From the sobering UNESCO site of Robben Island to the glittering malls of the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town is a solid favourite with visitors from all over the world.
by Roderick Eime.
No matter what anyone tells you, you can only visit Robben Island, you can never 'experience' it.
Ever since the last prisoners were released in 1996, the cells of Robben Island have stood empty. The stark painted walls, rusty bed frames and chipped iron bars sit alone and forlorn, the stiff, salty sea breeze whistling a shrill tune as it passes through. Only those poor souls who lived behind these walls can ever claim to have experienced this God-forsaken place.
The saga of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela shall always hold a special place in the story of Robben Island. The once renegade activist, National President and father of modern South Africa spent 18 of his 27 years in jail on Robben Island along with numerous other high profile ANC leaders such as Kgalema Motlanthe, who also served as President of South Africa, Oliver Tambo and current President, Jacob Zuma.
Perfectly located a tantalising distance from Cape Town, the seven kilometres of angry sea acted as the ideal barrier to escape attempts with the only ever escapee doing so in 1660 by stealing a rowboat.
With the passing of the great man at the age of 95 last December and the almost immediate release of the movie adaptation of his autobiography, ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedown”, Madiba’s presence on all things South African is at the moment almost supernatural.
The jumping off point to UNESCO World Heritage-listed Robben Island is right at Cape Town’s glorious V&A Waterfront with ferries running four times a day. Allow four hours for the tour and return ferry ride.
Cape Town itself is frequently listed on various ‘Best Of’ lists as one of the world’s most beautiful cities to visit. It certainly has one of the most striking vistas, with the ‘City Bowl’ poised elegantly on the slender plain as a front piece to the imposing Table Mountain backdrop. As if draped in layers of snow-like fairy floss, the kilometre high, flat-topped natural fortress has protected the ‘mother city’ for more than 350 years.
The range of activities in and around Cape Town is enormous. Tours, treks and tastings abound from abseiling and shark cage dives for the adrenalin junkies to urbane food and produce tours to the gorgeous Stellenbosch or Constanzia regions within an easy drive of downtown.
While Cape Town may boast the most desirable city in South Africa, it is by no means the only one worth visiting. To continue the ‘Madiba Trail’ across to Johannesburg, an exploration of the once forbidden (for white folks) township of Soweto is a perfect bookend to the Robben Island adventure.
Here, in an unassuming red ‘matchbox’ brick dwelling at 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, is the so-called Mandela House. Pock-marked with bullet holes and scorched from fire bombs, Nelson Mandela lived at this address from 1946 until the time of his arrest in 1962. Upon his release in 1990, he briefly returned here, stating famously in his autobiography “For me No. 8115 was the centre point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.”
The South Africa you visit today is a far cry from the strife-torn, segregated country of Mandela’s adult years. The bright ‘Rainbow Nation’ which hosts world class sporting events and welcomes around 10 million international guests annually is the glittering and glamorous gateway to Africa.