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Situated just 4.5 miles off Cape Town, Robben Island is now one of South Africa's most visited tourists destinations, but this is no pleasure resort during its long history it has served as a place of imprisonment, banishment, and isolation bearing witness to some unspeakable atrocities.

A submerged mountain which was once part of the mainland, Robben Island took on its sinister reputation in the mid-1600s when the Dutch settled at the Cape. The island became a convenient place to use for Portuguese and English prisoners because of its isolated locations it was also used as a quarantine station for lepers and then during WWII a military base.

Then during the late 20th century it became a maximum security prison for political prisoners of South Africa’s apartheid regime most famously housing the future South African President Nelson Mandela. The maximum security prison for political prisoners was finally closed in 1991 while the medium-security prison for criminal prisoners was closed five years later


In 1999, the island was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since then, the island has become a popular destination for global tourists for its rich and wretched history. It is managed by Robben Island Museum (RIM) which operates the site as a living museum.

Accessible to visitors through tours that depart from the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town. Tours depart three times a day and take about 3.5 hours. What survives from its episodic history are 17th century quarries, the tomb of Hadije Kramat who died in 1755, 19th century ‘village’ administrative buildings including a chapel and parsonage, small lighthouse, the lepers’ church the only remains of a leper colony, derelict World War II military structures around the harbour and the stark and functional maximum security prison of the Apartheid where Nelson Mandela’s was held.


Much has been done to restore the Island’s ecological haven to what it used to be centuries ago. In 1991 Robben Island was included in the SA natural heritage program and the northern part of the island was declared a bird sanctuary.

Roughly 132 species of bird have made the island their home. In fact, the Island is one of South Africa’s most important breeding localities for seabirds and is currently home to 8 500 breeding pairs of African Penguins. Cape fur seals, southern right whales, mole snakes, buck, ostrich, and rabbits are also to be found on the island.


Island tours are put on by the Robben Island Museum, which manages the site, and many guides are former political prisoners who spent time here under far less happy circumstances. Their presence truly makes Robben Island history come to life.


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