The island was first discovered by Europeans in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias reached Table Bay.
In 1658 the island saw its first political prisoner, Autshumato, who was stealing back livestock that was confiscated by the new European settlers. He was tried and imprisoned on the island. Later the same century a number of people resisting Dutch rule over the East Indies were also shipped to Cape Town and incarcerated on the island.
In 1795 the British took control of the Cape. They continued to use the island as a prison and from the middle of the 18th century also used it as an asylum. In 1890 a leprosy colony was established on the island.
In 1936 the South African Defence Force took control of the island and improved the infrastructure by building new roads, a power station and housing.
From 1961 it was again used as a prison, primarily to house those opposed to the apartheid government of the time.
Today the island is a museum and tourist attraction.
The highest point on the island is Minto Hill at 30 m. A lighthouse is built here.
Flora and fauna
There is a very well established penguin colony on the island, around 13,000 strong.
Due to limited facilities and conservation efforts, visits to the island is restricted to 1800 people per day. As at 1st February 2008 the waiting time to visit the island is two weeks, so if you plan to visit make sure that you book as soon as you arrive in Cape Town to avoid disappointment.
What to wear
It is recommend that people wear comfortable walking shoes, a hat, sunglasses and sun protection cream.
Currently the ferries operate at 09h00, 11h00 and 13h00. (The 15h00 will be added when peak season commences in September). Passengers should arrive no later than 30 minutes prior to the scheduled times of departure, boarding gates close 10 minutes before departure time.. Tickets can be booked online via the Robben Island Museum website.
Duration of Robben Island Tours
The standard tour to Robben Island is about 4 hours long with two half hour ferry trips, this is only true for the Sikhi as other boats take longer, between 30 min and 1 hour.
Virtual Tour Experience
Robben Island recently added a virtual tour of the Island on their website.
Contact Civair, +27 (0)21 419-5182.
Fees/Permits and General Tour Schedule
Ferry trip and admission is R320 (R180 for children under 18 years).
Currently the boat runs three times a day, 09h00, 11h00 and 13h00 until the beginning of the peak season (01 September). The ferries depart from the Nelson Mandela Gateway at the V & A Waterfront. The tour takes 3.5 hours including the ferry trip to and from the Island (Depending on the boat used as they have different travel times).
Robben Island Conservation
Robben Island is a complex, sensitive eco-system and as such is protected by South African Law as a nature conservation area. In addition to this it is designated a World Heritage Site and has to balance additional stringent conservation requirements in line with RIM’s mission of ensuring public access to the Island’s heritage. The Island’s complex and sensitive ecosystem includes Birdlife, Natural Vegetation, Marine and Wildlife, Geology and Cultural Conservation sites.
Birdlife The Island provides shelter and a safe haven for about 132 species of birds including some endangered species.
The variety of species includes sea birds, water birds and terrestrial birds. The Chauker Partridge and Guinea Fowl were introduced to the Island by humans. Many of the birds use the Island for breeding and roosting. Some birds from the mainland such as the Crowned Cormorant and Black Crowned Night Herons breed on the Island in large colonies.
Natural Vegetation The flora and fauna of the Island were affected by farming practices of the past and also the introduction of extensive plantations of shrubs and exotic trees.
The spectacular veld flowers typical of the West Coast also occur on the Island during spring.
Marine and wildlife The boat trip to the Island provides an opportunity to see a wide spectrum of seabirds and mammals including Cape Fur Seals, Southern Right Whales, Dusky and Heaviside Dolphins.
On the Island there are about 23 species of mammals such as Bontebok, Springbok, Steenbok, Fallow Deer and Eland. Ostriches, Lizards, Geckos, Snakes and three species of Tortoises can also be found on the Island.
Geology on the sand The Island is the summit of an ancient, now submerged mountain. It is linked by an undersea saddle to Blouberg. Its lower strata consist of Malmesbury shale forming a rocky and somewhat inhospitable coastline. Above this lies a thick limestone and calcrete deposit covered by windblown sands and shell fragments.
The Island is low-lying with the highest point also known as Minto’s Hill (named after the 19th century Surgeon-Superintendent of the General Infirmary) being 24 metres above sea-level. The Island favours a Mediterranean climate, but unlike nearby Cape Town, it experiences stronger winds and comparative extremes in temperature.
Historical Archives Of The Island
UWC-Robben island Mayibuye archices Most of Robben Island’s rich archival resources are housed at the Mayibuye Archives at the University of Western Cape. Mayibuye’s collections include artefacts, historical documents, photographs, art work and audio visual materials relating to the struggle for freedom and democracy; Robben Island; imprisonment under apartheid and South African culture making it one of the largest archives in the country that contains liberation struggle material.
Oral History and Sound Archive These include recordings of interviews with ex-political prisoners, former exiles and political activists; Radio Freedom broadcasts; unique recordings of speeches and lectures; and historical papers archive. The historical papers section includes more than 350 collections of personal and organizational records of major political events and turning points that culminated in the unbanning of political organizations in the 1990s. The Robben Island Political Prisoner’s General Recreation Committee records is also a collection of particular significance. It dates back to the 1960’s and serves as a wonderful testimony to the creative capacity of the human spirit to survive great hardship.
Photographic Archive These contain about 30 000 negatives, 70 000 prints and 4 000 transparencies of images that document life under, and resistance to Apartheid rule from the late 1940s until 1990. Subjects include the history of colonialism, the history of apartheid, images of apartheid, liberation movements, forced removals and resettlements, repression, political prisoners, trials, labour and trade unions, women, culture, education and the armed struggle. Important collections within this archive are the IDAF, Billy Paddock, South and Grassroots Collections. The images of two prominent photographers’ work represented in the collection are those of Eli Weinberg and Leon Levson.
Films and Video Archive These archives contain audio recordings, film and video. It houses footage of about 1 000 documentary productions and 6 000 unedited recordings. The Audio collection includes interviews with exiles, political prisoners and the Radio Freedom collection. The film and video recordings includes hundreds of hours of news footage, production rushes and stock footage from more than 200 film and video production projects. The core of the collection came from IDAF. Most of these films and videos were banned in South Africa prior to 1990.
Artefacts, Art, Posters and Banners The collection includes artefacts that were used as forms of political protest during the anti-apartheid struggle. These include T-shirts, stickers, badges and jewellery, among other items. Ex-political prisoners from Robben Island also donated some personal items used by them during their imprisonment on the Island. The art collection includes paintings, lithographs, etchings and sculptures that were acquired by UWC and the Mayibuye Archive over time. The art collection primarily serves as a visual record of resistance to the apartheid system and thus all of the works precede 1994.
Robben Island Museum Artefacts This collection includes more than 3 000 accessioned objects left on Robben Island by prison authorities. It includes prison clothing, items manufactured in the prison workshop, workshop tools, prison registers, a music collection of LP records, sporting equipment and furniture. Due to the harsh environmental conditions prevalent on the Island, this collection was moved from the Island to Mayibuye to better preserve it.
The island is small, about 4.5 km long by 2.5 km wide.
A tour bus is operated on the island by Robben Isalnd Museum staff.