This past month, I had the distinct and unique pleasure of getting to be one of a handful of people to live on an island filled with history and mystery. Robben Island, a small island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa somehow encompasses a multitude of wild sceneries. What do I mean? Well, on one side of the island, you sit on the coast and feel as if you are on an island like any other; however, when you drive or walk just a short distance to the other side of the island, suddenly, you know without a doubt that you are in Africa.
Throughout parts of the Island, everything around you looks like a Serengeti as you get lost in tall grass and watch a wild Springbok hop by. There are coasts, quarries, a charming lighthouse, a small village, South African penguin colonies, Springbok, Steenbok, Fallow Deer, gulls, and oh yeah, shipwrecks all around. You heard right. The swell conditions around Robben Island are regularly a bit rough due to its position on the earth, so there have been more than a few shipwrecks on the island. During my stay walking the perimeter and counting different species of birds, I counted at least 5 shipwrecks, some that have been there for years and others that were more recent in origin.
Robben Island (or Seal Island in Dutch/Afrikaans) was an incredibly special home base for me as I helped volunteer on the South African Penguin Project. If the amazing scenery didn’t leave me in awe, I can honestly say that the history of the island sure did.
Strangely enough, Robben Island was once an Irish settlement, so there is a beautiful old Irish Cemetery in the village of the island that has a large Celtic Cross looming over the outside of it.
It was also once a leper colony, which, of course, left behind a vast area of leper graves. The Leper Graveyard that’s on display for the buses of tourists that come through is a small, fenced off section, yet there are actually many graves spilling out across the full side of this island.
I heard from a guide that there were once 2,000 leper graves on the island. The New Prison was built over many of these graves; however, so many were unmarked, moved, or overgrown.
Before I talk about the prison, however, I’d like to discuss World War II buildings. You see, Robben Island was prepared to be a base during World War II. Large cannon structures, pillboxes, towers, and buildings were set up to make a base for the war. However, they were never used, as the war never made it down to Cape Town. So, those buildings and structures were quickly abandoned and taken over by nature and time. Instead, years later, the island became a political prison.
What started as a political prison in a smaller, older building, had the political prisoners working in the quarry to build their own new, larger prison structure. The new prison is now available for tours, as Nelson Mandela and other important members of the African National Party were held there.
So, needless to say, there is an incredibly rich history on Robben Island. Now, you will find 4 boats scheduled daily to get tourists to the island to see the New Prison Building and to take a quick bus ride over to the quarry, through the village, and to a great photo spot at the end of the island that overlooks Table Mountain in Cape Town. (There’s a boat at 9am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm daily which are subject to cancellation based on the daily swell.) While you don’t get a good, full tour of the island, I still heavily encourage you to make your way out to Robben Island if you’re in Cape Town because the prison tour, in itself, is worth it. Our guide was an ex political prisoner that was held in that exact structure, and his stories were both humbling and inspiring.
Perhaps, the biggest benefit of being considered a resident in my brief time on the island was that I got to see many areas of the island that are closed off to the general public. It truly is a beautiful landscape, and the lighthouse is a picturesque site that most don’t get to see up close. We were lucky enough to get to climb to the top of the lighthouse near the end of my stay on the island. It was, honestly, pretty exciting.
With the closure of the only store and the school a few years ago, the island is only really inhabited by those who work for the Robben Island Museum Tours and the scientists who come out to research the wildlife on the island. I have to say I am so humbled and blessed to have gotten such a unique opportunity. It’s something I will look back on fondly for the rest of my life.