Robben Island – Island of Tears

The sun shines just about all the time here, and the air is gin-clear, swept clean by the “Cape Doctor” winds that blow in from the southeast. Across the bay, Table Mountain towers  over  the  city  of  Cape  Town.  The brightness  of  the  sparkling  sea,  the  vast robin’s-egg sky, and the breathtaking panoramas are in jarring contrast to the island’s main  attraction.  Off  and  on  for  nearly  300 years, Robben Island, 7km (4 1 ⁄ 3  miles) from Cape Town, South Africa, served ably as a maximum-security prison, a miserable cage for  thousands  of  prisoners.  Most  notoriously,  it  is  where  Nelson  Mandela,  the country’s antiapartheid leader—and future president  of  a  united  South  Africa—spent 18 years of his life in captivity.

Robben Island has been a place of exile for  criminals,  undesirables,  and  political prisoners ever since the Dutch arrived here in  the  late  17th  century.  It  is  a  landscape ideally  situated  for  impregnable  confinement: The wind-whipped waves and rockstrewn  reefs  of  Table  Bay  have  snagged many  a  seafaring  vessel—some  68  ships have  run  aground  on  Robben  alone.  The waters  have  a  terrible  beauty:  In  1820, Makhanda, a Xhosa prophet imprisoned by British  colonials  on  the  island,  escaped from  the  prison  after  a  jailbreak  only  to drown in the turbulent seas.

The  end  of  South  African  apartheid  in 1994 effectively ended Robben Island’s tenure  as  a  political  prison,  but  it  wasn’t  until 1996  that  the  last  prisoner  was  set  free.  In 1997, the government turned the facility into a museum, and in 1999 the island was designated a World Heritage Site as a symbol of “the triumph of the human spirit of freedom and of democracy over oppression.”

Since  then  Robben  Island  has  become one  of  the  county’s  most  popular  attractions.  Getting  here  couldn’t  be  easier: You’ll need to set aside a good half-day for the  standard  3 1 ⁄ 2 -hour  tour  (see  below  for ferry details), which includes the boat ride there  and  back,  a  bus  ride  around  the island, and tours of the facilities led by former prisoners. The prison itself has a grim banality, but the 2 × 2.4m (6 1 ⁄ 2 × 8-ft.) cement cell where the prison’s most famous occupant lived is a moving reminder of Mandela’s long, arduous “walk to freedom.”

Today the bright, sunny surrounds are a striking  contrast  to  the  prison  facility.  On Robben  Island,  the  natural  world  is  alive and  thriving:  Look  for  African  penguins parading  on  the  beach;  springbok  and eland gamboling in flower-filled meadows; and  tortoises  clambering  over  rocks.  An 1864  lighthouse  is  still  active,  flashing  a welcoming beam of light every 7 seconds to offshore mariners.