How many Cape Town visitors are aware that our historic, enigmatic Robben Island is actually the summit of an ancient mountain, now hidden beneath the waves and linked to the Blouberg coastline by an undersea saddle?
Robben Island is made up of a lower layer of Malmesbury shale which shapes its wild coastline, covered by a layer of limestone and calcrete, and topped by sand and a myriad fragments of shell. The island measures 5.6 kms approx. from north to south and 2.6 kms approx. from east to west. The highest point is 24 metres above sea level.
The inhospitable submerged rocks ringing the coastline of the island have the reputation of sinking some 22 ships starting with the Yeanger of Horne in 1611.
Early seafarers referred to Robben Island Cape Town as the Isle of Purgatory separated as it is from the Cape mainland by a rough stretch of ice cold Atlantic Ocean.
The crews of passing ships were first to land on the island in the 1500s to replenish their food supplies from the meat of the seals and penguins, and Robben Island was so named from the Dutch word Robbe for 'seal'
Robben Island became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999. It remains an often painful reminder of dark days in South Africa, and a symbol of human dignity and suppression during the Apartheid years of the Nationalist Government. Its purpose for many years was as a type of local Alcatraz to imprison dissidents, political opponents - freedom fighters and enemies of the Apartheid regime.
Since the first human occupation of the Cape, Robben Island Cape Town has worn a number of guises. It has been used as a postal centre, sheep farm, whaling station, mental asylum, leper colony, hospital, a garrison and a prison.
The island had become a prison colony as early as the mid 1600s. Khoi and slave criminals were sent there from the mainland. One Sheikh Madura who opposed Dutch colonialism in his native East Indies, was also imprisoned on Robben Island. His shrine stands near the prison building.
In later years, Bushmen and Xhosa chiefs who were defeated in the Eastern Frontier wars were banished to Robben Island.
From 1846 Robben Island became a hospital for 'lunatics' lepers and chronically ill people from poorer communities. It soon developed a reputation for poor sanitary conditions. The water was bad and the food poor. During the 1880s many leprosy sufferers were rounded up and shipped to Robben Island.
During the 1930s the hospital buildings were burnt down and in anticipation of war, Robben Island was fortified by big guns and occupied by a local artillery school. The arms however were never used in combat and in 1959 the island was taken over by the then Department of Prisons.
The first political prisoners arrived at Robben Island Cape Town in 1962. They were followed by members of the then banned African National Congress including the most well known, Nelson Mandela, who after many years in exile on the island, was to become president of South Africa in 1994.
Prison conditions were harsh in those years and the warders were renowned for their brutality. The prisoners were made to do hard manual labour in a lime quarry, but in their free time committed themselves to continuing the struggle, while studying and fighting illiteracy.
The ANC was unbanned in 1990 and by the following year the air of political change was being felt in South Africa. Democracy was finally a reality. The Nationalist government of South Africa gave in to demands and the last prisoners left Robben Island in May 1991.
The island has been opened to the public and has become a popular if not essential destination for Cape Town visitors. Tours on the island are run by the Robben Island Museum Tours Department and some tour guides are ex-political prisoners who live on the island.
To visit Robben Island make your way to the V&A Waterfront where you'll find a booking office at the 'Nelson Mandela Gateway'.
Alternatively, book your Robben Island ferry tickets online: Web Tickets
Guided tours to Robben Island take 3.5 hours including a return boat trip from Cape Town Waterfront, A visit to the prison and a bus tour with commentary. More information Here