Robben Island – not as captivating as Alcatraz, but stunning surroundings

Nelson Mandela's prison cell.

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.

Robben Island, a hot and inhospitable island seven kilometres outside Cape Town in South Africa, is best known for its jail for political prisoners. This is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for nearly 20 years. Robben Island is a World’s Heritage since 1999, as a “testimony to cultural tradition and a heritage associated with events of universal significance”, according to UNESCO.

Between the 17th and 20th century the island was also used as a hospital for “socially unacceptable” people (this is how UNESCO describes it) and as a military base. Fortunately the last prisoners left the island in 1991 and nowadays the island has transformed into a museum.

Don’t misunderstand me – visiting Robben Island and learning about its history and the prisoners on the island is as fascinating as it is frightening – but the organizers of the guided tours could have done so much more to make the tour more appealing. Maybe it’s unfair to compare, but visiting Alcatraz outside San Francisco (yes, the other famous penitentiary on an island) is a completely different and much more interesting experience.

Let me start from the beginning, i.e. visiting Robben Island, or actually visiting Cape Town, a true beauty, a town “sandwiched” between water and rocks that creates the most magnificent natural phenomenon. Look at the picture below. Do you see the clouds? Looks like they tickle the one kilometre hight Table Mountain, right? The mountain actually prevent the clouds from entering Cape Town and the strong winds (called the Cape Doctor) cleans the air and blows away the pollutions, like a natural catalyst.

Cape Town in South Africa. And a bird.

Clouds trying to enter Cape Town. Either the Table Mountain or that singing bird prevents them from doing so.

Cape town from Table Mountain.

Cape Town from Table Mountain.

Parts of Cape Town feels quite “European”, in a way I really can’t explain. Maybe it’s because of the architecture. Maybe it’s because of all the white people. Feelings can be hard to explain, that’s for sure. Compared to Johannesburg it’s a safe town, even after the sunset, as long as you walk along streets guarded by patrolling guards. Being from Sweden it’s strange not to be able to feel safe (even though Sweden is far from heaven), especially in Johannesburg with electric fences everywhere, protecting people and their properties. Very sad!

You want a shrub? Sure, why not! Go ahead and plant it in the middle of the pavement.

You want a shrub? Sure, why not! Go ahead and plant it in the middle of the pavement.

Electric fences makes me depressed. Colorful buildings makes me happy. And luckily, Cape Town is full of buildings like the ones below. Pink, green, red, blue, yellow buildings. Feels almost like being in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Colorful buildings makes you happy.

Colorful buildings makes you happy.

This “European” feeling suddenly vanish if you enter the “wrong” parts of Cape Town. In just a few seconds you can travel from riches to poverty, from feeling safe to feeling insecure.

Barefoot kid with torn clothing begging for money.

Barefoot kid with torn clothing begging for money.

Let’s go to the harbor. At the Nobel Square you meet South Africa’s four Nobel Price laureates:

  • Albert Luthuli, 1960 Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  • Desmond Tutu, 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  • FW de Klerk, 1993 Nobel Peace Prize laureate
  • Nelson Mandela, 1993 Nobel Peace Prize laureate
South Africa's four (so far) Nobel Price laureates.

South Africa’s four Nobel Price laureates at the Nobel Square.

For me everything about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, is a little special since I have met his soul many times in my life. I grew up in Gyttorp, a small town in Sweden, about 200 km west of Stockholm. Alfred Nobel’s first explosives factory moved from Stockholm to Gyttorp in the 1920s. Alfred Nobel died 1896 in San Remo, Italy, and that’s where my aunt lives. All the flowers at the Nobel Party in the City Hall in Stockholm are from San Remo. And guess where I earn my money? Yes, in the City Hall!

Ok, while we are at the harbor, why not take the boat over to Robben Island, the main reason for writing this post? The journey over to Robben Island is really beautiful!

Cape Town from the water

Cape Town crouches under Table Mountain.

Cape Town from Robben Island.

Cape Town from Robben Island.

Entering Robben Island you are routed to a bus since you’re not allowed to wander around the island. The bus runs to various locations where a guide tell short stories about important events on the island. It felt a little like an animal transport and there was no time to reflect on what you had just seen and heard. Sad, because Robben Island is full of interesting stories!

Robben Island.

Robben Island.

Outside the prison.

Outside the prison.

Eventually the bus stopped outside the prison where a guide (a former prisoner, actually all guides on Robben Island are former prisoners) met us. The guide took us to the prison and told us about himself and what it was like being in jail. As you can see in the picture below the racism, apartheid, or what ever you want to call it, was apparent event on the food plate.

The guide with a plate showing food restrictions.

The guide with a plate showing food restrictions depending on where you are from and the color of your skin.

So, after one hour or so, it’s time to go back to Cape Town with mixed feelings. As I wrote earlier the history of Robben Island is fascinating, but the organizers of the tour fail to convey it in a good way. There is just not enough time to process feelings and impressions, compared to a tour I took to Alcatraz where you could walk around for hours, listening to a very good audio guide.

Guys, the sea is over there!

Guys, the sea is over there!

Cape Point. Almost at the end of the world.

Cape Point. Almost at the end of the world.

Therefore Robben Island only gets two globes out of five and Cape Town would get three globes. But look at the pictures above. Cute penguins not far from Cape Town! And the magnificent Cape Point. Combine that with your stay in Cape Town and that’s four globes out of five!



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3 thoughts on “Robben Island – not as captivating as Alcatraz, but stunning surroundings

  1. Carole Matz says:

    Cape Town and Table Mountain totally overrated in my opinion. Much prefer Rio de Janeiro and San Francisco. Robbin Island is not as scenic or interesting as Alcatraz. Table Mountain is just a flat topped boulder and Cape Town airport is a joke when compared to Tampa airport.
    I think South Africa suffers from over promoting the few scenic landmarks it does have.

  2. Antonia says:

    I didn’t think that the Robben Island tour was bad, but it definitely was too rushed, especially in the actual prison. I love the idea of the guides all being former prisoners but I personally found it quite hard to understand our guide when he spoke. As you said there is so much history on that island and so many stories to read. With some more time and possibly a better tour set up I think Robben Island could be a very interesting place to visit. Cape Town in general I loved, I found both Cape Point and Table Mountain breathtaking. Boulders beach is also great along with Stellenbosch and the other villages around there. If you make an effort to visit the Townships there is tons of culture and amazing stories there.

    Oh and of course Tampa is going to be nicer than Cape Town International.

  3. Patrick Mose says:

    Highly usefull post! Keep up the good work!

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