Cape Town Day 2: A ‘ferry’ good trip to Robben Island


Me posing at Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town.

Robben Island or Robbeneiland is derived from Dutch, meaning Seal Island, and for this reason, I was hoping to at least bump into a harem of seals (or a waddle of African penguins as featured in the flyer) when I decided to visit. Going for a trip to see seals, whales or penguins on a boat cost about R1,000 per person. Watching one of these animals costs about R500 per person. So, I took a rain check.

My husband and I purchased tickets to Robben Island at the Nelson Mandela Gateway near the Clock Tower. Our tickets to Robben Island cost us R220 (that’s about RM100) per person at the Nelson Mandela Gateway near the Clock Tower. The price is for a standard tour (3.5 hours) provided by Robben Island Museum, and it includes:

1. A return boat trip across Table Bay
2. A visit to the infamous Maximum Security Prison
3. Interaction with an ex-political prisoner
4. A 45-minute bus ride with a guide providing commentary
5. The opportunity to explore the Murray’s Bay Harbour precinct attractions such as the Muslim shrine or kramat, and the Museum Shop

The Nelson Mandela Gateway was constructed to symbolize South Africa’s past and reflect how change in peoples attitude can shape a country.

We took the earliest trip at 11 am (boarding was at 10:30 am).The queue to embark on the ferry was quite long and everybody had to pass through a scanning machine.

A ferry named Sikhululekile, which means “we are free” in Xhosa

Me eagerly waiting in line to board Sikhululekile.

On the ferry, we took the upper seats for an easy access to the side deck for photography purposes. My husband said I could take photos, so I went to the deck and after 10 minutes, my face went cold and numb. I quickly returned to my seat, took out my knitted gloves, wore them and held my husband by his left arm. “This is why I prefer not to go outside,” he told me. “Yes very sweet of you to inform me,” I replied.

View of Cape Town from the deck.

The trip to Robbeneiland was about half an hour, and with nothing better to do, I observed other passengers. There in the right hand corner was a man seated with a family. I could tell that the man did not belong to the group by the look of his face. He looked Indian while the rest were maybe Zambian, Zimbabwean or local. On my right hand side, there was a man clad in long jacket (probably Burberry) busy doing something on his new iPad2. Wow, classy. He looked like a businessman. “So what is a businessman doing in Robbeneiland?” I thought to myself. Perhaps he had to ‘seal’ a deal. Haha.

Outside on the deck, there was a mother and daughter busy taking pictures, a couple enjoying the cold breezy weather and three others happily snapping away with their DSLRs. While looking at them, I asked my husband, “What is the seating capacity of this ferry?” He replied, “Dunno. Maybe around 200 or 250 or 300?” “Wow. Ok we take the max 300, so R220 x 300 x 3 daily trips ..urm how much is that?” We did the math and it’s R198, 000 per day. They sure make loads of income from Robben Island tourism.

You see, Robben Island is listed as one of the Big 6 in South Africa, and the promotions are big. There are flyers, brochures – not leaving behind websites as well as TV ads. Even the driver who fetched us the other day recommended Robben Island. Suddenly, Pulau Jerejak popped in my mind. If only it can be transformed into something like Robben Island. Hmmm.

The ferry finally docked the Robben Island jetty at 11:30 am and pelagic birds seemed to usher our arrival. Lots of them.

When we disembarked, a fleet of buses were already waiting for us, and off we went to the common prisons where our tour starts. Outside the prison, we met the tour guide, who was actually an ex-prisoner. He explained about the history of Robben Island as well as the prisons. He told us that at first, it was hard for him to come back to the prison. However he managed to overcome the feeling and began treating his job as therapy. It helped him to ease the burden by sharing stories about life in the prison.

Robben Island is the largest of the islands along the coastline of South Africa. It is 507 hectares, roughly oval-shaped, and about 2 kilometres in length from north to south. From the 17th to the 20th centuries, Robben Island served as a place of banishment, isolation and imprisonment. Today it is a World Heritage Site and museum, a poignant reminder to the newly democratic South Africa of the price paid for freedom.

In the common prison, we got to observe shared communal cells which can fit 50 to 60 people. Only a few of the bunk beds still remain in the cell for exhibition purposes. We were later taken to the kitchen, as well as the B-section courtyard. The prison tour ended at the maximum security section where high level political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela were kept in.

Nelson Mandela’s cell was just behind the wall where my husband sat.

After the prison tour, we were taken on a 45-minute bus tour. The bus took us to the limestone quarry where prisoners did hard labour, the lighthouse, the leper’s graveyard, the school, and the Moturu Kramat.

Limestone quarry where Nelson Mandela worked for 13 years.

This school still serves the island today – with children ranging from the ages six to 11 and four permanent teachers.

Lighthouse on Minto Hill.

This Kramat was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Adurohman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. Moturu, one of Cape Town’s first ‘imans’, was exiled to the island in the mid 1740s and died there in 1754.

The shrine was the end of our tour. Overall, we had a good tour. Although the prison itself was not that intriguing, the history around the whole facility (particularly the part where Mandela was held there) was invaluable. Of course it would have been better if only I saw a penguin waddling along Murray Bay. But we did have a surprised bonus: African Black Oystercatchers. We got the opportunity to see this bird along Murray Bay while on the way back to the starting point.

Listed as an endangered bird, the black oystercatcher has a population of less than 5,000 adults.

Now, that’s what I call a blast. Seeing something unique about a place is always like having a cherry on top of ice-cream.

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