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Robben Island

Robben Island is in the Western Cape of South Africa, approximately 7 km off the coast and 12 km from Cape Town harbour. This island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Understand : History : The island was discovered by Europeans in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias reached Table Bay. Soon afterward it was put to use as a prison by the Portuguese, British and Dutch. From 1652 the island also served as a refreshment station for ships that did not wish to visit the mainland. In 1658 the island saw its first political prisoner, Autshumato, who was repossessing livestock that was stolen by the new European settlers. He was tried and imprisoned on the island. Later the same century a number of people resisting Dutch rule over the East Indies were also shipped to Cape Town and incarcerated on the island.

When the British took control of the Cape in 1795 they continued to use the island as a prison and from the middle of the 18th century also used it as an asylum. In 1890 a leprosy colony was established on the island. The South African Defence Force took control of the island in 1936 and improved the infrastructure by building new roads, a power station and housing. From 1961 it was again used as a prison, primarily to house those opposed to the apartheid government of the time, notably Nelson Mandela. Today the island is a museum and tourist attraction.

Landscape : The highest point on the island is Minto Hill at 30 m. A lighthouse is built here.
Flora and fauna : There is a very well established penguin colony on the island, around 13,000 strong.
Wildlife and conservation : When the Dutch arrived in the area in 1652, the only large animals on the island were seals and birds, principally penguins. In 1654, the settlers released rabbits on the island to provide a ready source of meat for passing ships.

The original colony of African penguins on the island was completely exterminated by 1800. However the modern day island is once again an important breeding area for the species after a new colony established itself there in 1983. The colony grew to a size of ~16,000 individuals in 2004, before starting to decline in size again. As of 2015, this decline has been continuous (to a colony size of ~3,000 individuals) and mirrors that found at almost all other African penguin colonies. Its causes are still largely unclear and likely to vary between colonies, but at Robben Island are probably related to a diminishing of the food supply (sardines and anchovies) through competition by fisheries. The penguins are easy to see close up in their natural habitat and are therefore a popular tourist attraction.

Around 1958, Lieutenant Peter Klerck, a naval officer serving on the island, introduced various animals. The following extract of an article, written by Michael Klerck who lived on the island from an early age, describes the fauna life there:

My father, a naval officer at the time, with the sanction of Doctor Hey, director of Nature Conservation, turned an area into a nature reserve. A ‘Noah’s Ark’ berthed in the harbour sometime in 1958. They stocked the island with tortoise, duck, geese, buck (which included Springbok, Eland, Steenbok, Bontebok and Fallow Deer), Ostrich and a few Wildebeest which did not last long. All except the fallow deer are indigenous to the Cape. Many animals are still there including three species of tortoise—the most recently discovered in 1998—two Parrot Beaked specimens that have remained undetected until now. The leopard or mountain tortoises might have suspected the past terror  perhaps they had no intention of being a part of a future infamy, but they often attempted the swim back to the mainland (they are the only species in the world that can swim). Boats would lift them out of the sea in Table Bay and return them to us. None of the original 12 shipped over remain, and in 1995, four more were introduced—they seem to have more easily accepted their home as they are still residents. One resident brought across a large leopard tortoise discovered in a friend’s garden in Newlands, Cape Town.

He lived in our garden and grew big enough to climb over the wall and roam the island much like the sheep in Van Riebeeck’s time. As children we were able to ride his great frame comfortably, as did some grown men. The buck and ostriches seemed equally happy and the ducks and Egyptian Geese were assigned a home in the old quarry, which had, some three hundred years before, supplied the dressed stone for the foundations of the Castle; at the time of my residence it bristled with fish. Recent reports in Cape Town newspapers show that a lack of upkeep, a lack of culling, and the proliferation of rabbits on the island has led to the total devastation of the wildlife; there remains today almost none of the animals my father brought over all those years ago; the rabbits themselves have laid the island waste, stripping it of almost all ground vegetation. It looks almost like a desert. A reporter from the broadcasting corporation told me recently that they found the carcass of the last Bontebok.

There may be 25,000 rabbits on the island. Humans are hunting and culling the rabbits to reduce their number.

Access : Coordinates: -33.806734, 18.366222 / Due to limited facilities and conservation efforts, visits to the island is restricted to 1800 people per day. The waiting time to visit the island can be up to two weeks, so if you plan to visit make sure that you book as soon as you arrive in Cape Town to avoid disappointment. Expect to spend 4-5 hours for the ferry trips and the tour.
By ferry : elson Mandela Gateway (located at the V&A Waterfront). Ferries leave the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town three times a day. Trip time to the island is about 30 minutes. Be sure to book the trip to Robben Island in advance as the tours are usually booked up for several days ahead. Tickets can also be booked online via the Robben Island Museum website. Adults R360, children under 18 R180.
By helicopter : Fees : Ferry trip and admission is R360 (R180 for children under 18 years) (July 2018) Get around : On foot :  The island is small, about 4.5 km long by 2.5 km wide. By bus :  A tour bus is operated on the island.

Highlights :

  • Shipwrecks : Chanson de la Mer, (1986) at Shelly Beach
  •  Han Cheng 2, (1998) in Rangatira Bay / Sea Challenger, (1998) in Rangatira Bay
  • Fung Thu, (1977) on the South of the island

Go next : Cape Town

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