Nelson Mandela

Guest post by Holly Glessner, Air Specialist at Natural Habitat Adventures

Prior to a recent Nat Hab safari in Botswana I had the chance to briefly visit Cape Town, South Africa.  Cape Town is a beautiful city on the cost of South Africa. The city has many draws, but the one that had the most profound effect on me was a visit to Robben Island Museum.

If you aren’t familiar with Robben Island, it is a desolate island located about 7 km from the shores of Cape Town and is the location of the infamous prison that housed Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela for 18 years. Today it is a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site accessible by ferry only and definitely worth a visit.

It is a very popular destination for tourists, so I purchased my tickets online prior to my arriving in Cape Town. The online process was very easy and I was able to just print out my ticket and take it with me. The price included the round trip ferry ride,  a guided tour of the island by bus and a brief tour of the Maximum Security Prison by a guide who was also a former prisoner. The whole experience was about 3.5 hours, including the trip aboard the ferry.

Robben Island Ferry in Cape Town, South Africa

Robben Island Ferry © Holly Glessner

We started with a guided bus tour of the island.  The first stop was at the quarry where many of the apartheid prisoners were forced to work in the soaring heat and the blinding sunlight with inadequate equipment and clothing. In fact, this is where President Mandela injured his eyes requiring him to wear eye protection for most of his life. The bus tour also gives you a good idea of the harsh and dry environment that the many prisoners had to contend with over the years.

You also have the chance to spot African penguins during the bus tour, since a colony makes the island home.  I was lucky enough to spot two of them!

Following the bus ride was a walking tour of the Maximum Security Prison.  Our tour was led by a former political prisoner, which was very moving. One lesson learned from this visit was that political prisoners were the ones held in the maximum security section, versus thieves or murderers who weren’t considered as much of a threat. We were able to visit the many rooms, cells and courtyards that make up the prison, all while hearing the history of the prison which dates back to the late 1400’s.

Maximum Security Prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa

Maximum Security Prison © Holly Glessner

The tour ended with a visit to President Mandela’s prison cell which is a tiny cement room with not even a bed, just a thin bed roll on the floor. To me, this was the most emotional part of the tour. I couldn’t imagine him having to spend 18 years living in this tiny cell, on this island with a fierce wind and piercing sunlight, spending his days slaving away in the quarry, all because he fought for equal rights. The most mind boggling part was that this harsh, inhospitable island played host to these political prisoners fighting for equal rights during my lifetime.

Nelson Mandela's Prison cell in Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa

Mandela’s prison cell. © Holly Glessner

Some reviews have called the tour too commercial or disorganized, and some complain that the guides are hard to understand, but all in all I think this is a tour that can’t be missed.  The history, lessons learned, and emotions experienced during this tour are something I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.

If you are traveling to South Africa and find yourself passing through Cape Town, definitely make the trip to Robben Island.