Robben Island has gone from being a destination for prisoners, lepers and the mentally ill to one of the most visited sites in Cape Town. People from all over the world are making the ferry trip to stand where Nelson Mandela stood and try to glimpse what his life was like during his 18 year incarceration at this maximum security prison. It is a sombre place, full of reminders from a dark period in South African history.
For all the political prisoners kept here you cannot help but feel a deep sadness at their plight but also admiration for their unshakeable beliefs and hopes for a better tomorrow. Freedom did eventually come, but the price was high. The museum serves as a reminder of the sacrifices that were made in order to bring about democracy.
The ferry ride from the V&A Waterfront to the island and back takes 30 minutes each way. Once one the island you will have about 2.5 hours to take in the tour of the museum and get a good look at the island itself on a bus tour. You can also stroll around the museum shop and sit for a while at the harbour in Murray Bay. The walk through the prison is guided by a former political prisoner, so you will get a highly personalised and riveting account of this person's experience.
A visit to Nelson Mandela's original cell is part of the tour. The museum is also part of an extensive educational programme and both adult and school groups are regular visitors. The bus tour has guided commentary and you will hear about the history of the island in between stops en route.
Sites visited include the lime stone quarry which was where the prisoners did hard labour, a Muslim Shrine, the Leper's Graveyard and a house which was where Robert Sobukwe spent 6 years in solitary confinement.
The island is a nature conservation area and its Heritage status protects its sensitive eco-system. Robben Island is host to around 132 bird species, some of which are endangered. Breeding colonies have been established and you will be able to see the African Penguin.
The island is home to about 23 mammal species in all and inland you could spot a variety of antelope species such as Eland, Steenbok, Bontebok and Springbok. In spring it is possible to see carpets of wild flowers which are common at this time of year on the West Coast. On the ferry ride you may see marine life which includes Dolphins, Seals and maybe even Whales in season.