Activity: Visiting Africa’s Most Famous Jail, Stepping onto Robben Island Cape Town, South Africa.


A visit to Table Mountain behind Cape Town, South Africa is another essential activity to do when in Cape Town. A visit to Cape Town will leave these mountains seared into your memory forever.

This post is one chapter on our trip to South Africa, a Safari in the Maasai Mara in Kenya and Mauritius. This trip was redeemed through Air Canada’s Aeroplan and through Starwood Preferred Guest (Marriott Bonvoy) and Hyatt Gold Passport. For more information on how this trip was booked, please see our trip introduction here. For other parts of the trip, please see this index.

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Activity: Visiting Africa’s Most Famous Jail, Stepping onto Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa

During our time in Cape Town, we also took a tour of Robben Island. This story isn’t properly told without introducing Nelson Mandela. Mandela was a South African Anti – Apartheid revolutionary who fought against his country’s apartheid government state. He later served as South Africa’s first black Prime Minister from 1994 to 1999.

On his route to dismantling apartheid, Robben Island was the location where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for most of his 27 years in captivity. Robben Island is located off Cape Town and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its importance to South Africa’s political history and development of a democratic society. It is also significant as being a jail for Apartheid prisoners including Mr Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned here for eighteen of twenty seven years in South African Government custody.

Booking and Getting There:

Robben Island is located approximately 12 kilometers off shore from Cape Town, South Africa.

In our experience, the Robben Island tours sell out quickly due to limited capacity and were booking full 48-72 hours in advance of our visit in the spring season. Advance Reservations can be made via the web. On our visit, we turned up in person at the booking counter on the first day and were lucky enough to be accommodated later on in the week. 

The tours leave from The Victoria and Alfred Gateway from the picturesque Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town
The Nelson Mandela Gateway Building next to the Yellow Swing Bridge Tower

The trip out to Robben Island is, naturally, by ferry. The ferry takes approximately thirty minutes from shore to shore. When it came time for our posted tour, we boarded the boat.

Embarkation for Robben Island
Setting Off

Arriving to Robben Island:

After about thirty minutes, we arrived to the docks of Robben Island. There are some pictures on the dock of past life on the island before you enter the gates of the Prison.

Arriving to Robben Island
Entering through the Prison Gates

It’s a pretty barren and desolate experience on the island. Robben Island isn’t as welcoming as a resort, it’s a start contrast arriving here with lined barbed wire fences marking the jail boundaries along with stark conditions around the island.

Robben Island Gates
Fences keep you off the shore line

Inside the Robben Island Prison:

Our tour itself was conducted by an ex prisoner of the island and are highly structured. You are escorted at all times and as a result, you’’d be lucky if you get fifteen minutes to walk around on your own. Never the less, you get an opportunity to see many aspects of what would have been prison life during the Apartheid era.

Our guide had been imprisoned as a result of traveling to Angola for African National Congress activities – although he didn’t specify exactly. The advantage to having the “prisoner guides” are the direct connection to the history of the place. The disadvantage is that, with the greatest respect, their presentation skills aren’t as polished as a commercial tour operation and the stories can be a bit hard to follow.

The Yard at Robben Island

We got the opportunity to pass through the interiors of the prisons themselves, along with the cell area and the dining / communal bunk areas.

Prison Life
Nelson Mandela’s Cell

The Limestone Quarry:

We were able to see the limestone quarry where Nelson Mandela worked and his cell where he spent many of his years in segregation. Many of the prisoners here were sentenced to hard labour which involved digging up limestone. This later resulted in many health defects amongst the prison population.

Limestone Quarry Caves

The Shore Line of Robben Island:

Lastly, we were given a look at the shoreline of Robben Island. While the shoreline had an absolutely spectacular view back at Table Mountain in Cape Town, it must have been haunting for the prisoners who were residents here… looking back at the mainland of South Africa from a far.

The Shoreline of Robben Island
Views of Table Mountain from Robben Island

I felt that the island tour was a must do in Cape Town. I was really happy that we had the opportunity to take walk down these halls given the journey that these prisoners had travelled to get here.

Robben Island Summarized:

I felt that the Robben Island Tour was an essential part of our visit to Cape Town. Aside from being one chapter in a very fascinating political story, it is worth a visit to understand a part of what South Africa had grown into. Perhaps a place of pilgrimage for some, a trip to Robben Island is a means of understanding the fragility of democracy. My recommendations would be to make sure you book well in advance of your trip.

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