Did you know?
Robben Island was once connected to the mainland by a strip of land.
A trip to Robben Island is a bittersweet experience but is a must do for anyone visiting Cape Town.
Robben Island reinvented itself many times over the years, once a leper colony, a mental hospital and defence training base, this World Heritage Site is most famed as the prison for anti-apartheid activists like our former president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
When you step foot on the island, you’re able to see the cell in which Mandela, the world's most famous prisoner, was held for 18 years of his 27-year incarceration. It’s a place many come to be humbled and to pay homage to the father of South African democracy, including the likes of former US president Bill Clinton and current US president Barack Obama.
On “the island”, as it became known, the leaders of the struggle against racial oppression forged their political thinking and the relationships that would become a feature of post-apartheid South Africa. It was also here that Mandela emerged as a leader of the African National Congress.
But when Mandela arrived on the island in the winter of 1964, the conditions he encountered were harsh.
Prisoners were confined to small cells with only a sleeping mat and bucket toilet. Each morning they were woken up at 5:30 to empty their buckets and start another day of hard labour. Black prisoners received an inferior diet compared to their white and coloured counterparts. Even more cruelly, they were deprived of contact with their loved ones, limited to a half-hour visit a year from a family member, and only two letters.
The island became an informal “university”, where the prisoners who were to become the next generation of political leaders in South Africa spent many hours in debate and discussion.
Isolated from family and friends, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada, among others, proved themselves to be men of steel, never wavering in their hope of a new South Africa.
It was for this reason that UNESCO's World Heritage Committee chose to mark this location for its “triumph of the human spirit”.
Today, you can catch a ferry ride to what is now called “The Robben Island Museum”. The standard tour starts at the Nelson Mandela Gateway at Cape Town's V&A Waterfront and takes around 3.5 hours in total (the boat ride is half-an-hour one way).
To add to the immersive experience, tours are often led by former political prisoners who draw a vivid picture of life in prison. The history of Robben Island is also sketched in a 45-minute bus tour.
It’s one of the world’s greatest cultural heritage destinations both for its tragedy and its triumph. It is a testimony to the true spirit of the South African people and history, and will never fail to humble you and give you perspective.
Travel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
Robben Island Museum
Tel: +27 (0)21 409 5100
Nelson Mandela Gateway
Tel: +27 (0)21 413 4200
How to get here
By ferry, from the Nelson Mandela Gateway on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Boarding gates close 10 minutes ahead of departure.
Best time to visit
In the spring (September/October) and summer (November to February) months. During the Cape's rainy winter, the seas can be rough.
Around the area
Take a day trip around the Cape Peninsula – see the listed Cape Point Route website for details.
Tours to do
The Robben Island tour includes a return boat trip across Table Bay, a visit to the Maximum Security Prison led by an former political prisoner, a 45-minute bus ride with commentary, and the opportunity to explore the Murray's Bay Harbour attractions, such as the Muslim shrine and Museum Shop.
On the conducted tour you will be moved around the island by coach.
What will it cost
A tour to the Robben Island Museum costs R250 per adult and R120 per child under the age of 18.
Length of stay
The standard tour to Robben Island is 3.5 hours long, including the two half-hour ferry rides.
What to pack
Take walking shoes, a camera, a hat and don't forget that sunblock.
Where to stay
The V&A Waterfront has lots of great accommodation – check the listed Cape Town Travel website for options.
What to eat
Seafood delights at the various V&A Waterfront restaurants.