The Journey to Robben Island

The Journey Begins at the Gateway

The striking, geometric design of the Gateway to Robben Island building is unmistakable. Head up the broad stone stairs and walk through the tall, glass doors, and your journey to Robben Island has begun. In front of you is the info desk, staffed by several amazingly patient people who answer the same three questions over and over again: The ferry leaves every two hours from nine.

©Aaron Polikoff

It takes about 4 hours. To your left is the gift shop, where you can buy an amazing range of Robben Island merchandise. Branded mineral water, socks, scarves, keyrings, bookmarks, diaries, mousepads, calendars, spoons, glasses, shirts, earrings, mugs, jackets, postcards, fridge magnets and facsimile copies of the Freedom Charter are all available.

You can even buy a key to Robben Island, which is rather appropriate since that is exactly what the old prisoners would’ve wanted for Christmas. The shop also has a good selection of books and videos, including an activity book for kids.

Gateway Entrance

©Aaron Polikoff

At the Gateway to Robben Island entrance, the ticket office is on your right. If you have been wise enough to book ahead, you will collect your tickets here. It is always busy at the ticket window, so arrive in time to avoid the stress.

You can also buy your tickets at the window, but don’t think that you can just arrive and get on the next ferry out. About half a million people visit the island every year, and the ferry only takes a couple of hundred people at a time. So, it is unsurprising that the tours are usually booked up a day or two in advance. In the high-season, over December and January, bookings become very scarce indeed. Although most people only think of the building as the place where you get your tickets, the Gateway is an integral part of the museum experience.

There are several exhibitions on the upper floors and an extensive video archive through which you can browse. Visitors who rush through the Gateway will miss out on a lot, so arrive early and spend some time exploring. The building has three levels. On the entrance level, which is in the middle, there is a video-mural installation. It consists of video messages from a wide range of ex-political prisoners, both from Robben Island and other prisons.

Robben Island-Mayibuye Archive

©Tracey Derrick

On the upper level of the Gateway to Robben Island, there are several exhibition spaces and the searchable video archives. There are so many people who we are slowly forgetting, and there are many others whose names we never got to know. All of the material that makes up these exhibits is sourced from the Robben Island-Mayibuye Archive, held at the University of the Western Cape.

On the lower level, there are several large, evocative photographs of the island and its prisoners, as well a collection of wooden cabinets. Open the draws of these cabinets and you will see an eclectic assortment of relics from the island: shackles, prisoner’s letters, threadbare prison blankets, homemade certificates from sporting events and other personal effects.

The lower level also has an auditorium that is used for special events and staff meetings (which can be quite energetic, as is appropriate for an organisation with its roots in the liberation movement). Once you are finished looking around, you should proceed to the lower level where you will board the ferry. Boarding starts 30 minutes prior to departure, and departure is always on time.

By David Fleminger