Robben Island Cape Town South Africa

Robben Island Lighthouse Table Mt. in Background

While living in Sea Point in the late 1980s I developed a fascination for watching the lighthouse signal on Robben Island at night. My flat was on Beach Road facing Table Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. While looking out to sea, I often thought of Nelson Mandela and his imprisonment time there for political activism and apartheid opposition.

Whale Rock

Built in 1864, the lighthouse is on the highest point of the island – Minto Hill. It’s the only South African lighthouse that uses a flashing instead of revolving signal light. The light is visible for 24 nautical miles. The name Robben Island (Robbeneiland in Afrikaans) means “seal island”. It’s a flat oval-shaped island about 2 miles long and 1 mile wide. Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island. It was a Dutch prison, and later, British colonists used it for the same purpose.

Nelson Mandela Prisoner Robben Island

In 1845, lepers from the Western Cape near Caledon moved to Robben Island and formed a leper colony. During World War II, the island was fortified with guns and became part of the Cape Town defense system.

Robben Island
Robben Island

Robben Island and nearby Whale Rock are surrounded by shallow, treacherous waters that have caused many shipwrecks. Heavy surf from the Atlantic Ocean plays havoc with any vessel unlucky enough to get caught on the surrounding reefs.

Robben Island

In the late 17th century, a Dutch ship carrying gold coins to pay Dutch East India Company employees ran amok a short distance off Robben Island. The gold that went down in that shipwreck is worth millions of dollars. Over the years, gold coins have washed ashore, but the treasure remains buried in the ocean protected by the violent surf.

Robben Island Map

In January 2010, I visited Robben Island as a tourist. It was a thought-provoking experience. The ferry ride from Victoria and Alfred Waterfront was unforgettable, and there was a calm and comfortable sense of camaraderie among the eclectic group of passengers of many ages, races, and nationalities. Our South African guide was a former political prisoner who lived on the island for over ten years.

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