South Africa TravelBlogue (Part 2 - Robben Island)

FRIDAY 11/16


On Friday morning my mom and I returned to the V&A Waterfront and headed straight for the Robben Island Ferry boarding dock. We had purchased our tickets online ahead of time and we were once again happy to have good weather. The ferry ride was a bit choppy but we survived.

Once we arrived on the island the passengers on the ferry were split up amongst three awaiting buses. The first phase of the tour was on the bus and to be honest it went by a little too quickly. We passed by the leper graveyard where the leper ward had previously stood. (It was burned down long ago because people were concerned the infectious disease could penetrate the building materials and make healthy visitors sick.) Only a fraction of the graves are marked and I believe they have found at least 1,000 additional bodies using underground imaging technology.

Robben Island has served many purposes over the years. It has been used for various forms of imprisonment since the 16th Century. (The long swim back to the mainland was a successful deterrent for preventing escapes. Only a handful of people actually attempted to escape.)

From 1961 to 1991 it was used as a maximum security prison for political prisoners. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated there as a political prisoner from 1963 to 1982. If you have seen the 2009 film “Invictus” you may remember seeing the South African national rugby team on a tour of Robben Island

The visit had an especially profound effect on the team captain, played by Matt Damon, as he prepared to compete in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. The teammates were shown the prison cell where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated and the limestone quarry where he and his fellow prisoners were forced to work without protective eyewear or respiratory filters. My tour bus passed by the limestone quarry briefly but we weren’t able to get out of the bus to get a closer look.

At the end of the bus tour (which lasted for about an hour) we went to the maximum security cell blocks for a tour given by a former prisoner. Our tour guide was named Jama and he was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1977 to 1982.

He showed us a large concrete group cell which had a thin mat on the floor which is what the prisoners slept on until bunk beds were added years later. Once the bunk beds were added to the cell the capacity was doubled. The room we were in could hold 20-25 bunk beds. It would be very tight quarters for 50 men.

We continued the tour of the cell block and Jama shared a lot of memories of his time on the island. It definitely sounded like monotony and limited time outdoors were big challenges for the prisoners. Even though the work in the quarry was difficult at least they were able to be outside. At one point the people in charge of the prison decided to mix criminal prisoners with the political prisoners in order to make life more difficult. Jama didn’t remark on this very much but it sounded like this simply provided the political prisoners with more recruits for their various causes. They kept the peace and spent the late evening hours in small group political discussions and playing games to pass the time.

As we neared Nelson Mandela’s former cell block things felt a little tenser. People were anxious for a look at Mandela’s cell. First we were shown the courtyard where prisoners would continue to work on the limestone blocks that were mined from the quarry. There was an area in the back of the courtyard that Mandela was able to use as a garden. When he began writing his book “Long Walk to Freedom” he would bury the manuscripts in his garden for safe keeping.

After waiting for a few other groups to clear out we started down the interior hallway to Mandela’s cell. The scant furniture was arranged in the same was it had been during Mandela’s stay. You’ll notice there is no bed – only a sleeping mat.

After leaving the cell block and exiting through another courtyard we had the choice of walking to the nearby penguin colony or back to the ferry. My mom and I took a quick detour and found the penguins but they were very far away. We knew we’d see more a little later on.

After returning from Robben Island we made a trip to Greenmarket Square to buy souvenirs and get some Christmas shopping out of the way. It took a bit of searching and several U-turns but we finally got there. The only problem was once my mom and I arrived were totally overwhelmed by the vendors. It was about 4:00 and we assumed they’d be closing up shop around 5 pm so we tried to be quick and get a look at everything before we started buying stuff. Unfortunately there was no way to “be quick” because the second you picked something up the vendor would pick up three other similar items (or completely different items) and follow you around telling you they’d give you a good price. If you’ve ever walked the souvenir stalls in Puerto Vallarta you’ll know what I’m talking about. The difference between this experience and my experience in PV is that it was easier to barter in South Africa. In Mexico they play a very coy “How much are you willing to give me?” game while in South Africa they will just come right out with a price and then drop it if you frown pathetically enough.

My mom completely shut down during this experience. This is honestly the worst way to shop. Everything starts looking the same and you feel guilty for not helping out people who need the money. You don’t feel good about the quality of the products and you don’t know if you’re getting a good price. I found that the cure was to just start buying small stuff even if I didn’t know who I was buying it for. That way I got my buying muscles warmed up and when it was time to make four bigger purchases I was ready. (Plus my decimated cash supply necessitated some pro-level bargaining.) While this shopping excursion was probably the low point on our morale scale during the trip I’d still have to say it was worth it to get some Christmas shopping done. In a sense it was kind of a necessary evil. I would suggest going to this place on your last or second-to-last day in Cape Town (only for an hour or so) once you are familiar with the general pricing of things and you know exactly how much money you want to spend.


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