God rest his soul, but when I heard Nelson Mandela passed away, my first thought was: Die, now everybody is gonna chiong (rush) to Robben Island. Better chope (reserve) tickets first.
Thank goodness we did, because tickets to visit the island — on which the prison Mr Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years — were snapped up soon after. A UNESCO site today, Robben Island once housed lepers, and later, kept many political prisoners under lock and key.
After a long boat ride (close to 30 minutes; bring seasickness pills if needed), we arrived at the dock ready for our tour.
The tour is split up into two parts — a 45-minute bus ride around the island, and a tour through the Maximum Security Prison (the “hellhole” of apartheid) led by a former political prisoner.
We were herded into these massively cramped buses (six seats in a row!) and our guide pointed out historical sites on the island like the remains of a limestone quarry or former guards’ homes.
Robben Island has had centuries of history, yet it will probably be remembered only for its political prison. Such an unfortunate link to have, especially when it was once a quarantine area for a number of infectious diseases. On one hand, it kept patients isolated from the rest of the population, but on the other, its clean, natural grounds were said to be good for the patients.
Graveyard for lepers:
At the halfway mark, our guide told us to disembark to take in the sights and sounds of the Atlantic Ocean crashing onto the island — constant maritime peril as many a ship has been wrecked on these “shallow but restless” waters . In the distance, we could see Table Mountain and Cape Town. Said guide told us we had 10 minutes; we were delighted.
It was hard to take pictures. Buses kept driving up to the spot to cough out hordes of tourists, a significant proportion of whom don’t seem to have any photo-taking etiquette / self-awareness about how much volume they occupy in a given space. Alan and I joked that with all the buses we might forget which one ours was. We took more pictures.
And then… We realized we couldn’t find our bus. I glanced at my imaginary watch but there was no need to; we had clearly taken more than the stated 10 minutes. But as much as it was our fault, there is a real sense of hurt and wounded pride whenever you realize that YOUR TOUR GUIDE DID NOT NOTICE YOU WERE GONE. For somebody whose childhood dream was to be famous, this realization was very hard to swallow.
We boarded a random bus hoping that its tour guide would magically turn into ours (more importantly, I had left my beloved panda cap and a giant bottle of water — necessities in the blazing heat — on our original bus). No such luck.
Like I said, we had stopped at the viewpoint for our halfway mark, so we were expecting our bus tour to continue. Instead, ours drove straight to the Maximum Security Prison where we would meet our former-political-prisoner-turned-tour-guide.
(As it turns out, we completely missed former Pan Africanist Congress leader Robert Sobukwe’s house, as the New Bus had already visited it earlier. What a joke.)
Anyhoo, we just went with the flow.
It was at the Maximum Security Prison where the most dangerous political dissidents were kept, including 46664, the 466th prisoner to enter in 1964 aka Nelson Mandela. He was kept in isolation, in a room like this.
Others slept in cramped bunks. Our guide told us that each prisoner had a task to do to fan the flames of their ideology. Some would sneak newspapers abandoned by a careless security guard. Others were in charge of teaching political songs. In each of these rooms, there was a microphone-speaker for the prison superintendent to broadcast announcements. But he could also listen in to whatever went on in each room. So someone would have to muffle the speaker, or turn it off — but never for too long, lest it arouse the higher-ups’ suspicions.
Our guide said that by and large their guards knew what was going on in these not-so-enclosed rooms but turned a blind eye to most of the activities. The key thing, our guide said, was about respecting the order and hierarchy of the prison system. “There’s no point rebelling,” he said. “It would have only made things worse.”
There’s so much to South Africa’s complicated history and the policies of just a few decades ago are still playing out today.
Post-tour, we headed for the boat. (Not to kill you all with diabetes or anything, but falling asleep on your boyfriend’s lap on a moving boat is one of the best feelings in the world.)
We grabbed a late lunch at the V&A wharf but still had some time to spare before our extravagant dinner date at La Mouette, so we decided to spend it at the beautiful Kirstenbosch National Botanic Garden on the recommendation of my friend Jaycee (she’d spent a semester abroad here).
No regrets at all! Well, just one — that we had more time to roam. The 36-hectare garden is part of a much larger reserve, and it sits at the foot of Table Mountain.
I can’t imagine what it must be like during spring when more flowers are in bloom.
I got some reading done, while Alan managed to catch some shut-eye.
Unfortunately, the gardens close rather early (7pm during the summer, and considering that we got there around 5.45pm…) and we soon found ourselves heading for the hotel to get dressed for a six-course meal at La Mouette, a quaint French restaurant in the middle of a seedy-looking part of town.
We don’t have good photos but there we were, seated next to one of those ostentatious, white marble (at least it looked like marble) fountains. Overhead, a giant crane from the neighbouring project stood watch over us. What a strange ambience.
La Mouette was alright, but given its hype as the #2 restaurant on TripAdvisor, we expected more food-wise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very much value-for-money (US$28 for six courses) but the dishes weren’t particularly inspiring. Alan called this dish “atas popcorn chicken”:
Yup, my boyfriend is hilarious.
Okie dokes, bye!
Catch up on the rest of our South African adventures!
Part 1: Cape Town
Part 2: Stellenbosch
Part 3: Robben Island & Kirstenbosch Gardens
Part 4: Cape Peninsula
Part 5: Table Mountain
Part 6: Garden Route (Part 1)
Part 7: Garden Route (Part 2)
Part 8: Safari in the Kruger
Part 9: Johannesburg