The Crystal Symphony is at sea from Singapore to Ko Samui, Thailand. The MS Amsterdam is in Durban, South Africa.
My alarm clock was packed away but I awoke about 4:45 and took a final 5-lap (1.5 mile) walk on Serenity’s Promenade Deck. The weather was very pleasant, warm enough without a jacket and a sliver of moon was still bright as I walked. Sunrise was not until about 6:45 and I was a bit direction challenged, but first saw the rays shining on the top of Table Mountain and soon the sun itself on the opposite side of the ship. Since my MS Amsterdam guaranteed cabin had just been assigned, I stopped at the Computer Center and printed off an updated copy of my boarding pass and then used the remainder of my computer time in my room.
As an independent traveler, my instructions were that I could leave the ship anytime between 8 and 10AM, so I lingered through breakfast headed down the gangway about 9:45. The Victoria and Alfred hotel is only a half mile from the pier, but there’s no easy way to get there and it was about a 10 minute taxi ride. There are lots of little waterways around the waterfront, mostly with swing or draw pedestrian bridges
Of course my room was not ready but they took my luggage and told me I could come back between 1 and 2. I had made some plans for my stay here but they are proceeding far faster than expected. While the Amsterdam does not arrive until April 1 I have a safari Monday and Tuesday and thus have only the weekend here. I had planned on visiting Robben Island Saturday, but the ticket office is less than a 5-minute walk from the hotel. Heading over to check on availability, there was a ferry leaving in less than an hour. I walked around the harbor a bit more and boarded the ferry about 10:30.
Just one hour after stepping off the Crystal Serenity, I was moving on a boat again for the 1-hour ride to the island.
Robben Island has been settled for about 500 years and for most of that time there has been a penal colony there. In the Apartheid Era the main prison held about 900 people, all black male political prisoners. Until the mid-70’s it held both regular and political prisoners, but then a more humane prison was built for the ordinary convicts. For a time it also served as a leper colony. The prison was closed in the early 1990’s, and soon reopened as a museum.
I visited Robben Island previously in 2005. At that time, I believe all the guides were ex-prisoners but today they only do the tours inside the prison itself. Our guide was a prisoner from 1980-84, and described torture which was fatal to one of the 5 people he entered with. Prisoners were expected to work during the day, many in hard, dusty labor in a limestone quarry, and often had vision damage due to working in the bright white quarry where sunglasses “were not part of the uniform”. For most of the time the 8×8 cells had only mats to sleep on. The cells were now empty except that Mandela’s cell was “furnished” as it was when occupied. We also saw the separate house where Robert Sobukwe was held in total solitary confinement for many years.
When our tour of the prison was complete we boarded a bus for a tour of the rest of the island. We passed a cemetery for lepers, the prison for ordinary convicts, superintendent’s house, post office and the quarry where the prisoners worked. At a reunion of former prisoners in 1995, Nelson Mandela picked up a piece of rock and dropped it and 1200 other former inmates did the same. That pile of rocks now stands as a memorial to the people who toiled there. As we returned to the ferry dock the guide pointed out a boat on blocks. It was the boat used to ferry prisoners to the island.
I was back in Cape Town about 2:30 and in my room on the second (3rd in American usage) floor about 3. I took a long walk about 5, mostly trying to get my bearings in the area, and after several missteps finally found a store to buy a few groceries.
I stayed in the hotel for the evening, catching up on computer issues and watching some friends sail away on the Fort Lauderdale Webcam.
As today’s parting shot, it is now over 20 years since Robben Island closed as a prison. The former inmates who are here to tell the story first hand are a living resource which is slowly diminishing in numbers. Let us never forget the stories they are sharing.