Succeeding in the steps of history: A Robben Island tour story.
Robben Island, the isolated chunk of earth nestled in the heart of Table Bay has a lot of stories to tell. The most notable being the incarceration of former South African president Nelson Mandela. But as prolific as Mandela’s story was, it had to some degree exposed the island’s turbulent past (since the arrival of Europeans to the Cape). And was in short the catalyst needed for the Nomadic Existence Team to ferry across the bay to Cape Town’s very own Alcatraz.
It had been a boat trip to remember even though I couldn’t remember when I’d last been – on a boat trip. And although it was not near as long in years – as some of the prison sentences previous inmates had to endure on the island – it sure as hell felt like it was.
But the same could not be said about the duration of the trip itself across Table Bay. Clocking in at about thirty minutes, it’s was a feast for the eyes. As the wakes formed by the boat’s propellers kicked up a spray that formed a rainbow as the sun’s rays kissed it. Entrusting us with a glorious impression of Table Mountain in all its majestic glory bathed in empirical imperialism. What a sight it must’ve been when the first explorers rounded the Cape of Storms and found this gem. Only it always begged to ask the question; what came about next?
Well, according to historians the settling of the Cape was not at first an option due to the hostiles encountered by the local native people known as the Khoi – Khoi. And after a series of altercations the explorers instead opted for the safety of the island until a solution presented itself. The solution, it turned out was the island itself and in time many native leaders and their followers were exiled there. And thus the use of the island as a place of imprisonment was born.
And this was apparent in the geography of the islands coastline as we hit our approach into Murray’s Bay Harbour. The sight of all the shipwrecks on the islands reefs made it near impossible to escape. As many who had tried were either cast away to sea – due to storms – or were submerged and washed up on the beaches of Cape Town. And no one was spared even those involved in poaching, as witnessed by the wreck of a poacher’s getaway boat that had run aground. It was I can safely say Mother Nature’s justice.
Only today she was in high spirits as we were scuttled in perfect weather onto one of the many tour buses parked along the pier. Although the tours are rushed due to the high volume of tourists, we did at least manage to get a glimpse of the words “Freedom cannot be manacled” posted on the harbour wall. It would turn out to be the theme integral to the identity of the island and evident in our first port of call; the leper colony and graveyard. Originally used to house people with leprosy or mental illnesses on a voluntarily basis a radical change in law saw it becoming a draft. Subsequently, when word leaked of the appalling conditions it was closed down in the late 19th century. The buck though, you could say didn’t stop there.
In fact it would get a lot worse as viewed in our next stop, the Lime Quarry. Now the island has three in total. The first is named Jan’s se Gat and was commissioned by the first governor of the Cape at the time; Jan van Riebeeck. The other two were used to provide the prisoners with back breaking hard labour. Much in the same vain as immortalised in those old films of the black and white striped chain gangs. Interestingly enough, there was a pile of stones left at the entrance to the quarry. It was brought to our attention that Nelson Mandela placed the first one there shortly after his release. The remainder were laid there by his fellow inmates as they paid homage to all those who had suffered on the island.
Including the island itself as I eyed a reindeer who eyed me back as he stood atop the quarry. He did seem out of place until we were informed that many alien species of animals and plants were introduced for various reasons. Reclamation of the island has been practiced ever since but it’s been tedious and cumbersome; ask the penguins they’ll fill you in.
Shortly after the quarry we passed the old gun battery and bunker built during World War 2. It was not so much a testament to the islands past as most others were but it did contribute somewhat. With its bricks, for after the war, they were used in the construction of the infamous prisons. But at any rate the defences were there to protect the city of Cape Town from the perceived invasion of the axis powers. Luckily this never happened and for the duration of the war not one coastal battery ever fired a single shot.
But as we approached the zenith of our tour namely, the maximum security prison complex, a shot to the heart was seemingly more likely. As Thando – our tour guide and ex – Robben Island inmate warmly introduced himself to the group. His shy and humble demeanour shrouded the fact that he had spent so many years incarcerated on the island. Yet – and with pleasantries aside – my skin crawled irrespective when he led us into what was once his world.
It was crude, so crude in fact; it would’ve broken most men. Limited space with no prospect and cold concrete floors to name a few literally made this situation a hell on earth. And while we sat on one of the bunks Thando told us about a hunger strike – one of the many acts of defiance – he and his fellow inmates initiated. He further explained how after eight days he was so weak he couldn’t even climb into his bed and as a result suffers from a bad liver.
Now under those circumstances you would believe the worst was over. But you would be wrong as nothing could’ve prepared us for what was next; the solitary confinement cells. This was where the state put high profile inmates such as Nelson Mandela. And his cell in particular furnished with just a bucket and a blanket was the very definition of hell. But through all of it, he was still able to rally the other inmates to his cause. Even going so far as to steal papers from the guards so that he could instruct his fellow inmates on how to read, it was in a word inspirational.
This had marked the conclusion to our tour and as a result had left me with one nagging question to ask of Thando. How did he get to be back on the island? My question would have to wait though as I never did get the chance to ask him. I blame overcrowding and impatient tour bus drivers.
But as luck would have it our paths would cross once more. And unknown to me at the time Thando is a jazz aficionado. So you can just imagine what happened when I entered the Jazz Workshop in Cape Town one Friday morning. Only to find him jamming on the jazz saxophone like a pro as Merton – my tutor – played the rhythm on his piano. I was in a word dumbfounded. But at least I could ask him my question. To which he replied, “Shortly after my release I realised politics was not my calling. But when the island was turned into a world heritage site and I was offered the job of a tour guide I found myself back here, but its fine.” I was humbled by his reply and then realised something. For Thando his music and his job were his way of sharing with his past. And that his story like Mandela’s and that of so many others were all bits in a bigger picture that gave the island not the power to enslave but to liberate.
Here’s the sequence of events:
- Leper colony and Graveyard
- The Lime Quarry
- Refreshment and picture snap stop
- The Prison
- WW2 bunker and gun battery
Robben Island tourist survival guide and fun facts.
- Refreshments can be bought on board the ferry and at the kiosk on the island.
- Book in advance as the tourist season never stops.
- Do not attempt re – acting out the Titanic scene on the prow of the ferryboat.
- Don’t forget to break out the courier shop.
- Sorry flights are booked for delegates and diplomats.
- Hiking on the island would be a fantastic excursion if ever was there one.
- And for all scuba diving enthusiasts looking to hit it rich, there be treasure in them waters, read this interesting snippet.
- The Penguins; The only occupants of the island ever to be driven away in contrast to those who were impelled to remain on the island.
For more of Nomadic Bugs photos go to the Robben Island Photo Gallery
And for the Official Robben Island website
And the Wikipedia entry
By Slippery Joe Lyzard © (Writer for Nomadic Existence)
Photography: Nomadic Bug ©
Nomadic Existence 2015 ©
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