A trip to Robben Island remains at the top of every tourist’s itinerary but is it top of mind for locals? Well, we certainly believe that it should be!
Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many know it as the place where South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 years of his 27 years in prison along with many others who fought for South Africa’s freedom. But the island is rich in history that spans further than any history books have ever told.
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Where it all begins…
The Robben Island experience begins from the moment you step foot into the Nelson Mandela Gateway situated in the Clock Tower precinct, at the V&A Waterfront. This Gateway isn’t just another ticket office or loading dock but a museum itself – one housing exhibitions tracing local political history and is much more than meets the eye from the outside.
Currently, ferries depart for Robben Island every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11 am (this is, however, subject to change) and trips are weather dependent.
“Skip the queue by booking tickets online in advance to avoid any disappointments or delays. Planning is key! Check the weather for the day you’d like to book for and book immediately via Webtickets as trips sell out faster than you think. Also ensure that you arrive at Nelson Mandela Gateway at least 30 to 40 minutes before your boat is scheduled to depart.
Naturally, the checking in process is longer due to COVID-19 protocols, and remember that the boarding gates close 10 minutes prior to departure in case you do run a little late” – Juanita Abrahams, content creator & blogger
Like any trip, comfort is of the utmost importance.
Wear comfortable walking shoes, don’t forget to pack in a snack, a jacket just in case Cape Town’s weather decides to blow in a different direction and if need be, remember to take medication for motion sickness well ahead of time. Although it is advisable to eat a good breakfast before the trip, refreshments are available for purchase on Robben Island, but ensure that you have cash on hand.
A special note to South Africans: Remember to take along your RSA ID to qualify for the local rate. All IDs are checked before boarding the boat.
“Even in the heart of winter, we managed to enjoy a warm, sunny day trip. Packing in sunglasses, SPF, a sunhat and a bottle of water is a given. As someone who often gets motion sickness, the boat was definitely smoother sailing than I imagined and before we knew it, we saw the island approaching.”
What to expect…
Visitors can expect the tour (including the trips to and from the island) to last about three-and-a-half hours, so best to make sure those phone and camera batteries are charged and why not pack your power bank in too. We promise that there are many things you don’t want to miss out on capturing!
“Soak up every moment. Don’t rush through any part of it. The experience truly begins before boarding the boat, with a unique view of the V&A Waterfront for starters and a photographer who snaps beautiful images of all individuals beforehand. Images are also available for purchase upon return from Robben Island for only R50 but again, cash is king.”
The boat ride isn’t like anything else you’ll experience in Cape Town and if you think that you’ll be standing the whole way there while enjoying the view, you’re sorely mistaken.
Although it’s quite large in stature from the outside, the inside is even more spacious and comfortable with enough distance between passengers to ensure all COVID-19 protocols are adhered to.
“As this was my very first visit to Robben Island, I was taken aback by the view from Murray’s Bay Harbour but more so by the fact that there are many individuals & families who actually reside on the island and use the boat to commute to the city daily”
Upon disembarking from the boat, expect to take a short walk to buses that will transport you to all the historical sites around the Island, with each bus having a dedicated Robben Island Tour guide.
The walk to the buses also has a history behind it… be sure to take note of the buildings and high walls on your left-hand side – the same buildings where families and lawyers once met with prisoners.
“Pro tip: aim for a window seat on the bus! It makes for great viewing as a major part of the trip is done while on the bus, something I wasn’t aware of, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on any of the landmarks or spotting of wildlife”
Robben Island Tour
The full Robben Island tour route is one that words do not give justice to and you truly have to experience it for yourself. A graveyard for people who died from leprosy, a Kramat built in honour of the Prince of Madura who was exiled to the island in the 1700s, passing by Robert Sobukwe’s house, the Lime quarry where political prisoners spent many hard days labouring and an inside view of prison cells are only but a small part of what the trip truly encompasses.
As the tour guide shares stories of the people who were once there, it’s hard to imagine what life was really like for so many not that long ago, yet interesting to know that Robben Island has been a place of imprisonment and isolation for centuries before South Africa’s apartheid regime.
As you can see, Table Mountain is easily spotted from the island and what a sight to see! This part of the trip is also the only rest spot visitors will have – to sit back, relax, take photos and have a snack too.
After approximately 1 hour driving around the island, the rest of the trip is a full walking tour, accompanied by a new tour guide. On the island, your tour guide will be an ex-political prisoner, who is not only knowledgeable in the history of the island but have personal stories they willingly share.
The second part of the tour takes you through group cells as well as individual cell blocks where you’re able to catch a glimpse of what life was like for prisoners, from the meals they received to how letters were censored, the available facilities and the harsh conditions they had to endure, including showering with sea water.
While touring through the individual cells, take a moment and stop. Each cell has an image of the prisoner who was once there with a part of their story, as well as pieces of memorabilia – including letters from their families, books, certificates and other special items.
“Our tour guide, Jama, shared his personal experiences and the one thing that stood out most was having to sleep on a two-centimeter-thick sleeping mat and just a thin blanket to match.”
“So much more can be shared about what I learnt and saw during my very short visit to Robben Island, but I’d encourage locals (and tourists) to experience it for themselves. For families to experience it together, for no history book could ever compare.
To hear the stories of those who have walked a hard road to help us get to where we are today, to see history so close you can almost touch it, to feel the cold floors that people once slept on and see what many endured for the sake of our freedom.”
Finally, the tour concludes with a visit to Nelson Mandela’s cell. Although no one is allowed in the cell, that one small block holds so much power.
Please also remember:
• Leave the island the way you found it. Don’t litter or remove things from the island to take home with you.
• To follow any instructions given by the tour guides – you wouldn’t want to be left stranded on the island because you missed the boat!
• That this isn’t just another day trip. Don’t be afraid to ask the tour guides questions and view as much as you can.
The ferry operates Friday, Saturday and Sunday, at 11h00.
Should the demand increase, additional tours will be made available. Regular local ticket prices are R400 per adult and R210 for children under 18. South Africans: Please Remember to bring along your RSA ID to qualify for local rates.
Skip the queue, book your tickets online at Webtickets: https://www.webtickets.co.za/robbenisland
LAYERS! Be sure to dress for Cape Town weather (winter and summer in one day!). It will most likely be chilly on the ferry but may be slightly warmer on the island. Just be prepared. And don’t forget to wear comfortable walking shoes.
Arrive at least an hour before your trip so that you can take your time walking around the Nelson Mandela Gateway. You get FREE access to the exhibitions with your ticket.
Buy your tickets online and well in advance as this is a major tourist attraction and can get booked quite far in advance.
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ONE DESTINATION, SIX UNFORGETTABLE EXPERIENCES
There is no one way to explore all of the Cape Town Big 6, and much of what makes each of them so special is the variety of things to see and do at each. So if possible, take your time to explore each of the city’s most visited tourist attractions in as much depth as possible – as any local will tell you, you can spend a lifetime at each of the Big 6 and still not tire of them. Find the 3 and 4 day itineraries and tips here.