Bit of a culture shock but I really can’t complain. Last night I had a king size bed to myself with suuuuuuper comfy pillows, a fully functional bug-free bathroom and a really nice hotel in a central spot in a big city. Huge change from the past 9 nights :p
I got in pretty late (9pm) so once I made it from the airport to the hotel via Uber I stayed in and just got myself sorted out a bit and made some plans for today. I’m at a Marriott by the waterfront (kindly paid for by points!) and it’s a really nice modern hotel. Wifi is so/so, really looking forward to some sort of stable wifi sometime soon (Amsterdam perhaps??).
Woke up this morning around 7:30 and slept in a bit until 8. Took a nice, hot shower in my bug-free shower (just had to mention that one again) before heading downstairs to grab some breakfast that’s included with the room. One of the nicer breakfasts I’ve had a hotel! All the eggs, pancakes, waffles, omelettes etc made fresh. Quite nice.
I had previously booked a Robben Island tour for 11am – tried to get it for 9 as it’s a four hour tour but it was already booked up when I was looking last week. Anyway, walked down to the waterfront a bit early to have some time to wander around and was very pleasantly surprised by the beautiful waterfront!!! Really lovely. In addition to shops and food galore, of course, it’s also home to a really cool shop yard drydock where you can watch what they’re working on right in front of you which I found quite cool.
Lots of boats kicking around and a lot of construction going on. None of the buildings are super high so they must have some restrictions which is a nice thing right down by the water I think.
Made my way over to the Robben Island building and went through security to get on the boat. It was a 30 minute boat ride with a 15 min video just giving you a bit of an intro into the Island and what it’s been used for – quite an interesting history. It’s been home to political prisoners for a long time but it’s also got some history as a leper colony.
As soon as we got to the island we boarded a bus where we had a guided 45 minute tour of the island. We were taken past some of prison blocks, the building where Robet Sobukwe was held and given some really interesting history and information. About half way through we stopped for a break and snack and when we got back on a gentlemen by the name of Christo Brand (white man) boarded the bus and introduced himself as a former warder (prison guard) who had been there and guarded Nelson Mandela and other prisoners.
He went on to write a book about his time there and his relationship with Mandela, who he became quite close to. On the reading list for sure.
After the bus ride we were dropped off at B Block which is where most of the political prisoners were held. This block was considered maximum security – normal detainees such as murderers, rapists etc were held in medium security. The political prisoners were actually considered to be more dangerous than your typical murderer.
For a time the government mixed the political prisoners with the normal prisoners in an effort to demoralize and break them, however they found this quickly backfired on them as the political prisoners would convert the others to their way of thinking.
So truly – their words were the most dangerous weapon to the government of South Africa. That one really gave me pause.
The tours of B Block are all given by former political prisoners from either Robben Island or one of the other jails in South Africa. That was a bit of a shock to me. Being toured around by someone who had actually experienced this. I think that’s an incredibly valuable thing to have access to in this generation – it really wowed me.
We entered one of the communal prison cells and all sat down. He was a very passionate speaker – hardly surprising, and gave an incredibly detailed view into day to day life, how he was imprisoned at the age of 18, his interactions with others, how they felt and the eventual release. It was incredible. A very moving visit, and it was horrifying to see the conditions that they were kept in and the ways that the government continued to try to break their spirit and drive. It didn’t work.
After that we were taken to the exercise yard where Mandela had buried the manuscript for his book which was discovered while he was still imprisoned by the guards – he lost his education privileges for four years as a result. Then we went down the row of individual solitary confinement cells and saw Mandela’s – fourth down on the right.
Both guides were careful to emphasize that while Mandela was the most famous political prisoner he was far from the only one. Many others were there who experienced similar or worse treatment. Many died.
It was a very moving, impactful experience. I really would recommend it for anyone.
After the tour concluded we walked back to the entrance and boarded the boat to go back to the mainland. Good opportunity for reflection on what we had seen.
We got back and I was starving – the tour left at 11 and returned around 3:30pm so I wandered the waterfront and found a burger joint connected to one of the big restaurants. They made these incredible fresh burgers with their “special sauce” and fries. Absolutely fantastic and very filling.
I had planned to go up to Table Mountain however I took a look up there and could see how cloudy it was, so I made the decision to push it off to tomorrow. It started off so clear up there but things change quickly!
I spent the rest of the day wandering the waterfront, relaxing back at the hotel and then returning to the waterfront for dinner at a great Italian place in the Victoria Wharf. It was a great afternoon and great first day in Cape Town.
I’ll say that Cape Town really feels like a very normal (beautiful) city that you might see in any European country, but the crime level is apparently considerably higher. In the tourist areas there’s a police officer on literally every corner. I’ve been warned many times not to walk outside the waterfront area or my hotel after dark – literally take a taxi for two blocks if needed. So that’s quite different for me. My general inclination is to ignore that and just go for it – but the advice I always give anyone else traveling is to exercise common sense so I’m doing my very best to follow that here too, just in case.
Tomorrow I’ll be up and out early to try to get up to Table Mountain first thing in the morning, and take the Hop on/Hop off bus around the rest of the city.