Robben Island is one of the most known sites in Cape Town. Even so, most of us only know Robben Island as the place, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned during apartheid. However, the island actually has a very rich history that dates back 800 million years. When it first was discovered, it was inhabited by penguins and seals. ‘Robben’ actually means seal in Afrikaan – making it the seal island.
Most of Robben Island’s history is dark. Throughout the years it has mostly been a place of imprisonment and banishment. Back in the 17th century, the Dutch used it as a prison for slaves from South Asia. Then in 1806 there was built a whaling station as a stopover for sailors to refill their store of food. Later, around 1845 Robben Island was made a leper colony, as well as an insane asylum. During your visit, you will even witness a leper cemetery that still stands. During the Second World War, the island served as a military defensive site. This meant that cannons were installed around the island, in case of a German attack against Cape Town. Then in 1961 and until 1991 Robben Island was again used as a prison. This time it was for political prisoners, who were opposed to the South African Apartheid regime (1948 – 1994). The best-known prisoner is, of course, Nelson Mandela. However, many other men were imprisoned during these years. A visit to this World Heritage Site will allow you to meet a former prisoner. Robben Island is definitely worth a visit to learn more about this important part of South African history.
Everything you need to know for visit to Robben Island
Arranging a visit to Robben Island in South Africa might be a bit confusing. There are always some things you wished you knew or maybe the things are difficult to make head or tail of. Therefore, we have gathered everything you need to know for your visit to Robben Island. Hopefully, it is helpful for your planning!
Robben Island Tour
A visit to Robben Island is only possible by a guided tour – but it is definitely worth it. Your Robben Island tour starts with a 30-minute boat ride to the island. When you arrive in the harbor you will board a bus and meet your knowledgeable tour guide. During your tour on the bus, you are taken by a cemetery of people who died from leprosy during the island’s time as a leper colony. You will also drive by the Lime Quarry, where the prisoners during apartheid worked all day. The house in which Robert Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement is also part of your guided tour of Robben Island. To stretch your legs, you will make a short stop on the northern part of the island. From here you are able to see some stunning views of Cape Town and Table Mountain in the distance. During your drive around the island, you’ll also pass a permanent village where its employees and their children live. The last stop of the Robben Island tour is of course the Maximum-Security Prison. Here you will get a tour by an ex-inmate who tells about his time in the prison, the facilities, and so forth. It is hard to describe this experience, as it is simply incredible to hear about it from a prisoner himself. A very thought-provoking experience. Your tour of the prison ends with a viewing of Nelson Mandela’s cell. Afterward, you’ll make the short walk back to the harbor and sail back to Cape Town.
The operating hours of Robben Island Museum are as follows.
|Robben Island Operating Days||Hours|
|Monday to Sunday||08:00 to 17:00|
|Public Holidays||08:00 to 17:00|
|1st of May (Worker’s Day)||Closed|
|25th of December (Christmas Day)||Closed|
|26th of December /Family Day)||08:00 to 12:00|
|1st of January (New Year’s Day)||08:00 to 12:00|
Getting to and around Robben Island
As mentioned earlier, it is only possible to visit Robben Island and that is through an official tour.
The ferries to Robben Island depart from Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. If you are in a car, we recommend you park by the shopping mall at the waterfront. The ferry trip takes between 30 minutes to an hour – depending on which of the ferries you are on. When you arrive on the island you will disembark on the east coast at Murray’s Bay Harbor. From here you’ll take a short walk to the buses that will drive you around the island during your tour.
Tours and prices
The times of tours and prices of a Robben Island tour vary depending on which season you visit. The peak season is from the 1st of September to the 30th of April. During this season you are able to join a tour at 09:00, 11:00, 13:00, or 15:00. The off-season is from the 1st of May to the 30th of August. During these months three tours are available for you to join: at 09:00, 11:00, or 13:00. The prices of tours in both seasons are as follows:
|South African visitor – Adult||400 ZAR|
|South African visitor – Children (under 18)||210 ZAR|
|Non-South African visitor – Adult||600 ZAR|
|Non-South African visitor – Children (under 18)||310 ZAR|
NB: The tours are weather dependent and may change or get canceled
The easiest way of booking a Robben Island Tour is directly through the Museum. This can be done right here. It is a good idea to pre-book your tickets, as the tours get fully booked quite fast.
Time spent on a Robben Island Tour
A tour to Robben Island takes about 3,5 hours – including the ferry trips to and from the island. You must arrive at least 30 minutes before departure from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V&A Waterfront. However, during your waiting, you are able to learn a bit of the history in the museum before sailing towards the island. Therefore, we would recommend you set aside at least 4 hours for your visit to Robben Island.
What happens with your Robben Island tour being canceled?
The tours of Robben Island are weather dependent. This means that your booked tour might get canceled if the weather does not allow for the ferries to sail. But don’t worry – If your tour is canceled you will get a refund. If you are not able to join your booked tour to Robben Island, you are also able to reschedule the tour. This must be done 48 hours in advance and cost a small administration fee.
Best time to visit Robben Island
The best time to visit Robben Island in South Africa is in the morning hours. We would recommend you join one of the early tours of the day. This way you are able to explore the island without it being unbearably hot – especially in the summer. However, there isn’t really a bad time to visit Robben Island. As you follow your tour guide the crowds are separated into smaller groups which make for a good experience.