I never thought a day of walking would be postponed due to rough seas. But after waiting eagerly in the gloom to board the Miroshka to Robben Island one of the operators informed the crowd that all ferries had been cancelled for the day. Somewhat disappointed, and very stranded, I wondered around the waterfront. I informed Sabelo, the environmental manager on the island, of the situation and asked if we could reschedule. A while later he informed me that the ferry for the following day was full so I would have to wait yet another day. The fairest Cape just wouldn’t release me from her clutches.
At last on the bow of the Miroshka I was filled with excitement. The seals and dolphins splashing about in the water added to the fun.
I could smell our approach to the harbour thanks to the myriad of sea birds that deposit their guano on the harbour walls. Stepping off the boat I was met by large banners on the walls, “Freedom cannot be manacled.” read one of them.
I was asked by one of the tour guides to hurry along to the bus, I could take photos at the harbour later. This set the tone for the rest of the tour. They push so many people through that the tour is so rushed. There is hardly any time to take in all the stories, let alone contemplate the weight of it all in the context of our country’s history. I could manage just two or three snaps of Mandela’s cell before I was asked to move along. Without looking at the photos I would struggle to describe what it looks like.
The island has a long history of incarceration. People have been banished there for all sorts of reasons since the mid 1600s. In the 19th century lepers and lunatics were sent here to isolate them from the rest of the population. Under the apartheid regime it was used to imprison opposition politicians and so-called terrorists. In 1997 it was transformed into a museum and national monument. In 1999 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After the somewhat disappointing tourist tours, Sabelo picked me up for a personalised tour around the entire island. As the island is a cultural heritage site his job is rather difficult. How does one restore the natural environment without impacting on the cultural heritage of the island? A lot of the vegetation is impacting on historic structures, alien eucalyptus trees were planted to conceal WWII military batteries, the elusive fallow deer, introduced by early sailors, roam the island, beautiful chukra partridges walk alongside the spurfowls and guineafowls and how does one control around 20 000 European rabbits without incurring the wrath of the bunny-hugger?
The island is home to a colony of African Penguins. Their numbers have declined drastically from 6 400 breeding pairs in 2006 to around 1 600 breeding pairs at present. Abalone poaching is a major problem on the island. Just a few days before I arrived yet another gang was arrested. The southern end of the island is reminscent of an abalone graveyard, the pebbled beach is covered in a thick layer of large abalone shells. There are also the remains of a poacher’s boat that wrecked on the island just a few months ago. The poachers sneak onto shore at night and strategically hide their equipment. Recently inspectors have been appointed with the sole purpose of walking around the island checking for any untoward activity. The lighthouse offers a panoramic view of virtually the entire island and is a great vantage point to aid the inspectors. It seems these recent efforts have helped a lot in this regard. In Sabelo’s words, “That chapter is closed.”
After leaving the lighthouse I started my walk around the island. Penguins peered cautiously at me, a fallow deer pranced away into the bush, steenbuck and springbuck both made appearances. Hundreds of kelp gulls hovered above me as I walked gingerly by, it was raining guano and I am very surprised I came out without any “whitewash” on me, and the noise was overwhelming.
The visit to Robben Island wasn’t quite what I was expecting. The profound depth of its history that I had anticipated was overshadowed, however, I was enlightened to its environmental stature and marvelled at the unique view of the iconic mountain across the water.
To Sabelo I am most grateful.
Day 85 summary: 12 850 steps, 9.5 km
Total: 1 594 340 steps, 1114.1 km