The island served as a prison for political activists during the apartheid years. The most well-known occupant, Nelson Mandela, spent 17 years here. Visit landmarks on the island, including a moving personal account from a fellow prisoner and see Nelson Mandela’s cell. Read our guide to the Robben Island tour from Cape Town.
Travel Essentials – Robben Island Tour
Robben Island Tour – Getting there
Robben Island Tour
The ticket includes:
- Boat trip from Nelson Mandela Gateway (NMG), Cape Town to Murray’s Bay Harbour, Robben Island.
- A bus ride around the historical sites of the island.
- A walking tour of the prison.
- Boat trip from Murray’s Bay Harbour, Robben Island to Nelson Mandela Gateway, Cape Town.
Boat trip from NMG, Cape Town to Murray’s Bay Harbour, Robben Island.
There are four daily one-hour sailings. Stand at the rear of the boat, and watch Cape Town disappear into the distance. This is the same journey that the prisoners would have taken. Framed by the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean with Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, and Devil’s Peak towering above, this is one of the world’s best ocean views.
On approaching the island, Cape fur seals play and cavort in the water. The word “Robben” means seal in Dutch.
The island, home to endangered African Penguins, plus other protected seabird species, became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. By 1800 penguins vanished from the islands, as they were a food source and their eggs considered a delicacy.
Penguins reappeared in 1983, with numbers reaching 20,000. The island is home to the third-largest colony of African Penguins and is the most accessible place to see them in their natural habitat.
A bus ride around the historical sites of the island
After arriving at Murray’s Bay Harbour, the island’s original landing place, it is a short walk to the buses. The first stop is the Leprosarium Graveyard, a resting place for hundreds of people who died from leprosy and one of four graveyards on the island.
Next is the Limestone Quarry, where prisoners pushed heavy, steel wheelbarrows, loaded with sand, around the site repeatedly for no apparent purpose. The glare and the dust caused permanent damage to the prisoners’ eyes. After apartheid, Nelson Mandela returned in 1995 and placed a stone on a mound at the quarry centre. When a former prisoner returns, they each add a stone.
The next stop is the Sobukwe Complex, where Robert Sobukwe, the political freedom fighter, lived from 1963 to 1969 in solitary confinement. After leaving the island, two long kennels became home for the prison wardens guard dogs. The wardens and dogs intimidated the inmates. The Bluestone quarry is where prisoners built walls using sand to protect the quarry from the sea in the harsh winter.
A walking tour of the prison
The tour’s main point of interest is the Maximum Security Prison (MSP). South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, knowns as Prisoner 46664, spent 18 years of his 27 years, from 1964 to 1982, at this facility.
A former inmate recalls his experience of being imprisoned. People sit in silence as they listen to the harshness of prison life. The next stop is Mandela’s cell, measuring 8 feet by 7 feet with sleeping on a straw mat.
While incarcerated here, both his mother and his oldest son passed away. He was not permitted to attend either funeral. In terms of clothing, he could only wear shorts and allowed one visitor per year. Mandela, in his 1995 autobiography, ‘The Long Road to Freedom“, says;
Today when I look at Robben Island I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit.
Leaving the cell, you enter the B-section of the MSP’s courtyard, a secure section for isolated prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, Billy Nair, and other senior African Congress members.
Boat trip from Murray’s Bay Harbour, Robben Island to Nelson Mandela Gateway, Cape Town
After leaving the B-section complex, the tour ends, and it is time to head back towards the buses. Visitors reflect on the pain, struggle, strength, and endless fortitude of the prisoners on the island. Watch Robben Island disappear out of view as the boat heads back to the mainland.
The verdict – Robben Island Tour
More than half a million people visit the island every year as part of a Robben Island Tour. Mandela’s 18 years in prison and during the final throes of apartheid helped shape the remarkable rebirth of South Africa. Each year on 27 April, the whole country celebrates Freedom Day.
It is astounding and somewhat humbling to think from the B-Section cell he served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 as a 75-year old. Nelson Mandela was the first person of colour elected as head of state as part of a fully representative democratic election.
Robben Island and the Robben Island Tour is definitely worth the doing. With natural beauty, historical significance and the struggle for people’s rights, it is a complete history lesson in just a few hours and a reminder of the fight for a better world.
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