Robben Island

After three days of meetings and getting to know everyone on the GRRT, the weekend offered up some free time. On the Saturday, we had two choices of activities. Some of our team decided to take a tour of Table Mountain. The rest of us decided we would venture out to Robben Island.

Robben Island was used as an isolation prison mainly for political prisoners. This is where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years incarcerated. Two other Robben Island prisoners have also gone on to be president of South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe and current President Jacob Zuma.

We departed on the second tour of the day at 1100 for the island. It was a cool and overcast morning, making the crossing a bit uncomfortable. As we reached the island, the sun had started to break through the morning mist.

The Tour

When we docked on the island, we were given a brief history. The island had been used for many purposes over the years, of note as a leper colony and a fort. During the second world war, it was built up as a defensive position. The guns placed on the island were never used for their intended purposes.

In 1961 the island was converted to the prison that it became famous for. This is when we were turned over to our tour guide. What was exceptional about our guide was that he was a former inmate himself of the island. He had actually been imprisoned during the time Nelson Mandela was incarcerated here.

The Prison

Entering the prison was absolutely surreal. The first room had several bunk beds and a small office. This area was the minimum security wing of the prison. We were shown the communal shower and toilet area, informed that the conditions were quite bad at the time.

We were then taken outside to the now unused lime quarry, where prisoners were forced to work daily. There was also a small cemetery located not far from the quarry. As the island is small, it seemed that everything was in relative close proximity.

Not far from the main prison block was the house of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe. Robert Sobukwe was kept in this house in solitary confinement. He was released in 1969. During his solitary confinement he was allowed some literature, papers and books, but had no contact with the other inmates other than the odd hand signals.

Mandela’s Cell

The final part of the tour took us into the main maximum security wing of the prison. This is where Nelson Mandela spend his 18 years on the island. This was the most emotional part of the tour, knowing that you were standing on the same ground and seeing the living space of Nelson Mandela. Hardly a word was spoken among our team as we each looked into the cell that he had occupied.

When we completed viewing the cell and maximum security wing, we were taken outside and shown the garden that Nelson Mandela had made. To this day, the garden is still maintained. During this part of the tour, the guide asked us how we believed Nelson Mandela felt during his 18 years on the island. Of course we all had our opinions and suggestions, but the guards response was the most moving.
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Our guide informed us that during the 18 years that Mandela was incarcerated on the island, Mandela never felt imprisoned. Mandela’s words were “How can I feel imprisoned, I can still see Cape Town and my South Africa from here”.

After the three and a half hour tour, we returned back to Cape Town. The ride back was a little more pleasant as the sun had come out. The Cape Town coast line is an amazing sight as we watched Table Mountain get closer.

Scooters

During our walk back to the Fire & Ice hotel, we found a place called the Scooter Doctor that rented scooters. A few of us saw an opportunity for a Sunday activity. About six of us planned on renting scooters and touring the coastal area south of Cape Town. Could this have been my grand entrance into riding Harley’s?

Following breakfast on Sunday morning, those of us going scootering walked over to the rental place and picked out our scooters. I had picked out a nice white Yamaha that seemed a bit newer. Once we had selected our “rides” for the day, we were off.

Our first task was getting accustomed to riding on the left side of the road. For me, this was my first time and on a bike, there is no drivers side! We went slow at first and rode up to the foot of Table Mountain. This had a dual purpose, to one, make sure we were all good riding and it was close to the hotel if we needed to adjust our clothing. It was a cool day, remember, May is the beginning of winter in South Africa.

The ride

Once we were content that we had the appropriate warm weather gear, we set off. The unanimous decision was to make a run down to Cape Point, or as far as we could get. Cape Point is not the most southern point of Continental Africa, but it is close enough.

We stopped a couple of times at a few coves with some nice beaches. Given the weather, we were quite surprised that there were people surfing in the ocean. At one beach, we parked and walked out to the rocky shoals. The water was very cold, but the sun felt warm along the white sand. The day was just right for this activity.

I cannot say for sure how far south we eventually got, but it was far. We had the scooters for the day and had returned to Cape Town by late afternoon. I remember that there was time to still wander the market and have a good seafood meal before returning to the hotel later that evening.

One thing that Brendan had mentioned to me during our ride has always stuck. He told me that whenever I traveled, to always tack on a few days at one end for being a tourist. Since the organization paid for it, why not take advantage of a few days extra to get to know a place. During the rest of my time with World Vision, I took his advice, knowing well that I was not the only one. It made for a pre-relax before returning home.

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