The disappointing Robben Island experience

Robben Island – the political prison off Cape Town in South Africa – represents so much emotional history. So why is visiting it such a disappointment?

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

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Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa

They’re just buildings, when it comes down to it. Concrete and bricks, wood and metal.

They are mostly empty, husks leftover from the old days. There is nothing visually appealing about them.

It is not for the buildings that tourists make the pilgrimage to Robben Island. It is for what they represent.

So what do they represent? Probably different things to different people.

Oppression. Courage. Fear. Hope. Inhumanity. Humanity. Any of these things? All of these things?

However you look at it, Robben Island is a symbol of the worst and the best of human behaviour.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

It was the prison where the South African authorities sent those who dared challenge their cruel and racist rule during the Apartheid Era.

So many freedoms had already been removed from the population of the country. For those who tried to reclaim their right to expression, their ultimate freedom was taken.

These political prisoners, locked away on a small island off the coast of Cape Town, showed how the government tried to quash even the slightest call for equality.

Yet the dream never died. The hope that justice would prevail was enough to motivate those who were thrown into cells to continue their campaigns for as long as possible. Actively, if they could. Passively, if that was the only option.

These captives were carried forward by the knowledge that they were right. Surely good ultimately triumphs over evil, even if it takes years?

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

For Nelson Mandela, the best known of these prisoners, it took 27 years behind bars until he saw this evil vanquished.

He spent much of his time on Robben Island before being moved to two other prisons in South Africa before his release.

While the story of this island is much bigger than just one man, seeing his cell is a significant moment for any tourist who visits the island today.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

I would like to say that a visit to Robben Island is full of significant moments but, alas, it was a disappointing experience for me.

Perhaps the expectations are just too high. Although I don’t think that is the main problem. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the visitor experience is run well.

It starts with a boat journey from Cape Town across to the island. This is pleasant enough but I should have been wary of what was to come by the number of people onboard – more than 100.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

When you arrive on the island, the group is then divided into two coaches. Neither had a spare seat, which means there must have been about 50 people on each.

They set off in different directions. I’m lucky to have got a window seat on my coach because much of the tour around Robben Island is conducted from the bus.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa
Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

We stop briefly outside significant buildings and the tour guide gives a brief explanation.

At the old quarry, where a pile of stones sits in the middle, people crane their necks from their seats to get a good view.

These stones were put here spontaneously by former political prisoners at a reunion in 1995 – the different colours representing the new South Africa.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

The only stop the coach makes when you can get out is at a shop where you can buy some food and drink. While I appreciate this because I’m hungry, there is not much to see here except a view back across the water to the city. There isn’t enough time to wander anywhere independently.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

The tour of Robben Island is done in two parts. The coach ride is the first. The second is at the prison buildings itself where you are walked through the compound by a guide.

This is better. You are able to see things up close and take a few moments to think about where you are. The problem is that you are doing this in a crowd of 50 other people.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

Standing in a cell where a prisoner spent years, I try to imagine how his solitary life would have been. What did he do month after month with just these four walls and a small window?

It’s hard to picture it. I can hardly see the four walls, bunched together with the other tourists. Not all of us can fit so we take it in turns to go in, squeezing past each other in the doorway.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

I want to let my imagination run free but it is encaged.

I had been looking forward to meeting our guide. Every one of the people who gives a tour here is a former political prisoner. They can speak as an authority – as someone who has lived, not just studied, this island and the repression it once accommodated.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

Again, I hate to say it, but I was disappointed. The problem was not with the guide himself, but with the size of the group.

It was sometimes hard to hear and, if you were towards the back of the crowd, the guide often would have started talking before you caught up with him at the next stop.

There was also no intimacy to the relationship. This was a man who had suffered unjust hardships and has so many raw experiences to draw on – but he’s not being given the opportunity to express them in the best way possible.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa
Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

To hear the stories of Robben Island directly from the mouth of a political prisoner should be a very special moment. Yet something in lost in the retelling.

What is missing is the emotion that comes from a genuine connection between the storyteller and the listener.

You can’t see his eyes, which would tell half the story; you don’t feel like you can ask a question without disturbing the rest of the group; you feel like even the guide himself knows he is broadcasting rather than conversing.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

Unfortunately there is only one way to see Robben Island and that is with this tour.

So would I recommend it? The short answer is ‘yes’ because nothing can take away from the significance of the site and to see it for yourself is a step towards understanding the inhumanity and humanity that we are all capable of.

But I would warn you to not have high hopes for the experience. You may be lucky to be in a small group and have a more intimate visit but that’s certainly not guaranteed.

Robben Island tour review, Cape Town, South Africa

This should be one of the highlights of a trip to Cape Town. There is a good reason why so many people want to travel to an island that most of its inhabitants longed to leave.

Sadly the authentic experience is being repressed, unable to break free and share itself with the world.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of South African Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

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15 thoughts on “The disappointing Robben Island experience”

  1. Hi

    I really liked reading this post! Your images are amazing, and you honesty is factual.

    I have a lot to owe those who fought for what they believed is right and without this place and the things that when on there, I would not have the life I do now, however I sadly have to agree with you on many facts you raised.

    I have avoided visiting this island my entire life not because I don’t feel the need to see it but because of the “tourist” manner in which it is managed. Its sad really but there are many actives and sites etc that are mismanaged and not run well, in SA which I avoid.

    I try not to criticize without solution but I think its a good thing that people like you make honest mention of what the experience is like. To me it is awfully sad that more tourists have been pack horsed onto boats and buses, than actual SA residents have visited or seen the Island.

    Hopefully when I do make it down, things are better but again, great post lovely read!

    #LoveAndTravelHugs©
    Cee

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for the comment, Cee. It means a lot to hear from you. I wrote about my experience as a foriegn tourist so it’s really nice to hear whagt a local thinks as well. For me, this is a part of international history but for you – and everyone who grew up in S Africa – it is much more personal. Hopefully you do get there sometime and the experience is much better than the one I have described here.

      Reply
  2. I’m sure this is a very interesting and historically significant destination, but the quality of a visit is often dependent on the tourism experience that is set up there. If the groups are too large like this one, it is hard to really feel connected to a place; traveling among too many people feeling cramped is almost never enjoyable.

    Reply
    • Especially not somewhere like this which is a very solemn place and has a lot of emotion going on. I think a lot of people would like to be able to explore at their own pace and not be mustered along in a big group where they can hardly even hear the guide.

      Reply
  3. I had several days in Cape Town a few years ago but the tours to Robben Island were fully booked each day, well before I arrived. So Michael it was interesting to read your report on your visit, thanks

    Reply
    • Oh yeah, during the busy period you really need to book in advance. And that’s what I think is such a pity – so many people want to visit Robben Island because it’s such an important site but then they probably don’t get the experience they were hoping for. I hope you weren’t too disappointed you didn’t get there.

      Reply
  4. It seems like this attraction has so much more potential than what is offered. Maybe different tours can be offered appealing to different people ie, political, environmental, scenic, military and so on. The rigid tour offered does not seem to capture the hearts of tourists and could be vastly improved to make this a sustainable business. The financial statement available online suggests this asset needs a revamp. Thank you for the great review.

    Reply
  5. Fantastic write up Michael, yet again! The build up in your writing is inspirational in itself.

    Unfortunately I could not have agreed more with your initial observation about how it is run.

    The fact there are so many people on the boat trip and the coach is already setting stone for disaster.

    If run correctly this could be the most inspirational day you experience in a long time.

    Never the less, I am glad you got to experience it.

    Reply
  6. Robben Island is now more of a money making museum rather than a historical tour. Today’s trip there was disappointing and vague. Years ago when I visited Mr Mandela’s cell was open for us to walk into. Today it was locked. Our tour guide never explained to us how the number 46664 was given to the prisoner like they explained years ago. Most of the cells were locked. Even the limestone quarry was not explained properly. The fact that Mr Mandela’s eyesight had deteriorated because of that. So short was the explanation that we walked away totally disappointed. The boat ride back to the city was more exciting. Staff are unfriendly and abrupt. It’s a shame especially because they work on Robben Island. …..an not for free! Totally disappointed.

    Reply
  7. Warning: if you are expecting to walk around on the island, this tour is not for you. Yes it’s nice sight seeing, if you are not forced to sit in the middle of the bus.
    Are you a smoker? Too bad, the tour guides will make sure that you smoke at the trash bins on the island.Getting hungry? So sad, no food on the island, except some snacks if the tour guides give you enough time to buy. Also, do not listen to the Receptionists at Mandela Gateway, you cannot purchase anything with your credit card on the tour. Bring cash. Sure! The tour is informative in a monotone kind of way that will have you fall asleep. Great Tour if you love bus rides, strict and irritable tour guides and crowded spaces. Great way to waste money. I would much rather have stayed at home and watched “long walk to freedom”

    Reply

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