Our top 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites
June 19, 2023
Robben Island sits just 7 kilometres from mainland South Africa and within sight of the distinctive silhouette of Table Mountain, which must have been pure torture for the many souls who found themselves incarcerated here through the centuries – so near but so far from freedom. This is a place that echoes with history and suffering, but is today a symbol of hope and testament to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity – a place that has played a pivotal role in the story of South Africa, and has become one of Cape Town’s key sights. We’ve prepared this guide to help you make the most of your visit.
Since the 17th Century when South Africa was colonised by the Dutch, Robben Island was used as a prison. The island continued to be used to incarcerate sinister criminals for many centuries, doubling up as a leper colony as well as an asylum for some decades. Most famously, this diminutive 600 hectare patch of low-lying land was used as a prison for political opponents to the apartheid regime, and counts Nelson Mandela among its most renowned inmates. He was locked up in the facility for 18 years of the 27 that he served, and it was inside the Robben Island Prison that the seeds of the liberation movement were sown. The whole island is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a place of contemplation and reflection for those who visit.
The island tour includes ferry travel to and from Nelson Mandela Gateway which is located on the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Depending on the weather, tours depart regularly throughout the morning, though if the crossing is too rough trips do occasionally get cancelled. It is a good idea to book in advance as it’s a popular tour, and make sure to arrive in good time to allow a few minutes to take in the installation in the waiting area which illustrates the history of Robben Island. The ferry takes between 30 and 45 minutes and, should you be lucky enough to experience good weather, the views across Table Bay and back to Table Mountain are fabulous. This is often a choppy stretch of water so those who get seasick might want to plan ahead. Once you arrive at Murray’s Bay Harbour it’s a short walk to the bus, which will be waiting to take you to discover the island.
Tours are organised by the Robben Island Museum and visitors travel across the island by bus whilst being accompanied by an official tour guide – usually an ex-political prisoner who spent time behind bars here. The tour route takes in the cemetery for those who died of leprosy; two quarries where inmates were subjected to hard labour to extract stone for buildings and roads on the island; Robert Sobukwe’s ‘house’ where he was kept in solitary confinement for several years, forbidden to communicate with anyone; and the maximum security prison itself, which is brought to life by guides who experienced life inside the walls. Nelson Mandela’s cell is a poignant reminder of the turbulent history of South Africa. The whole island is considered a museum, and though there are more than 100 permanent inhabitants, the buildings are left in a similar state of minimalist decrepitude to the time when it was a prison island.
The natural state of this windswept island is sparsely vegetated grassland with no trees, so perhaps not the ultimate haven for wildlife, yet there is quite a diverse selection of species who call it home. Fur seals are often seen out in the bay, as are whales, while on the island itself there are several springbok, deer, ostriches, tortoises, many rabbits and cats, though it is the thousands of charming African penguins which capture the most attention. At one point there were more than 20,000 penguins living on the shores of Robben Island, but today the number has fallen to around 3,000, possibly due to restricted food supplies. Birdlife is overall very prolific, with more than 100 species of bird recorded in such a small territory. Look out for night herons and crowned cormorants, both of which nest on the island.
Three of the former prisoners of Robben Island have since been elected President in South Africa. Nelson Mandela served from 1994 to 1999, and has gained international recognition for his role in the anti-apartheid revolution. Kgalema Motlanthe was imprisoned for his involvement with the ANC and spent ten years on Robben Island between 1977 and 1987. He held office as an interim President for 8 months beginning in 2008. From 2009 until early 2018, Jacob Zuma was President of South Africa. He was another of the ex Robben Island prisoners, having spent 10 years there for his involvement with the ANC and for conspiring to overthrow the ruling apartheid government at the time.
Make it happen
A trip to Robben Island honours the hardship and suffering of those who were incarcerated and celebrates the change which many of those individuals brought about. It is a humbling place and gives a fascinating insight into the history of South Africa. Build Robben Island into your tailor made tour of Cape Town and beyond, created for you by our expert local specialists. Send them a few details of the kind of trip you are looking for and they will do the rest.
Join our newsletter for more inspiration, local expertise, and updates on how we’re making travel a force for good.