It was a sunny day when we headed to the Cape Town Waterfront to catch the boat to Robben Island for our half-day Robben Island tour. We’d visit the place which once held prisoners of the Apartheid regime in South Africa – Nelson Mandela being the most famous among them.
The history of Robben Island – a very brief summary
In the 17th century, the Dutch settlers were the first to hold political prisoners on Robben Island. The Brits followed their lead a century later. Around that time, the island also got its own whaling station, a leper colony and an animal quarantine station. Murray’s Bay Harbour, the location of the former whaling station, is the spot where visitors now disembark from the Robben Island ferries.
In the middle of the 19th century, Robben Island was home to those who weren’t wanted in everyday society: the “mentally ill”, the homeless, alcoholics and prostitutes with sexually transmittable diseases. They were kept and treated there in rudimentary conditions until 1931.
At that point, Robben Island became a military base and it was used as such until after the Second World War. Visitors who tour Robben Island today can still spot some of the fortifications and artillery batteries.
In 1961, Robben Island regained its function as a prison when the South African Apartheid regime started using the island to “stow away” political dissidents, with the most famous ones being Nelson Mandela and current South African president Jacob Zuma.
Robben Island became a National Monument in 1996 and is protected as a National Heritage Site up to one mile into the ocean surrounding it. In 1999, it was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nelson Mandela and Robben Island
Nelson Mandela was the first democratically elected president of South Africa and the first black nationwide head of state. But before he became president, he was an anti-Apartheid revolutionary and his rebellion against the white minority government lead him to be incarcerated for a total of 27 years.
Contrary to what many think, Mandela “only” spent the first 18 of those 27 years in the Robben Island jail. There, he stayed in a single cell in the Maximum Security Prison so that he wouldn’t be able to influence other prisoners too much. That cell is now one of the Robben Island attractions for visitors.
Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island in 1982, only to be brought over to Pollsmoor Prison, another Maximum Security Facility. In 1988, the then 70-year-old Mandela was moved to the much more comfortable Victor Verster Prison where he stayed in a house and had his own cook.
One year later, F.W. de Klerk replaced “Pik” Botha as state president. While Botha had always defended racial segregation, De Klerk recognized the regime was unsustainable. He sat together with Mandela and in February 1990, Mandela was released and all formerly banned political parties were legalized.
After his release, he became president of the African National Congres (ANC) and continued conversations with the government and is now also in talks with the international community.
Tensions remained and talks didn’t exactly go smoothly, but in 1994, South Africa finally got its first democratic elections. The ANC won with 63% of the votes and Mandela was elected president, which he would remain until 1999. He remained active both nationally and internationally but announced his retreat from the public scene in 2004, suffering from declining health.
In 2011 he was hospitalized and after two years of struggling with a respiratory infection, he died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95.
The half-day Robben Island tour: our experience
The ferry to Robben Island
Our trip to Robben Island started at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town where we got on the Robben Island boat at the Nelson Mandela Gateway. The Gateway is also an exhibition space with more Robben Island information and a timeline dedicated to modern South African political history. You get free access to the exhibitions with your ticket.
One of the exhibition halls was also the security hall. Before we could get on the boat, we had to have our bags checked and needed to go through a detector.
Then followed the obligatory photo which we could, of course, buy when we got back. This had me worrying that the whole experience would be too commercial, too touristy, but luckily that wasn’t the case.
The Robben Island boat trip lasts about an hour and can get a bit shaky. On our way there we got lucky as our ferry was a big modern boat where you could both sit on the deck and inside. There even was a bar and a toilet for us to use.
On the way back, though, we got a much less fancy boat where we couldn’t sit inside and as it was a lot smaller as well, we could feel the waves much harder.
So tip: if you easily get seasick, take a tablet before boarding.
Another tip I can give is to stay outside and choose to sit either twice at the front or twice at the back of the boat if you can. That way, you can get some cool pictures of Robben Island when approaching (or going away again) and some nice shots of Cape Town in the distance as you leave the Waterfront (or get back).
Lastly, it can get pretty cold on the boat if you decide to stay outside, especially because of the winds. Make sure to bring a jacket or at least a warm sweater even if it’s nice and warm that day.
The Robben Island museum tour
Once we’d gotten off the boat, we were immediately ushered onto buses. Those who were quick could take a little toilet break, but we weren’t really supposed to. I felt we were rushed too much here and could at least have gotten 10 minutes or so after that hour-long boat trip.
Luckily, we both felt alright, but I can imagine that if you get seasick and then immediately have to jump on the bus, that’s not much fun.
Anyway, onto the buses we went.
Each bus had a tour guide who told us about the different places on the island while we drove around. You can’t actually walk around the island yourself. We made stops at the leper graveyard, the lime quarry where the prisoners had to perform hard labor, prison buildings, former army bunkers and a few other places.
This bus tour took about 45 minutes with a small break to go to the toilet and buy some snacks at a tiny shop.
After that, we met with a former Robben Island prisoner who would be our tour guide for the next part of our visit.
He showed us around some of the buildings and – of course – pointed out in which cell Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned.
The buildings we went into still looked the same way they did when they were still part of the functioning Robben Island Prison, but some rooms had gotten big information panels to tell us a bit more about what happened there.
One room also displayed a list of Robben Island political prisoners who died at the Maximum Security Prison and whose families have not yet been officially informed. With the list up, the museum hopes to find someone who has ties with one of the deceased.
This part of the visit I too felt was a bit rushed. There was no time to read all of the information panels, to properly have a look inside all of the rooms and definitely not to just be there and let it all sink in.
As soon as the Robben Island prison tour was over, we had to walk back to the boat.
Should you visit Robben Island?
Despite the fact that I felt the whole experience was a bit rushed, I think the importance of Robben Island in the history of South Africa is too big to not take the tour. I didn’t feel like we had the best visit we could have had, but I’m still glad we went.
The Robben Island tour guides are very knowledgeable and were happy to answer all of our questions. They gave us a good summary of the history of the prison and the most important political prisoners who stayed there.
Practical information on how to go to Robben Island
Robben Island tickets
You can buy your Robben Island tickets online or from the Robben Island ticket office at the Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront from where the ferries leave. There’s just one ticket which includes the ferry ride and the Robben Island tour price.
Prices are the same whether you book online or buy from the ticket office. Tickets for Robben Island are R340 for adults and R190 for youngsters under 18. At the time of writing, that’s about €21/$25 and €12/$14.
It’s also possible to schedule a private tour. This requires calling/emailing ahead to make arrangements.
Another option is to combine your tour of Robben Island with a township tour to create a full day program.
Note: the boats were already pretty full when we visited end of August, which was still low season. If you plan on visiting in high season, I highly recommend you buy your tickets in advance as the tours do sell out.
Robben Island ferry times
In low season, ferries leave from The Nelson Mandela Gateway at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. In high season, starting September 1, there’s a last ferry at 3 p.m.
Ferries and tours run seven days a week weather conditions permitting. If it’s stormy, a ferry may get canceled. If that happens, you’re entitled to a refund upon showing your ticket and proof of identification.
The access gate to the boat closes 10 minutes before departure and it’s asked that passengers are on-site at least 30 minutes before the ferry leaves. If you miss the boat because you’re late, you won’t get a refund.
While the official website says that the trip from Cape Town to Robben Island lasts between 30 minutes and an hour, it took us twice about an hour, each time in a different boat. The total distance from Robben Island to Cape Town is around 7 miles or 11 km and the boats mostly go in a straight line.
Robben Island tour duration
You’ll spend a little less than two hours on the ferries and about an hour and a half on the island.
Taking photos of Robben Island
It’s permitted to bring a personal camera to Robben Island, but you’re not allowed to bring a tripod or take photos for commercial purposes.
FAQ about Robben Island answered
Below you can find some facts about Robben Island and some frequently asked questions answered.
Where is Robben Island prison exactly?
Robben Island lies north of Cape Town in Table Bay, 30 minutes to an hour away by boat.
What is the size of Robben Island?
Robben Island is only 5.18 km² or 2.00 sq mi big. It lies only a few meters above sea level and has kind of an oval shape.
What does “Robben Island” mean?
“Robben” is the Dutch word for “seals” so it means “Seal Island” or “The Island of Seals”. We didn’t see any seals while we were there, but we did see penguins and tortoises.
How many years did Nelson Mandela spend in prison?
When the guide asked us “How long was Mandela on Robben Island?” different answers were given. Mandela spent a total of 27 years in prison but only 18 of those at Robben Island. He wasn’t the only prominent South African to be incarcerated there, but his presence definitely added extra importance to the place.
Is Robben Island still a prison?
Robben Island was a prison until 1996 when it was decided that it would better serve as a place of remembrance and education. It’s been a museum since.
How much is a trip to Robben Island?
Robben Island ticket prices are R340 for adults and R190 for youngsters under 18. At the time of writing, that’s about €21/$25 and €12/$14.
How long is the Robben Island tour?
The tour is a total of 3.5-4 hours, including the boat trip there and back.
Where to stay in Cape Town?
We spent three nights at an Airbnb in Green Point and two nights at boutique hotel Blackheath Lodge.
Want to try Airbnb? You get a discount on your first stay if you sign up through this link.
Rather stay at a hotel? You can find information about prices and availability at Blackheath Lodge here.
Don’t forget travel insurance
No matter how well you plan your trip to Cape Town, there’s always something that can happen that’s beyond your control. A reservation can get canceled, you can get sick or you can drop and break that new camera. Whenever something like this happens, good travel insurance has you covered.
I’ve had ongoing travel insurance ever since I started traveling to make sure I’m covered for every trip I go on but if you travel just a few times a year, you can get insured for each trip separately too.
Don’t have travel insurance yet? Check out World Nomads. They cover a wide range of activities for people from 140 countries.
Pin for later
We received tickets to Robben Island from Cape Town Travel. As always, I wrote what I wanted to write./i>