Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is the departure point for one of the city’s essential activities – the 12-km (7.5-mi) ferry trip to Robben Island, for centuries a safe dumping ground for those deemed undesirable by the authorities, from Muslim leaders and Dutch colonial dissenters through lepers to anti-apartheid freedom fighters – among the latter Nelson Mandela, who went on to become South Africa’s first black President and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
During the apartheid years, the prison on Robben Island (established in 1959) became known for brutality designed to isolate opponents of the regime and crush morale. The harsh regime failed to achieve its objective and Robben Island became known in Africa and throughout the world as a symbol of resistance to tyranny and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
Today, Robben Island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the prison has become a living museum, where many of the guides are former political prisoners who really do know what they’re talking about. After a period of neglect, resources are being devoted to sprucing up the prison in particular and the island in general.
In Times past, the ferry journey from the mainland to Robben Island was notoriously unpredictable. Sailings by five ancient ferries were frequently cancelled as a result of mechanical problems, but the launch of a new 300-seater ferry, the Sikhululekile (‘We are free’), has restored reliability to the service. Even so, the ferry journey can be an exciting roller-coaster ride – or not take place at all – if one of the sudden storms for which the area is famed blows up. It’s a risk worth taking, as there are stunning bay views during the approach to Robben Island, with Table Mountain as the brooding backdrop.
When to go
Any time of year
Duration of the trip
Allowing time for a prison tour and island stroll, the round trip takes three to four hours.
- Cell number 46664, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years.
- The Motoru Kramat, is a sacred Muslim pilgrimage site dedicated to the Prince of Madura, a cape Town imam who was exiled to Robben Island in the mid-1700s and died there.
- The Robben Island lighthouse was built at the island’s (rather low) highpoint in 1863 to try and reduce a large number of ships regularly wrecked on the rocky shores.
- Observation of the over-active and ever-entertaining penguin colony.
You should know
Have a beady-eyed look along the shoreline – a dutch treasure ship was wrecked on Robben Island in the 17th century and the occasional gold coin still washes up today.