth visit to South Africa, dating back to January 2011, where I missed the World Cup by 7 months. Back in 2011, I did a tour of Soweto, seeing Nelson Mandela’s house, Desmond Tutu’s house, a Shebeen experience, the Apartheid Museum (in Johannesberg) as well as the famous bicycle tour of Soweto. Some photos first, if only for the memory.
All those photos and memories were actually from 2011. Alas this visit, and the Robben Island visit fell upon February 2020. It’s just been a while to get round to write about it all.
Also, I was always destined to visit Robben Island but I guessed that when I did I would travel with Russell and Malina together here. We were backpacking in southern Africa together on a trip where we visited Angola, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa.
But the day we were meant to all travel together, our trip to Robben Island was cancelled and refunded. It was high winds and wicked seas so they cancelled it. Bummer! On that trip we seemed to spend ages in Cape Town but looking back it was only 5-6 days. We did a tour to the penguins at Simon’s Tour, the Cape of Good Hope, we milked the city’s sights and hiked to the top of Table Mountain. But Robben Island was proving elusive.
We had it all booked and that was for my penultimate day in South Africa then it was cancelled. I wanted to share photos of the cancelled day and most from Robben Island but sadly I lost those photos – it was my own fault as I lost them in Poland – not saving them onto my harddrive and losing them in the accident where I nearly died in a train smash in June 2020. Alas, I recovered enough photos and memories for this post.
Malina and Russell later admitted they didn’t really want to go to Robben Island and were going because I was so insistent on visiting it. If I want to do something, I do it. So as soon as they cancelled it, I stayed at the ferry terminal and asked them to please put me on the next available boat to Robben Island. I waited and waited. I got my refund for the cancellation and then begged to still make it, they found a slot for me.
Booking My Ticket For Robben Island
Bear in mind that this happened in February 2020, so although COVID-19 had already started, the global lockdowns had not. Tourism was rife and these ferries to Robben Island were sold out. I was in the ferry terminal, but I believe online bookings might be possible now here. Finally, they put me on the ferry and guided tour the next morning at 11.00 a.m. Malina and Russell decided not to come. At the time, there was only one official Robben Island Ferry and Tour to book – you had to book that one. Here’s my ticket.
The ticket was 550 Rand – around $33 US Dollars and under £30 UK pounds so not too bad as it is a 3-4 hour tour.
Timeline of the Robben Island tour
This is what happens on the tour.
10.30 a.m. – Arrive early at the Nelson Mandela Gateway – bag and ticket check.
11.00 a.m. – Boat departs from the Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.
11.30 a.m. – Boat arrives at Robben Island and we walk the first part past a shop, through the gates and our guide takes us for a walk then a bus tour.
12.15 p.m. – We arrive in a lonely shared cell. Then it’s Nelson Mandela’s cell.
12.45 p.m. – Shop and boarding the ferry for the trip back to mainland Africa.
13.15 p.m. – Arrived back in Cape Town.
Exactly what happened on my Robben Island tour
I did the 11.00 a.m. tour – please book them early or you won’t get on – it’s busy and sells out fast. I was lucky to do it. As of August 2022, tours run daily at 09.00, 11.00, 13.00 and 15.00. The ferries depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the Victoria & Albert Waterfront. That’s a quirky zone alright – top notch area!
Robben Island is actually north of Cape Town, surrounded by Rangatira Bay and Murray’s Bay.
The tour takes 3.5 hours including the ferry trip to and from the Island, depending on the boat and the weather. It was a windy and stormy day and on the way, we saw whales – this was a bonus. Photos lost but I do have a photo of the boat and some videos at the bottom of the post.
On arrival on Robben Island, we disembarked at Murray’s Bay Harbour on the east coast where we walked to meet our guide and bus. On the way to the buses, we passed buildings and a high wall which was actually built by prisoners during the 1960s. The buildings were used for family and lawyer visits to prisoners, some minor privilege for the destruction of your life being sentenced here. It’s all completely grim and I feel disgusted and free.
We are met by our Tour Guide when we board the bus and suddenly, I feel very ill. Yes very very ill. I thought it was the feeling of this island that had made me ill. Later I learnt from Malina that it was the food from the night before – we experienced food poisoning. I was really ill here on Robben Island. I remember trying to sleep on the bus and crouch into the corner. We passed a church and a mosque and I photographed both below. But I was very ill. The reason the photos on this post are low quality or smaller is because I managed to salvage them as these are photos by luck that I had emailed or sent online to friends and family, so thanks Facebook and What’s App!
Our bus tour guide was excellent and then we are introduced to another gentleman and I didn’t know what was to come. First though. I went to the toilet when we stopped and I vomitted for about 5 minutes in the toilet. I washed it all up then bought a milk, a water and a Sprite. Around the same time, I found a quick moment to grab a photo looking back over at Cape Town. I was ill.
The prison tour then took us to a stop outside the prison itself. Here are some of those photos.
The island has a crazy 500-year-old history, though obviously the Mandela imprisonment was from 1964 – 1982. He spent EIGHTEEN years locked up here and that scares the hell out of me. Mandela served a total of 27 years in prison, split between Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. Once inside the actual scary prison – we went into a huge shared cell. This was horrific.
Our guide in the photo below gave a breathtaking speech about the prison and this room we were in.
Then he revealed that he was a long-term prisoner here. This was his room, his home for 18 years. He showed us the window he stared out at every day, passing his life away. Losing 18 years of his life behind bars.
I’m cut pretty deep by it all as we look at more parts of the prison.
The tour route also included the graveyard of people who died from leprosy, the army and navy bunkers and the “recreation area” where the prisoners could paint or play football etc. We are in the Maximum Security Prison where thousands of South Africa’s freedom fighters were incarcerated for years. The tour culminates with a viewing of Nelson Mandela’s cell. It’s B Section. It’s all hard to take in.
After that, I go fast back onto the ferry and sleep the entire way back as the food poisoning has taken over. I was ill the rest of that day, and Malina was too. I’m glad that I did the tour despite how horrific it was. However, something weird stuck in my mind from that day. Later it would be significant and I think it will be a story for a book to come. In the meantime, I do recommend that tour of Robben Island and it kind of ended things for me in South Africa. I felt I’ve seen enough there now, and like many countries from my wacaday journey, I don’t need nor want to go back. I’ll keep my memories.
It’s a scary place. It’s not for the faint hearted and it’s certainly sad that so many prisoners spent huge chunks of their lives here. Here are the details for organising a tour to Robben Island.
Nelson Mandela Gateway,
PO Box 51806
Cape Town, South Africa, 8002
T +27 (0)21 413 4200
F +27 (0)21 419 1057
Robben Island Museum
Private Bag Robben Island
Cape Town 7400
Monday to Sunday – 08:00 to 17:00
Public Holidays – 08:00 to 17:00
Workers’ Day (01 May) – Closed
Christmas Day (25 December) – Closed
Family Day (26 December) – 08:00 to 12:00
New Year’s Day (01 January) – 08:00 to 12:00
But check when you go for the latest tour dates and information, as things always change.
Here are some videos from my sad trip to Robben Island:
2011 Videos from Soweto: