I had purchased a ticket to Robben island prison for 2 PM Tuesday but was told by e-mail that it had been cancelled due to rough seas. I went to the harbor anyway and discovered that the 10 AM ferry was scheduled to leave, so I bought a ticket. The boat trip took about forty minutes. On the way a large school of dolphins played under the bow of the boat. It was my first view of these wonderful animals from so close up.
We arrived at the prison harbor and loaded onto busses. There was an interpreter on the bus who explained all of the details and features of the island and the many buildings as we drove to the far end of the island. We were able to get off the bus several times to visit small prison blocks, to see the old church built in the 18th century, and to take photos at the point closest to Cape Town, about ten kilometers away.
We then left the bus to walk through the large main cell block with a guide who had spent ten years as a prisoner. He explained in detail why the prisoners had been incarcerated, how they arrived on the island, where they lived, how they were treated, what sorts of activities they performed. We saw a large barracks cell that housed twenty or thirty prisoners, as well as much smaller individual cells, including the one occupied by Nelson Mandela during his eighteen years on the island.
The tour was very well managed and professionally done. Groups were kept small enough so we could hear and see well. I had read enough about the prison so none of what we saw surprised me. The one thing that I found most disturbing was that the prisoners were refused all protection, hats, gloves, safety glasses, everything, while working in the stone quarries. That must have been brutal, seated in the hot African sun for hours on end breaking stones, and it clearly was very damaging to their health.
We returned to the boat and motored back to Cape Town in a stiff breeze with lots of flying spray. I licked my lips when we arrived and tasted sea salt, dried on my face.