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*All distances listed are as the crow flies, and not actual travel distances.
Robben Island is a tiny island measuring 574ha and located roughly 11km offshore of Cape Town in Table Bay. The island means many things to many people. Prior to 1994, it was mostly a place of suffering and last used as a maximum security prison for political prisoners.
Over the centuries, Robben Island was used as a refreshment station, as a place of banishment, a remote leper colony and lunatic asylum. Here, authorities were successfully able to remove the sick, the abandoned and the criminal from Cape Town society. During WWII, Robben Island was somewhat of a strategic defence site and several old military buildings lie in ruin across the island.
From the late 1400s, Portuguese sailors would stop at Robben Island to slaughter seals, penguins and collect eggs, but it was the Dutch who, over a century later, named the place Robben Island after the many seals resident on the island.
Robben Island of the present is a World Heritage Site and ferries transport hordes of visitors across from the Cape Town harbour three times per day.
The island’s most famous prisoner was Nelson Mandela but there are others that deserve mention; Robert Sobukwe spent 6 years in solitary confinement while the man who assassinated Hendrik Verwoerd, Dimitri Tsafendas, was the only white person to have been imprisoned on the island.
Approximately 30 ships capsized or were beached around the island, the most recent being two vessels a few days apart. In 1998, a Taiwanese trawler ran aground. The Sea Challenger was sent to pull the trawler off the rocks and instead, the Sea Challenger was drawn towards the Island and it too, wrecked. Both ships can still be seen rusting away on the south side of the island.
The island is a haven for the rare African Black Oystercatchers and Cape fur seals and African penguins are returning in numbers. A one nautical mile buffer zone protects Robben Island’s underwater resources and the seas are now bursting with crayfish, abalone and other endangered species.
Robben Island is a solemn place, yet those that experienced suffering there will tell you it’s a place of upliftment. Either way, it’s an important part of South Africa’s history.
For a more down to earth experience there are guest houses. Less expensive than hotels, they offer a more homey environment, as well as more privacy. Converted from a private house it’s a much gentler environment and for those with furry friends, there are also pet friendly options. They are usually well situated with shops and places of interest nearby. Being so small it offers a much more personal and intimate attention to it’s upkeep, leaving you with a more polished and homely experience.