The boat for Robben Island leaves at 11am. It’s cloudy, cool with a good chance of rain today. I wheel down to the waterfront and make an impulsive decision to stop at the K-Way outdoor apparel store on my way to Mandela Gateway to buy a rain jacket. I meet Alejandro at the gateway to board the boat. There’s a ramp from the gateway to the dock that is steep that I need help up. The boarding platform to the boat is about 6” high that the crew helps me up and onto the boat.
The 5 mile ferry ride on board the Dias to the island is about 1hr 10min. The Dias was used to transport staff and political prisoners between the mainland and Robben Island, including Nelson Mandela. The ferry, Sikhululekile, would only take about 20 minutes but is being serviced. With the bad weather coming in the seas are picking up. The ferry ride is rough and wet. We arrive at Murray’s Bay Harbour and disembarking is not very easy or safe. There’s a five step latter that 3 crew members carry me up in my chair. The width of the hand railings is barely wider than my chair. I can’t see many people in a wheelchair being able to get on or off this boat. From the photo, the Sikhululekile ferry would be much easier to board and disembark. Robben Island was first used as a political prison in the mid 1600’s. This island was turned into leper colony in 1846. From 1961 to 1991, enemies of the apartheid were held in the maximum security prison. After arriving on the island, we board a large bus for a 40 minute tour of the island. The bus has a lift that’s not much bigger than my chair and no safety belt.
The tour starts with a stop at the leper graveyard then Robert Sobukwe House. In 1960, Sobukwe was sentenced to three years in prison for leading a nationwide protest of the Pass Laws. He was kept in solitary confinement in his own living quarters and had no contact with any other prisoners. Our next stop is the Garrison Church, constructed in 1841.
Next, is a break for a few photos before stopping at the lighthouse commissioned in 1865. The tour continues to the limestone quarry where Mandela, with other prisoners, worked digging up rock for 13 years. Our last stop before a visit to the maximum security prison is Moturu Kramat. A sacred site for Muslims pilgrimage, built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Adurohman Moturu, the Prince of Madura.
The rain has held off so far but starts when we arrive at the maximum security prison. The ramp to the prison is accessible. Our guide is former prisoner, Zozo, who arrived on Robben Island as a political prisoner in 1977 before his release in 1982. We start at the entrance where the prisoners were processed upon arrival. Political prisoners were kept in the maximum security prison while murderers and rapists were kept in minimum security. We made our way through the jail to the prison yard. The ramp down to the prison yard is too steep. It has stopped raining for the moment. Prisoners would work hammering stones in the prison yard. (map of prison)
Alejandro helps me up the ramp to cell block B. Zozo pulls me aside for a spot in front of cell #5. Cell #5 is Nelson Mandela’s cell and has been left in the same condition since his release on Feb 11, 1990. The cell is 7 feet by 9 feet where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island. The lights in the maximum security prison were on 24 hours a day.
Zozo next takes us to cell block F, one of the cell blocks he stayed in his time on Robben Island. I am able to make it down the ramp to the prison yard but need help up the next ramp by Alejandro. It starts raining again on our way to cell block F. Zozo was also housed in cell block E and G. I need help up one step by Alejandro to cell block F. Zozo talks of life in prison. During his time he went through beatings, hunger and solitary confinement. Some prisoners were only given hard padding to sleep on. Zozo closes the tour by saying: “Our leader, Nelson Mandela, taught us not to take revenge on our enemies and because of this today we are free, free, free.”
On May 10, 1994 Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first black president. In 1997 the prison was turned into the Robben Island Museum. We exit the prison to walk to the harbour to pouring down rain. It’s raining so hard they bring a bus to take us to the harbour but it’s not an accessible bus. Alejandro and I make the 500 yard walk to the ferry. We are soaked by the time we get to the ferry. The only part of me that’s dry is my upper body. I’m very glad I stopped get that rain jacket. I was going to take pictures of the boat and harbor but I don’t want to get camera wet. I get helped down the ladder the same as before and to the interior of the boat. This is the worst place to be in rough water. They have canceled both afternoon tours because of the weather. I am being thrown all over. I did not get sea sick but several people were looking awful. I meet Christo Brand who was Nelson Mandel’s prison guard on the ferry ride back. This was the worst boat ride I’ve ever been on. It’s still raining when we return to the Nelson Mandela Gateway. I get a photo with Mr. Brand when we return.
He has a book coming out Nov. 18, 2014 on his years being Mandela’s prison guard, Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend. I plan on reading his book. Alejandro and I make our way through the rain for a late lunch at Harbour House on the waterfront. The rain has stopped and I wheel back to the Protea Hotel to get out of these wet clothes. I get help from some guy pushing up the small hill.
I’m close to the entrance of the hotel and some girl asks for money. The security guard, who knows I’m a guest of the hotel, comes out to ask her to move on and ask if I’m OK. I end up watching the nights World Cup games in my room. I take it easy because I have a full day wine tour tomorrow.
The tour was great. Hearing from a former prisoner was exceptional. Zozo gave an amazing tour. The Dias ferry is not accessible. The bus has a lift but any bigger wheelchair will not fit on the lift. The ramps to the prison yard are too steep but with help they are manageable. The bus tour was about 40 minutes long. I could have spent 2-3 hours seeing more of the island. The Robben Island tour is a must see if you visit Cape Town.