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Robben Island: Historical Home of Penguins, Lepers, and Nelson Mandela

We scheduled Robben Island for our last full day of Cape Town.  Our guidebook recommended booking well in advance, and when we arrived the first tickets available were two days later in the afternoon.

That morning we checked out the South Africa Museum.  It was hosting an exhibition of “Wildlife Photography of the Year,” which intrigued Tompaul.  The planetarium also looked groovy, but time was short and the stars were not aligned.

The SA Museum is mostly a Natural History Museum, with gently used animals, fossils, and a history of the peoples of South Africa.

Lemur that met its end as it got its height measured.

Lisa with the bones of a Blue Whale.  You could hear its cries throughout the whale atrium (I guess to teach young children what a whale sounds like if you had sonar?).

The Robben Island Museum is located in the V&A (Victoria & Albert) harbor.  The harbor is alive with activity.  The amazing architecture, historical sights, high-end eateries, street performers, and fair-like atmosphere make for a great summer’s day.

Our firstborn will be named Ferris.

This dude looks like he was made out of legos, but in fact it’s empty Coke Crates, presumably for the 2010 World Cup.

At 2:45 we boarded the ferry to Robben Island.  We had to go through security, where they scanned us for knives and other weapons.  Then everyone was equipped with a little paper bag (for the Easter Egg hunt?) and we took a choppy 30 minute ride across to the Island.

One of the first things one notices is how barren the island is.  The coast is surrounded by rocky outcroppings, presumably from the Lime Quarry, where Mandela and other prisoners suffered permanent eye damage.

Initially Robben Island was inhabited by indigenous peoples, who moved on to greener pastures.  In the 1700s Irish settlers came there to escape English rule.  In the 1800s it was used as a leper colony. Over 1000 lepers are buried here in the cemetery.

Later still it was used to house psychiatric patients, and in World War II it was used as a base to guard against a potential German attack (the cannons were completed right on schedule, in 1947).  In the 1960s the South African government began to use it to house political prisoners.

One of our collection of M*A*S*H signs.

Upon arrival we all loaded into buses for our tour.  Our guide was Mohammad, who waxed eloquent.  Apparently he is the guide of choice for dignitaries such as Obama and Mandela himself as he had worked in the freedom movement.

We look a bit wretched, but a super nice man took this for us.  Amazing how one can see the African coast but can’t get there. A form of torture in itself.

After our bus tour, we had a tour of the actual prison.  Our guide was the bus driver, who had been imprisoned on the island for 5 years for his involvement in the freedom movement.

The prisoners were segregated by race (no white prisioners were on Robben Island).  There were two groups of cells, the group cell and the solitary cell.

This is a group cell. Initially it held 15 people, but bunk beds bumped it to 30.  The good news is here you could have a W.C. at your disposal.

Here is our tour guide.  Most of his time was answering questions that people had.

Meals were also segregated.  Indians had better meals than “bantas” or blacks, and you could “earn” better meals.  Better meant a little more fat and sugar.  This lasted until all of the prisoners went on a hunger strike, and everyone got equal meals.

Here is the courtyard of the solitary confinement cells. The first window was Mandela’s cell.  The plants to the right were his garden where he hid his memoir until he was found out.

Mandela’s cell, with a recreation of his belongings.  In solitary confinement you had no access to a w.c. at night, so each prisoner was given a “package” to use that one emptied out the next morning.

After our tour we arrived back to the shore, amidst a beautiful sunset.  We walked the harbor, peeking in shops and looking at performers, soaking up the atmosphere.

We dined at Steers for old times sake, with memories of our August in Zambia, 2008.

Apparently M*A*S*H signs are popular in Africa.  Alas, the pic with Lisa got corrupted somehow.

The seals seemed weary as they were splayed out on the dock, so we decided to head home.  After all we had to leave at 3:45 in the morning to catch our flight.

Cape Town is definitely a place to return to again and again.  We look forward to coming back and exploring everything we missed!